Explaining the Why of Your Ed-tech Choices

What does personalized learning mean at your school?

But what exactly does “personalized learning” mean across these varied products and contexts? And more broadly speaking, which labels and claims employed by companies can be trusted? How do the products schools are being offered differ from what teachers are already doing in their classrooms? Is personalized learning being oversold?

They’re all questions that get more complicated by the year for district officials trying to settle on personalized learning strategies and figure out which products will help them meet their goals.

“It’s become such a generic term. It’s aspirin,” said Daniel Gohl, the chief academic officer of Florida’s Broward County Schools, the sixth-largest district in the country. “Slapping on the label ‘personalized’ does not mean that [a product] helps me systematically move student achievement.”

Source: Are Companies Overselling Personalized Learning? — Education Week

I don’t really know what my school district means by personalized learning. It’s nebulous and never really explained. I don’t know the why.

Some years ago, therefore, I hatched the idea of supporting such educators by convening a brain trust of leading theorists, researchers, and practitioners to create – and then disseminate – concise defenses of various features of progressive education. I imagined a set of handouts, each consisting of a single (double-sided) sheet that responded to a common question. The idea was to lay out the case briskly, making liberal use of bullet points and offering a short bibliography at the end for anyone who wanted more information.

One of these “Why Sheets,” for example, might explain a teacher’s decision to create a curriculum based on kids’ questions. Or for setting aside time each day for a class meeting. It might defend helping students to understand mathematical principles rather than just memorizing facts and algorithms. Or it might lay out the case for avoiding worksheets, or tests, or homework, or traditional bribe-and-threat classroom management strategies.

Eventually I started thinking about creating additional Why Sheets to help administrators defend enlightened schoolwide policies: why we don’t track students; why we push back against standardized testing and never brag about high scores; why we have multiage classrooms; why we’ve replaced report cards with student-led parent conferences; why we use a problem-solving approach to discipline in place of suspensions and detentions; why our commitment to building community has led us to avoid awards assemblies, spelling bees, and other rituals that pit kids against one another.

In short, any practice that’s constructive yet still controversial would be fair game for one of these punchy handouts. The idea was to help educators explain why they do what they do – and, equally important, why they deliberately avoid doing some things. The sheets would be made available free of charge, uncopyrighted, and accompanied by an invitation to distribute them promiscuously.

The Why Axis – Alfie Kohn

Kohn presents these why sheets as a way to provide support for progressive teachers trying new things, something I’ve suggested at school a time or two.

Some years ago, therefore, I hatched the idea of supporting such educators by convening a brain trust of leading theorists, researchers, and practitioners to create – and then disseminate – concise defenses of various features of progressive education. I imagined a set of handouts, each consisting of a single (double-sided) sheet that responded to a common question. The idea was to lay out the case briskly, making liberal use of bullet points and offering a short bibliography at the end for anyone who wanted more information.

I don’t consider the mainstream ed-tech notions of personalized learning progressive, but I still want to know the why. I want to know the why of choosing behaviorism and data collection. I want to know the why of choosing, for example, platooning vs. looping. I want to know the why of many things I see in ed.

My professional culture is heavy on writing.

For organizations, the single biggest difference between remote and physical teams is the greater dependence on writing to establish the permanence and portability of organizational culture, norms and habits. Writing is different than speaking because it forces concision, deliberation, and structure, and this impacts how politics plays out in remote teams.

Writing changes the politics of meetings. Every Friday, Zapieremployees send out a bulletin with: (1) things I said I’d do this week and their results, (2) other issues that came up, (3) things I’m doing next week. Everyone spends the first 10 minutes of the meeting in silence reading everyone’s updates.

Remote teams practice this context setting out of necessity, but it also provides positive auxiliary benefits of “hearing” from everyone around the table, and not letting meetings default to the loudest or most senior in the room. This practice can be adopted by companies with physical workplaces as well (in fact, Zapier CEO Wade Foster borrowed this from Amazon), but it takes discipline and leadership to change behavior, particularly when it is much easier for everyone to just show up like they’re used to.

Writing changes the politics of information sharing and transparency.

Source: Distributed teams are rewriting the rules of office(less) politics | TechCrunch

Communication is oxygen. At my company, we build our communication culture on blogging. We create FAQs and Field Guides and Master Posts for everything. Writing and transparency are important parts of managing change and creating alignment.

Administrators are educators. Educate by writing in the open. Educate by publishing why sheets. Borrow from what works in distributed work: a culture of writing and transparency. Do some of the heavy lifting for teachers who have to defend district decisions to parents. Write. Write on the open web so that teachers can reference why sheets when communicating with parents. Default to open.

Building creative culture at work and in the classroom

I’ve been working in distributed, self-organizing teams for a couple of decades and change. I’ve worked in startups, big corporations, and distributed open source teams. For the past twelve years, I have been at Automattic. Over the years, we have iterated fully-distributed work and creative culture into a 600 person company that has managed to survive over a decade, have low turnover, and rate well among freelancers.

The Top Companies WNW Creatives Would Kill to Work for Full-Time — Free Range

One of my driving motivations for helping build one of the first distributed companies was accessibility. I wanted a place to work compatible with my autistic operating system and my anxiety. Distributed work where I can work from the comfort of home and communicate mostly via text suits me well. It suits other neurodivergent and disabled folks too. Distributed work is a good base for building a culture compatible with neurodiversity and the social model of disability.

I’d like to share a peek at our culture using the writing of my co-workers and of journalists. The practices of distributed companies have lessons for classrooms, particularly regarding accessibility and inclusive communication. Bring your own comfort, backchannels, and psychological safety are important notions that benefit teams of adult creatives as well as teams of creative kids. We parents and teachers must recognize that kids need digital skills if they’re going to thrive in a digital world. We can develop those skills in an inclusive way that uses technology not for remediation and assessment, but for collaboration. Communicate, collaborate, iterate, and launch. The best of inclusive hacker culture coupled with the social model and equity literacy is powerful. To fulfill the promise of a public education that is “free, life-changing, and available to everyone“, adopt a hacker mindset of flexible improvisation and passion-based maker learning and a social model mindset of inclusion and acceptance. When we use technology to collaborate in default-to-open cultures, we create serendipity.

The results were remarkable. The employees who had used the tool became 31% more likely to find coworkers with expertise relevant to meeting job goals. Those employees also became 88% more likely to accurately identify who could put them in contact with the right experts. They made these gains by observing what their coworkers talked about on Jive-n and with whom. The group that had no access to the tool showed no improvement on either measure over the same period.

Since then we have studied internal social tools in various work settings, including banking, insurance, telecommunications, e-commerce, atmospheric science, and computing. The mounting evidence is clear: These tools can promote employee collaboration and knowledge sharing across silos. They can help employees make faster decisions, develop more innovative ideas for products and services, and become more engaged in their work and their companies.

Over the past two decades organizations have sought some of these benefits through knowledge management databases, but with limited success. That’s because determining who has expertise and understanding the context in which it was created are important parts of knowledge sharing. Databases do not provide that type of information and connection. Social tools do.

Source: What Managers Need to Know About Slack, Yammer, and Chatter

How we communicate

How we hire

How we organize (kinda)

How we include

And how it all applies to education

The business world is changing. It seems I’m riding the wave. High.

 

Use of Force, Disability, and Transparency

Here’s a short letter on use of force, disability, and transparency I sent to my representatives:

To those in Dripping Springs, Hays County, and Texas state government,

In response to a public information request for use of force policies, the Hays County Sheriff’s Office provided only eight pages of policy. The policy does not address deescalation, chokeholds, duty to intervene, warn before shooting, moving vehicles, transparency, or reporting. For more, I discuss what little there is of the policy here:

https://ryan.boren.me/2016/07/04/foia-use-of-force-policy-and-then-ask-these-questions/

I share this to bring awareness and to urge policy agendas of transparency and accountability in policing.

Local policy agenda:

https://static1.squarespace.com/static/55ad38b1e4b0185f0285195f/t/55dce731e4b07137c6a819b9/1440540465863/CampaignZERO+Local+Policy+Agenda.pdf

State policy agenda:

https://static1.squarespace.com/static/55ad38b1e4b0185f0285195f/t/55dce7b3e4b0b9d287069df9/1440540595819/Campaign+ZERO+State+Policy+Agenda.pdf

As a neurodivergent parent of neurodivergent kids, use of force is of particular interest to me and my family. Police use of force and school-to-prison pipelines disproportionately impact those with disabilities. Use of force policy should be available online to all and should address neurodiversity, mental illness, disability, and deescalation. Use of force is a social contract to be discussed openly.

Help bring transparency and end compliance culture. We are responsible for humanizing the systems we inhabit. Encourage and require transparency from Texas law enforcement agencies. Dallas PD serves as a role model. They’ve taken positive steps toward transparency.

This is not all on police. They need support to handle the big issues of disability, neurodiversity, and mental illness. They need resources, training, and the assistance of other institutions and social structures. They should not have to fill the massive lack of services for our most vulnerable citizens.

With open data and open government, we can work on these issues together. Default to open. Sunlight heals.

Regards,

Ryan Boren
https://ryan.boren.me/
https://twitter.com/rboren
Dripping Springs, TX