3 false facts about the brain


Last week I interviewed a self-proclaimed expert on the application of brain research to the classroom. Within minutes this person had mentioned the ideas of “mirror neurons,” and the “right and left brains.” Among brain scientists, both of these concepts have been widely criticized and undermined by current research.

Right and left-brain dominance, it can be stated flatly, does not exist. While it provides a wonderful metaphor for different intellectual styles and strengths–creative vs. logical, visual vs. verbal–a recent analysis of over a thousand subjects concluded that while certain functions are indeed localized to different sides of the brain, “our data are not consistent with a whole-brain phenotype of greater “left-brained” or greater “right-brained” network strength across individuals.”

Mirror neurons, meanwhile, were first observed in studies of monkeys’ motor cortexes. In the original experiment in the early 90s, the same neurons fired when the monkey picked up a banana, and when it watched an experimenter pick up a banana. Neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran trumpeted the idea that mirror neurons were the key to empathy, learning by imitation, and even what makes us uniquely human, comparing their importance as a scientific discovery to that of DNA.

Mirror neurons have more recently been called the “most-hyped concept in neuroscience”, and a new review of the literature concludes that there is far more that we don’t know about them than that we do. There are different types of cells with mirror properties in different parts of monkeys’ brains, and while they definitely activate with movements and observations of movements, there’s been no actual research results connecting them with emotions or with learning and no direct observation of their existence in humans.  

I mention these two concepts not to pick on this expert, but to highlight the danger in rushing to apply any nascent science to classroom practice. A piece by neuroscientist Steven Rose published yesterday in Times Higher Education makes this same point.

“The seductive appeal of those ubiquitous false colour images of the brain, showing the regions that “light up” when solving a maths problem or learning a new language, cannot be denied. They seem to offer a certainty that mere psychological or educational insights cannot. So it is unsurprising that neuroeducation is becoming a growth industry (a Google search records 50,900 hits for “neuroeducation” and 250,000 for “brain-based learning”).”

The problem, as Rose argues, with neuroeducation is not only that much of the research is brand-new and constantly evolving. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing–all too often, preliminary discoveries or unproven theories take root and lead to bad practices. The best example would probably be learning styles. I have had students at the college, high school and middle school level tell me that they are “visual learners,” or “kinetic learners.” What they really mean is, “I’d rather watch a video than read something” and “I get fidgety when I’m bored.” Guess what? Pretty much everybody feels that way.  And there is neither brain research to back up the “learning styles” idea, nor classroom research that supports the idea that presenting students with information in their preferred medium leads to faster acquisition. In fact, some studies show the opposite--that if you take students out of their comfort zone they end up learning more. Even Howard Gardner, whose theory of multiple intelligence is often cited as the basis for learning styles, calls the idea “not coherent.” 

In general, “brain-based learning” doesn’t necessarily tell us anything useful, or non-obvious, about how to teach and how we learn. For example, brain science tells us that people learn better when they are well rested, had a good breakfast, get regular exercise, and feel safe and happy. So does common sense. Memories are formed through regular repetition and practice, and mnemonic devices like songs and rhymes can be good ways to encode them. Teachers have known this for decades or centuries–although the concept of “spaced repetition” may prove useful in accelerating memorization.

Brain science is wonderfully convincing and impressive to the layperson. The idea of basing education in science has been seductive to Americans since at least the 19th century. But you are not your brain, and as Rose writes, the more we focus on the brain the more we exclude the crucial social context of education.

“By instrumentalising teaching instruments, by focusing on the brain and not the child or student, these advocates seem oblivious to the fact that both teaching and learning are not timeless and isolated activities but in their very essence socioculturally embedded.”

Joe Bower, an educator and blogger in Canada, made a very similar point last week in reaction to the concept of grit. Psychologist Andrea Duckworth just won a MacArthur Genius Grant for her work isolating and focusing on the importance of the personal quality of grit or perseverance to childrens’ success.

Grit is related to Harvard psychologist Carol Dweck’s popular concept of “growth mindset,” which has its scientific roots in the widely hyped neuroscience theory of “neuroplasticity.” Briefly, brain imaging studies over the last decade have highlighted the fact that the brain forms new neural connections, rearranges connections and even grows new neurons throughout life. Dweck’s research documents improvements in academic performance that can be induced by informing students about neuroplasticity, giving them the “mindset” that ability is not fixed early on and through effort they can improve. Grit or perseverance could be seen as the adoption of growth mindset as a character trait–the presence of individual determination to improve through effort.

Bower’s gripe is that “grit” sounds too much like an up from your bootstraps, Horatio Alger exhortation: 

“too often the argument for more grit in children is an abdication of the system’s responsibility to make things more equitable. I’m all for growth-mindset and resiliency, I teach it everyday, but they are not systemic solutions to inequality and inequity.” 

I don’t see a big problem with introducing a little bit of brain science into the classroom, however simplified, in the hope that it will improve students’ eagerness to learn. If brain scans convince policymakers and the public to support recess, so be it. But it would certainly be ironic if the neuroeducation approach, on a policy level, diminished our compassion and empathy for students’ full and varied experience. Students are human beings, not brains in a jar.

Could a video game replace ADD medication?


In America, 6.4 million children have been given diagnoses of attention disorders. That’s 11 percent of the school-age population.  Annual production of Ritalin-like drugs has quadrupled since the 1960s, and millions of children are taking these powerful stimulants every day.

Some argue that this “epidemic” is in fact an artifact of a test-driven, high-stakes, high-pressure school culture. Parents are eager to diagnose kids to get them extra resources, extra time to take tests, or simply an educational edge, and schools can exempt themselves from test targets if they have more kids classified as “disabled.”  A.D.H.D. diagnoses spiked 22 percent in the first four years after No Child Left Behind.

Regardless of the broader context, kids and families are clearly suffering. Sandra lives in Newton, Massachusetts and is the mother of a 9 year old boy who’s had trouble in school, both with behavior and grades, since kindergarten.

“It’s painful when your kid comes home and says, I feel like the dumbest kid in the class because all the other kids know the answers,” she says. “He tells me, Mom, when I’m in school I have a really hard time paying attention. I go into the clouds and I miss what the teacher said and I have to ask my friends to tell me what just happened.” Despite these problems, Sandra has been reluctant to medicate her son. She was happy to have the opportunity to enroll him in a clinical trial of a new technological solution, Atentiv.

Atentiv is, essentially, a video game with a brain-computer interface component. To play the game, children strap a headband around the forehead that uses an EEG to measure the brain’s pattern of electrical signals and transmits them wirelessly to the computer via Bluetooth. First, the player goes through a calibration process that measures the unique “signature” of the individual’s brainwaves in concentrating and distracted conditions while completing the Stroop Task, a common test of concentration.(Previous studies support the presence of unique EEG patterns for children diagnosed with ADD).

Once the system is calibrated the user plays a game that involves a character running through a landscape to complete tasks. When the player is distracted, the character slows down; the more she concentrates the faster the character moves. The result is something like a form of biofeedback–young children get an object demonstration of “growth mindset.” They grow in awareness of what distraction and concentration feels like, and they also grow in their sense of being able to control their mental state for better performance.

For Hayden, Sandra’s son, who took part in the clinical trial three times a week for 8 weeks, the results were dramatic. “I really saw a tremendous difference both at home and at school. I was thrilled.” Hayden’s handwriting got neater. His sleeping habits improved. His homework got better. His teacher was no longer calling with discipline problems. He got along better with his sister and with friends. He was easier to get out of the house in the morning.

Hayden is not alone. Trials of the Atentiv System have shown sustained improvements in 75-85% of children, as rated by parents, standardized tests, and direct measures of the brain waves. In this study, parents noticed significant improvement in inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive symptoms six months after the treatment began.

It’s hard to say how much of this is due to the futuristic wonders of neurofeedback technology, and how much of it is a placebo effect. The researchers in this independent study noted that the study did not have a control group that, say, played a regular video game, and the parents all knew that their kids were in the treatment condition, which may have caused them to exaggerate the positive effects.

Atentiv’s founders are not initially seeking FDA approval for their technology, so they can’t make outright claims about ADHD. Instead they are launching early next year with a consumer product aimed at parents who want a solution for their kids without drugs. CEO Eric Gordon is confident that the technology will eventually lead to clinical products for treating not just ADHD but memory and abstract reasoning, in children, adults and the elderly.

Sandra’s explanation for her son’s improvement is not about the technology itself, but about the broader message of the game.

“It’s all about self-esteem,” she says. “For Hayden, it helped him realize he was capable. And also, just the way the game and training materials talked to him about it: saying there’s nothing wrong with you, you’re not dumb. Look, your brain is like a Ferrari and we’re going to teach you to look at the green and red light.”





Redesigning for student-centered learning

Brendan Campbell teaches at Southeastern High School in Detroit, which is under the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan, a statewide recovery district for schools consistently in the bottom five percent according to test scores. In other words, it’s a failing school in a violent, poor, bankrupt city. But this fall, Campbell and his collaborators have used meager resources to construct a new approach to truly student-centered learning that is drawing interest and acclaim from educators and reformers all over the country: The Preparatory Academy at Southeastern, or PASE.

PASE students spend five hours of their school day in a big open space that’s been designed to feel like a college library, with quiet spaces for individual work, and places to meet with teachers or in groups. This time is theirs to prioritize and allocate over their core courses and up to two electives. The curriculum, based on the Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards and Michigan state standards, has been broken into manageable chunks–a set of learning targets in each subject, written in student-friendly “I Can” statements. Students move at their own pace towards mastery of each target through a sequence of  “learn, practice, apply, assess.”

On a given day, students could choose to attend a “scheduled learning opportunity,” such as a lecture or a science demonstration; watch a video of a previously recorded lecture by their teacher or a curated resource from elsewhere on the web; work on a group research project; or review peers’ work with reference to a rubric. At the “assess” stage of each target, they take a 3 to 10 question formative assessment. They must score at least 75% to get their “exit ticket” and move on to the next target; otherwise, they’ll conference with a teacher on what went wrong, and go back to pursue mastery.  Over the course of each unit, the students also work in groups to complete interdisciplinary performance assessments. In this first semester, students researched the science, ecological, health, and community benefits of planting a garden on campus and presented the case to the administration.

The planning process for teachers within PASE is novel. “When I used to make lesson plans it was focused on: I have 50 minutes to fill, if an activity takes 40 minutes, what happens for the last 10? That can mean a lot of busywork or wasted time,” says Campbell. “Now we’re only concerned about what is necessary in order to truly learn and master the content. Really, that’s a more productive use of student and teacher time.” Each student will be getting a different combination of direct instruction, reading, video, and more, so all the resources, and assessments, must be carefully curated to ensure that each student has access to what they need.

Each student has a laptop, and the program uses an online learning management system to help everyone keep track of students’ progress, but online is not the main focus. “We wanted it to be truly blended so there would be online and in-person components,” says Brendan Campbell. “Students always have a choice.” Students have the choice of up to two online electives during their PASE time, and have chosen from dozens from Psychology to Art History.

PASE isn’t designed for the strongest students in the school. Many must use their elective time to retake failed classes online–the average incoming reading level at the school is 4th or 5th grade. Students were asked to apply, and teachers were also asked to help identify those who they thought could benefit from the flexibility of the program and the chance to take ownership over their learning.

“One thing we’re struggling with is, do we hold all students to the same pace even thought they’re at different ability levels?” says Campbell. “Right now we’re at uniform pacing, and we want to create individual pacing for each student.”

I think what intrigues me most about this model is the sense of autonomy, respect and trust. Urban public schools like this one, majority minority and poor, have been criticized for forming a “school-to-prison pipeline.”  When someone’s experience of an institution is primarily about being forced to sit in a certain seat, to quietly listen to authorities speaking, to move from place to place at the sound of a bell, to be labeled as a discipline case if you don’t do it, and you’re never asked what you’re interested in or what you want to do, it’s hard not to see how that could interfere with motivation and learning at one’s best.

“We’re trying to build students’ understanding of how they learn, and what they need in order to be effective learners,” says Campbell. “We talk to them all the time about, ‘in college there’s not going to be a teacher telling you to be quiet.’ I’ve been blown away with how students have reacted to the level of trust and respect. They give it back to you almost all the time.” He says that students wear their PASE lanyards with pride, and are particularly proud of the many national and state visitors that the brand-new program has hosted.

On the other hand, it must be recognized that the PASE model is taking place within a grim economic and political context. They started this September with 70 students in grades 10 through 12, and ten weeks into the semester, because of staff cuts, they had to nearly double the size to 115 students. That’s with just four teachers presiding. If this model succeeds, it is possible that it might be used as an blueprint to lower student-teacher ratios in the name of hyper-efficient blended learning, which would certainly be an unintended consequence. In either case, the nation has a lot to learn from PASE’s first year.

Become a tech-savvy educator with these free badges

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IPTEdTec is a free service operated by Rick West, an assistant professor in the Instructional Psychology & Technology Department at Brigham Young University. It offers educators everywhere the materials and rubrics to certify their basic understanding of key educational technology applications, like Google Sites, iMovie, and Blogger, and concepts, like internet safety and open content licensing.

West says he started the resource to build on what he didn’t always have time to cover in the classroom. “For our pre-service secondary education majors, we only have one credit on using technology in their teaching,” he said. “We knew at one credit, we couldn’t teach them everything they needed to know.” His resource is using the Open Badges Platform created by Mozilla as a digital representation of specific knowledge that can be displayed and taken from place to place. Mozilla badges come with links to information about who is issuing the badge, and sometimes links to evidence of the accomplishments that the badge is advertising.

Badges are drawing a lot of interest in the open education world. You may be familiar with the concept from the Scouts. Unlike degrees or courses, digital badges are smaller, tied to a very specific rubric, set of skills or accomplishments. They are meant to be updated, portable and displayable, for example on someone’s LinkedIn profile. Badges are a way of recognizing lifelong learning in a world that increasingly demands it.

“The dumb thing about classes is, say someone gets a B+. What does that mean?” asks West. “Does that mean they learned a little of all the technologies, or were good at one and bombed at the rest? And which one was it? Because we change the class and update it every year.  So the thing we loved about the badges is, it gets down to the nitty gritty: here’s what I can do.”

West is using the badges platform as a way to “flip” his classroom. Students can choose to complete the rubrics for the badges independently, or come to one of the class’s six weekly sections to get extra help and troubleshoot. They can use the badges to personalize their learning, choosing exactly which technologies they want to cover. And badges also seem to provide a little extra incentive to students to do a good job–what some people call “gamification.” “What we’re seeing anecdotally as teachers are better projects,” says West.  “And we have people say, Oh, I want to get the badge! We want to do some research on the motivational aspects.”

West’s plan is to add a second and third “level” to the badges. Beyond just demonstrating basic knowledge of the workings of a technology, teachers will have to create strategies for strongly integrating a technology such as iMovie into lesson plans, and finally, show evidence of actual use in the classroom.

What technologies do you find to be essential to use in the classroom? Do badges strike you as a good way to keep educators building their knowledge of new technologies?

Coursera founder phones it in at open education conference

Coursera Infographic

#OpenEd2013 is the tenth annual installment of the premiere conference of the open education community, taking place right now in Utah. Open education is currently contested territory, with divisions highlighted yesterday by a flatfooted keynote from Andrew Ng, cofounder of Coursera, that played out to a baffled chorus of mockery on Twitter. Amid the jibes, there’s a serious issue at stake: will the future of education be dominated by a few closed platforms, and limited approaches to teaching, learning and knowledge, or will truly open innovation prevail?

Hope someone warned Ng that he can’t toe the standard Coursera line for #OpenEd13 talk. They have been doing this a lot longer than he has.— Amy Collier (@amcollier) November 6, 2013

Open education was first most closely identified with OER–digital educational resources such as MIT’s Open Courseware that carried an open license, such as the Creative Commons license, allowing them to be freely shared, reused and remixed. For self-identified open and connected educators, though, mostly from the higher ed world, openness wasn’t just a technical designation. They were concerned with democratizing education, making it accessible to all, peer-driven rather than hierarchical, emphasizing the fluid process of learning rather than the rigid gateways of accreditation–“an exploratory, community-created knowledge building process,” in the words of Athabasca University professor George Siemens. In this spirit, Siemens and Stephen Downes ran the first Massively Open Online Course, or MOOC, in 2008, with about 25 University of Manitoba students joined by 2500 students online. The topic–a bit meta– was “Connectivism and Connected Knowledge. ”

Today, of course, the term MOOC means something very, very different. From experiments pursued by a small group of learning and teaching enthusiasts, a handful of platforms — edX, Udacity, and Coursera— have emerged with tens of millions of dollars in backing from venture funders and foundations, hundreds of university partners, and millions of users. There is a dominant format for the MOOCs published by these platforms: they run from six to 14 weeks long, and consist of short video lecture “chunks” presented often by well-known professors, interspersed with multiple-choice comprehension questions, combined with readings, often homework assignments or an exam, and forums for discussion.

–I’m hoping Ng’s keynote is actually a bunch of short videos with intermittent quizzes. #opened13— Jonathan Becker (@jonbecker) November 6, 2013

Most of the MOOCs, while free to access currently, are not open-licensed–they are the intellectual property of the companies and institutions and thus can’t be downloaded, reused, or remixed freely.

–Why isn’t Coursera openly licensed? Ng says that its content creation costs too much money and that wouldn’t be sustainable #opened13 (sigh)— Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) November 6, 2013

Ng is the quieter of Coursera’s two cofounders. He’s also director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, which means he has a deep intellectual interest in the growing field of “educational data mining,” learning research, training computers to grade essays and tracking student engagement. Coursera, like other large MOOC platforms, offers the opportunity to learn a great deal about the learning process, at least as it plays out online.

@jonbecker our analytics have determined your diminished interest and have now dispatched mentors to keep you engaged. #opened13— George Siemens (@gsiemens) November 6, 2013

His keynote, however, failed to address these research questions, and instead delivered a standard pitch about Coursera to people who are already quite aware of what it is. Also, unfortunately for a presentation on hybrid learning, there were technical problems.

–Oh the irony. Andrew Ng is Skyping in for his keynote at #opened13. So we’ve been asked to turn off devices to save bandwidth. MOOOOOOC!— Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) November 6, 2013

The irony is worth underlining: the OpenEd community, whose major criticism of MOOCs is that they enshrine the one-way, rigid lecture format, was asked not to respond via the open web while Ng was lecturing to them over a video link.

Within the open education world, as summarized by George Siemens’ keynote right after Ng’s, there are a range of feelings about MOOCs–both angst and hope. This is not just a group of hipsters who are upset that their favorite band suddenly got really popular, or merely professors angry that someone is turning their life’s work into a business.

–Sorry Dr Ng, but there are heaps of people who create engaging online learning inexpensively. Too bad you couldn’t meet them at #opened13— Brian Lamb (@brlamb) November 6, 2013

These are engaged, excited, experimental educators and learners, with values that they fear are getting lost as MOOCs get even more massive. They want their due as partners in the creation of a diverse and vital future of education.

@GardnerCampbell Ng’s talk had no sense of or much regard for its audience. Conversation would be great, but there’s a sense + #opened13 in which xMOOCers refuse to meaningfully engage thoughtful critiques that was symbolized by what went down #opened13 — Luke Waltzer (@lwaltzer) November 6, 2013

As the K-12 “connected educator” movement grows, this debate will be increasingly relevant across all levels of education. Do we want a future where mass market MOOCs and similar digital resources are primarily prepackaged and delivered to students via a vendor-like, consumption-based model? One that enshrines the several-week course and the talking-head lecturer as the central model of education? Or will more messy, diverse, participatory models of open education have the opportunity to spread and take root? Can the two approaches interact and maybe even reinforce each other?

This was clearly a missed opportunity to raise these questions and more.

–I’m dropping out of this keynote. #opened13— Jonathan Becker (@jonbecker) November 6, 2013





Apple has 94% of the classroom tablet market–Why that’s a scary stat


“Apple is making substantial contributions to society,” by “reinventing education,” CEO Tim Cook said during Monday’s quarterly earnings call. Celebrating their “highest September quarter revenue ever,” and their “best education quarter ever,” Cook and CFO Peter Oppenheimer highlighted global education more than any other growth market for the iPad specifically. Here are some of the examples they cited:

  • Over $1 billion in the education category specifically for the first time ever, out of $37 billion in total revenue.
  • Education sales were up 8% year over year.
  • In the U.K., the number of iPads sold to K-12 schools has more than doubled year-over-year.
  • In Latin America, over 70,000 iPads in use across 800 schools.
  • The Coachella Valley School District in California is currently distributing over 19,000 iPads to its student body.
  • Horry County School Districts in South Carolina will distribute 10,000 tablets to middle school students this year with a goal of providing all students in grades 3-12 with their own devices within three years.
  •  iBooks textbooks are now available across the U.S., U.K. and Australian national high school curricula.
  • Apple’s share of tablets in education is 94%. 

“It’s sort of unheard of,” crowed CEO Tim Cook. “I’ve never seen a market share that high before. So, we feel like we’re doing really well here and feel great to be making a contribution to education.”

The rise of the iPad in education has been impressive but not uncontroversial. As documented elsewhere on this blog, the devices have both passionate fans and passionate detractors among educators. Notably, Cook and Oppenheimer did not mention the ongoing $1 billion iPad rollout by the second largest school district in this country, LA Unified. Perhaps that’s because the rollout has been delayed due to security concerns and other implementation problems, a “fiasco” that led to resignation rumors for Superintendent John Deasy.

As I see it there are three major problems with one company having a 94% market share in a particular kind of classroom device. The first one is price and competition. In response to a question on the call about competition from the more modestly priced Google Chromebook, Tim Cook said “We do see Chromebooks in some places, but the vast majority of people are buying a PC/Mac or an iPad.”

Even with high-volume discounts, iPads can cost over $600 per student. Apple has consistently resisted making truly budget versions of its devices even when that meant losing market share to competitors, to say nothing of its purported social mission in an area like education. Not only are iPads expensive, they require monthly data plans for most applications, their components are near-impossible to repair or upgrade, and like most Apple products they are designed to be replaced every few years.

The second problem with massive iPad adoption is control of curriculum. The star iPad educators I’ve talked to are masters of the remix. They use dozens of different apps in their classrooms daily, most of which put students in an active role as content creators and communicators. It takes careful scaffolding and professional development to make teachers confident in applying this kind of technological creativity. In large scale iPad adoptions, especially those motivated by the transition to the Common Core, what we’re far more likely to see is Apple subcontracting out to providers like Pearson for an all-in-one, off-the-shelf curriculum solution that is little more than an automated textbook. As we’ve seen in LA, this can simultaneously disempower and confuse teachers, taking them out of the drivers’ seat, as well as lead to subpar experiences for students.

Finally, compared to bona fide computers, iPads are far less hackable. You can’t reprogram them without jailbreaking. Using them to write code is unwieldy. You can’t even open them up to change the battery. This puts an entire technological world off-limits in tablet-based classrooms.

Here’s a blog post by a friend of mine who is building a PC out of parts with his two school-aged daughters, using free videos found online as their coach. The girls will use the computer to play the wildly popular educational game Minecraft. The total cost is well under $300. Imagine if our public schools took this DIY approach to provisioning classrooms with computers.

Three student successes with iPads


The last time I wrote about iPads in the classroom, it was about a school district doing almost everything wrong. Today I talked to a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools who has a 180 degree view.

When the iPad first came out in 2010,  Jennie Magiera made fun of her friends for buying them: “Nice job–you got a giant iPhone that can’t make phone calls!!”  But when a grant bought iPads for her fourth and fifth grade class, the teacher quickly found a path to transforming her teaching and learning practice. While tests are only one measurement of success, she went from having just one student out of 15 “exceed” on state tests in fourth grade, to having 10 “exceed” the next year.

Just three years later she has gone from the classroom to helping other teachers implement one-to-one iPad programs, as the digital learning coordinator of the Academy of Urban School Leadership, a network of 29 public (non-charter) schools that are 90% free and reduced lunch. Her focus is on using technology to make good teachers better, and to let students be the best they can be.

“I could seriously sit here till we both passed out telling stories of powerful things that happen every day,” Magiera says. Here are three of those stories.

1) The second grade experts. 

The students in Magiera’s network are not “digital natives.” Most of them don’t have access to devices at home because of family income. Nevertheless, they are engaged by and excited about using computers, and because the teachers are learning to use them along with the students, there’s sometimes a role reversal in the learning process.

“We had three girls who came in during recess because it was cold and wanted to help us provision the tablets,” says Magiera, meaning setting them up to run certain kinds of apps. “Right away they started problem-solving: ‘She already hit that button…’ ‘Why don’t you try the green box in the upper left hand corner, since you already did the blue one in the lower right?'” They learned the term “microUSB” and created an organizing system to see which iPads were charged.  In this mundane technical activity, Magiera saw the students take on a real problem and work alongside adults in a way that seven-year-olds don’t always get a chance to do.

2) The shy one speaks.

Magiera had one very intelligent student who was afraid to speak up in class–she tried writing questions down on notecards, and warning him that she was going to call on him, but he would still freeze up. With the iPads she implemented a classroom “backchannel,” allowing students to participate in a text-based chat as part of the class discussion. In that forum, the boy blossomed. “I was not only able to see who was participating but the quantity and quality of their participation,” she says. “And what I found was this young man not only was the most vocal kid, he was the best in the conversation. He was hitting all the markers, responding to other students, coming up with novel ideas, supporting peers in a positive manner, and really thriving and flourishing in a community of thought when he didn’t want to speak up [before].”  

3) The troublemaker revealed.

Yet another student, she says, was constantly disruptive. His test scores and other math grades were poor. One day, she started using a technique called “screencasting,” a program where students can draw or write using a stylus and narrate at the same time, producing a video in a similar format to a Khan Academy video.

“The answer was 15 cents and he wrote $16. I would have thought he wasn’t paying attention or didn’t try. But when I go into his screencast video, it was 60 seconds of the best math I’ve ever seen as a math teacher.” The student had arrived at the wrong answer because of a tiny mistake, but he had devised his own original path through the problem, using his knowledge of fractions to create a system of proportions, a concept he wouldn’t be introduced to for another year or two. “He solved it completely on his own, narrated it beautifully, had the most amazing thought process.”  From watching this one minute of video, Magiera got insights into this student’s math skills that she hadn’t learned from having him in the classroom for over a year.

But the insights didn’t end there. Magiera then had the student rewatch his own video. She saw his reactions go from defiance (“lady, I already did it for you once, you want me to watch it now?”) to pride (“yeah! I got that!”) to dismay (“Oh my god, I messed that up! I can’t believe it! I was so close,”). And finally he asked her, “Can I do it again?” 

“I just about died,” Magiera says. “I was ready to burst into tears. This was a kid you could not get to do homework. Classwork was a struggle. Now he just heard his own thinking, which is really hard for a nine year old to do, and he wanted to improve authentically out of his own motivation. That was a feedback loop we did consistently from then on.”


An automatic boredom detector? Inside “educational data mining” research


I’m currently working on a book about the past, present and future of assessment. For the “future” bit I get to talk to researchers like Ryan Baker at Columbia. He’s spent the last ten years working on systems that gather evidence about crucial parts of the learning process that would seem to be beyond the ken of a non-human teacher.

The basis for the observations comes from what’s called “semantic logs” within a computer learning platform, such as Khan Academy’s: Was it a hard or easy question?  Did the student enter a right or wrong answer? How quickly did they answer it? How did it compare with their previous patterns of answers? The detectors gather evidence that students are gaming the system, drifting off-task, or making careless errors. They can extrapolate a range of emotional states, like confusion, flow, frustration, resistance, (which Baker calls memorably “WTF” behavior), engagement, motivation, excitement, delight, and yes, boredom.

Baker’s engagement detectors are embedded within systems currently being used by tens of thousands of students in classrooms from K-12 up to medical school. (Medical residents, he says, show the highest rate of “gaming the system,” aka trying to trick the software into letting them move on without learning anything, at rates up to 38% for a program that was supposed to teach them how to detect cancer.) His research, located at the forefront of the rapidly expanding field known as “educational data mining,” has a wide range of fascinating applications for anyone interested in blended learning.

Understanding how good these detectors currently are requires a bit of probability theory. To describe the accuracy of a diagnostic test, you need to compare the rate of true positives to the rate of false positives. The results for the “behavior detectors,” Baker says proudly, are about as good as first-line medical diagnostics. That is, if the question is whether someone is acting carelessly, off task, or gaming the system, his program will be right about as often as an HIV test was in the early 80s–0.7 or 0.8 (“fair” according to this rubric). For emotional states, which require a more sophisticated analysis, the results are closer to chance, but still have some usefulness. These accuracy scores are derived from systematic comparison with trained human observers in a classroom.

So why would someone want to build a computer program that can tell if you are bored?

To improve computer tutoring programs. Let’s say a learning program provides several levels of hints before the right answer. You want to build something in that prevents a student from simple gaming techniques, such as pressing “hint, hint, hint, hint,” and then just entering the answer.

To give students realtime feedback and personalization.  “I would like to see every kid get an educational experience tailored to their needs on multiple levels: cognitive, emotional, social,” says Baker. Let’s say the program knows you are easily frustrated, and gives you a few more “warmup” questions before moving on to a new task. Your friend is easily bored. She gets “challenge” questions at the start of every session to keep her on her toes.

To improve classroom practice. Eventually as these systems become more common, “I would envision teachers having much more useful information about their kids,” says Baker. “Technology doesn’t get rid of the teacher, it allows them to focus on what people are best at: Dealing with students’ engagement, helping to support them, working on on one with kids who really need help.” In other words, though technology can provide the diagnostics for affective states that affect learning, it is often teachers that provide the best remedies.

To reinvent educational research: This is a fascinating one to me. 

“I’d like to see educational research have the same methodological scope and rigor that have transformed biology and physics,” Baker says. “Hopefully I would like to see research with, say, 75% of the richness of qualitative methods with ten times the scale of five years ago.”

Modeling qualitative factors related to learning opens up new possibilities for getting really rich answers to really interesting questions. “Educational data mining often has some really nice subtle analyses. You can start to ask questions like: What’s the difference in impact between brief confusion and extended confusion?”

In case you’re wondering, I will clear up the confusion. Brief confusion is extremely helpful, even necessary, for optimal learning, but extended confusion is frustrating and kills motivation.

The very phrase “data mining” as applied to education ruffles feathers. It’s helpful to hear from an unabashedly enthusiastic research scientist, not an educational entrepreneur with a product to sell, about this topic. Privacy, he says, should be given due consideration. “The question is what the data is being used for,” he says. “We have a certain level of comfort with Amazon or Google knowing all this about us, so why not curriculum designers and developers? If we don’t allow education to benefit from the same technology as e-commerce, all we are saying is we don’t want our kids to have the best of what 21st c technology has to offer.”

If you’re interested in learning more, Baker has a free online Coursera course on “Big Data in Education” starting this Thursday. Over 30,000 people have signed up.

Sandra Bullock and Science Role Models

“Gravity” trailer via YouTube

Gravity, a new adventure movie about the perils of space exploration starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, is sharing some of its star power with a blended informal STEM-based learning program for kids. USC grad student Tara Chklovski founded Iridescent  in 2006. It’s reached over 22,000 young people ages kindergarten and up with a combination of family science programs, delivered in New York and LA, and through partners in Chicago and the Bay Area. They have recently launched a website, the Curiosity Machine, where students can respond to challenges and get help online from dozens of professional mentors from the science and engineering worlds. “The idea was to engage kids in STEM in a way that schools don’t do, by dealing with open-ended problems,” says Kevin Miklasz, director of digital learning at Iridescent. “Instead of lesson plans, we offer design challenges that are prompts for kids to solve complex problems with their own solutions.”

In the past Iridescent has partnered with the TV show Top Chef. For the Gravity-tie in design challenge, they asked participants to build a “space themed Rube Goldberg Machine” that performed some of the actions of a rocket launch, including 1) a launcher, 2) a transfer mechanism, and 3) an orbit well. The contest was judged by a panel of expert astrophysicists.

Screen Shot 2013-10-01 at 5.31.24 PM


The first and second runner-ups were 14 and 16-year-old boys, but the winner was 13-year-old Eiley Hartzell-Jordan from Carrboro, North Carolina, who received mentoring online from Bonnie Lei, a Harvard biology student.  She flew to New York City with her family to attend the movie premiere.

Iridescent is a near-perfect example of what Janet Coffey, at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, calls the promise of informal STEM-based learning.  “A lot of the really rich experiences that get kids excited about pursuing science happen outside of school,” she says, naming settings like museums, libraries, summer camps, afterschool programs, clubs, Makerspaces and independent hobbies. “There’s an increasing awareness that factors like interest, motivation, and choice matter a lot for achievement and persistence [in academic subjects] and might even matter more than some of the cognitive things.  Kids need opportunities to spark curiosity about science.” Her organization is investing resources in research that identifies the major emotional and social qualities that spur science learning, like self-confidence, a sense of belonging in a science-focused community, interest, motivation, and a fundamental belief in the importance of science.


Media, Miklasz says, may have its own role to play in spurring these kinds of experiences.

“Media can be an extremely subtle, nuanced, powerful way of reinforcing or dispelling stereotypes about scientists,” he says. “Portraying Sandra Bullock as a female scientist who is thinking hard and solving problems step by step–I’ve been really personally interested in how those impacts play out in kids’ perceptions.”  



Big data and schools: Education nirvana or privacy nightmare?

InBloom, a nonprofit start-up founded with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Carnegie Corporation, is taking center stage and spreading around some significant funds as an official sponsor of the South by Southwest Education conference in Austin, Texas this week. It hosted the official opening night party on Tuesday, is sponsoring a “networking lounge” with free coffee and snacks at the Hilton next to the convention center, and is debuting the first live demonstrations of its technology with representatives from pilot districts and states.


Iwan Streichenberger

It’s quite a splash for what is basically a highly technical, behind-the-scenes infrastructure company. InBloom promises to bring all the potential of “big data” to classrooms in a big way for the first time. Its stated mission: to “inform and involve each student and teacher with data and tools designed to personalize learning.”

“We want to make personalized learning available to every single kid in the U.S.,” says CEO Iwan Streichenberger. “The way you do this is by breaking the barriers—making data much more accessible.”

But to some educational activists, InBloom represents a danger, not an opportunity.

InBloom began as the Shared Learning Collaborative in 2011. It gets a bit technical, but basically, 10 districts in nine states agreed to build a shared technology infrastructure. Currently, student data—from attendance to standardized test scores—are locked in dozens of different “student information systems” that don’t talk to each other. “In one district we work with in Massachusetts, teachers had to use 20 different assessment storage places with different log-ins,” says Streichenberger.

InBloom offers a single middleware layer that hosts student data using Amazon Web Services, with some centralized dashboard-style functions and an API (application programming interface) that would allow start-ups to build education apps, aligned with Common Core standards, that anyone could use. It’s a similar strategy to how Facebook and Apple allow outside developers to build apps that pull your profile information from the cloud. Instead of designing for  thousands of school districts across the country, all of whom have their own idiosyncratic data storage systems, the InBloom platform will eventually allow developers to build one application—like DreamBox, a differentiated math game, or Kickboard, a dashboard program that allows teachers to track students’ performance and behavior—and have it work automatically in several states. This coordination, in turn, is likely to attract even more technology entrepreneurs to a market for educational IT spending estimated to be worth $20 billion in 2013. And similar to the way that electronic health records promise to reduce costs and increase efficiency and effectiveness in medicine, the use of centrally hosted data, says Streichenberger, offers similar cost savings and improvements in education.

But the very moves that make this idea a huge opportunity from the point of view of edtech entrepreneurs—the ability to find a large market for learning games and systems all in one place, to pull student data automatically, and to coordinate effortlessly with other apps—makes parents “horrified,” in the words of school activist Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters.

“There are no limitations on the time-frame, or the kind of data. There’s no provision for parental consent or opt-out. The point is to give our kids’ data away for free, and share it as widely as possible with for-profit ventures to help them market and develop their learning products,” she says. “For-profit vendors are slavering right now at the prospect of being able to get their hands on this info. and market billions of dollars of worth of so-called solutions to our schools.”

Class Size Matters has been working with a lawyer to get public access to the agreements between InBloom and the nine states that are members of the collaborative (New York, Massachusetts, Louisiana, Colorado, Illinois, North Carolina, Georgia, Delaware and Kentucky), to learn under what circumstances student data will be released, and whether there are potential violations of FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which generally requires written consent from parents to release the records of students under 18. They are also trying to get states to agree to opt-out policies so parents can withhold children’s information from InBloom, especially sensitive information like disciplinary records, health records, and personally identifiable details like addresses.

Streichenberger says that InBloom’s terms of service are fully compliant with FERPA, but privacy policies—including parental notification and opt-out—will be in the hands of individual districts, which will hold and control all access to the data that InBloom hosts. “Privacy is a very emotional issue,” he says. “I have two children, four and six. I would never join InBloom if I thought it would compromise my kids.” At the same time, he says, “The privacy discussion is an important one, but one of my concerns is it’s preventing the discussion of what’s going on in the classroom. Are we preparing the children for the future? Do we have the tools to prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow?”

So far, Haimson says, her group has generated thousands of letters from parents concerned about their students’ privacy to the Gates Foundation and to individual states. She says that her biggest problem in spreading the word is that many parents don’t believe this is really happening. “Parents are outraged and can’t believe it’s legal,” she says. “The tech companies and foundations shrug their shoulders. People are living on two separate planets.”

Note: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Carnegie Corporation are among the various funders of The Hechinger Report.