Sunday, May 8, 2016

Instructional Googling

Robert Pondiscio is in US News sounding the alarm about teachers who develop their own materials either on their own or by googling their way to instructional strategies, on his way to noting that the "dirty little secret" of education is that the quality of instructional techniques is an afterthought, and probably not so great. But I think he's managed to mis-represent the problem and add to it all at once.

Here's the cold open.

If you caught your pediatrician Googling "upset stomach remedies" before deciding how to treat your child and homebrewing medications over an office sink, you might start looking for a new pediatrician. So how would you feel if you learned that Google and Pinterest are where your child's teacher goes to look for instructional materials?

If my pediatrician was stumped by a tricky diagnosis, I would expect her to consult other experts in the field and go look through the literature about the ailment. And because my pediatrician is a trained professional, I'd be unlikely to view treatment that she developed and used based on her professional knowledge and judgment as a "home brew."

So right up front, let's dispose of the notion that Google and Pinterest are automatically bad news. For many teachers they have become the modern equivalent of walking across the hall and saying, "I can't quite get Chris to understand how to work with mixed fractions. Have you got anything that you've had success with?" Google and Pinterest (and few dozen other sites) make it possible to walk across thousands of other halls and ask millions of other fellow professionals what professional advice and materials they might have to offer. This is not a bad thing.

Like any tool, it can be misused. Teachers need that most important of 21st century research skills-- the ability to tell Good Stuff from Crap. And of course the interwebs can enable lazy teachers, but this is not a new phenomenon-- it's simply the 21st century equivalent of your old teacher who just walked the class through the textbook page by page.

Expecting teachers to be expert pedagogues and instructional designers is one of the ways in which we push the job far beyond the capabilities of mere mortals. 

Nope. That's the job. Granted, it's one of the aspects of the job that makes it very difficult. It's one of the reasons that the job is best done by trained, experienced professionals. Designing instruction without knowledge of how exactly it will be implemented, by whom, and for whom, is a clunky business at best, like designing a car if you've never driven one or designing software without any knowledge of who will be using it. It's not that it can't be done, exactly, but that's not the best way to do it.

The growth and development of a classroom teacher often ties directly to their lesson design skills. Early in your career, you probably use the book, or the materials designed by colleagues, or the stuff you find on Google as a way of making your teacher workload manageable. But if you have an interest in doing well at all, that starts to change. You start thinking, "Boy, if I tweak this one thing this way, this lesson would work much better in my fifth period class." And then eventually leads to, "Well, if I just designed this lesson from scratch, I could have exactly what I need with my third period class."

This is also what is happening to the craptastic Common Core...infused? marketed? We can't really say "aligned" because in some cases the only "alignment" that materials have with the Core is to slap a "Common Core aligned" sticker on the front. So teachers at first followed the new materials, per orders-- for at least one year. Then classroom teachers began the revision process ("This lesson about division in the book the "new" way leaves my students confused and frustrated, so I will now supplement it with some additional lessons and just skip the worst parts of the book.")

Pondiscio knows that there are teachers who are very good at both design and delivery ("there are master teachers to whom we should eagerly grant nearly complete classroom autonomy") and he knows that there can be good reason to consult Dr. Google. And he's not after teachers in this piece ("Don't blame teachers.")

Pondiscio is after crappy instructional materials. He doesn't like the fact that there are a million different sets of materials out there, and that in many cases nobody is paying attention to whether they are any good or not. It's a reasonable concern. Here are my concerns with his concern.

1) The Powers That Be asked for this. One of the appeals of Common Core was that it was going to fix this. But the standards are poorly done, created by people who are not educators. If you hand a bunch of one-size-fits-all coat to every teacher in the nation and say, "Get all of your students to wear this," the very first thing that's going to happen is that everybody is going to start making alterations on the coat. If you give a bunch of people nonsensical instructions ("Everybody align your spirit monkey with the grenadines and soul patches!") everybody is going to have to make their own best guess about what the hell you meant. The Common Core absolutely guaranteed that instruction in this country would be a higgledy-piggledy mess.

2) Messy does not equal bad. Pondiscio is one of those folks who is concerned that instruction varies across states, districts and even buildings. I understand that this bothers folks, and I sympathize with them. I just don't see any viable alternative. Teaching involves human beings working with other human beings. Variation is a feature, not a bug. It irritates me that I can't get my current class to write as last year's class, or that a discussion-based approach to the reading works great in ninth period and bombs completely in eighth period. But that's the gig. Yes, absolutely, we should help those who are lagging to up their game. Always, every day. But that will not happen by making everybody play the same game the same way. Standardizing instruction will not help; in fact, it will hurt by restricting the people who really have a handle on what they're doing.

3) Doing it all is impossible-- and necessary. Pondiscio correctly notes that the teaching job description is vague, wide and deep, and that adding to it just makes it harder. The most-read thing I have ever written is all about how there is never enough time for a teacher to do everything a teacher needs to do. But doing it all is how a teacher sees the whole picture, which is a necessary part of the job. Even something as simple as recording grades can be crucial in maintaining your sense of exactly how the class is doing with material. Believe me-- I often entertain the notion of every teacher having a personal administrative assistant, but when I try to think of what that person would do, I come up short. Run copies. Take care of administrative paperwork.

4) The mystification of instructional design. Pondiscio actually adds to his own googling problem here. One of the implications of his piece is that instructional design is just so daunting that not every teacher is capable of doing it. But this mystification of instructional design (which some college programs indulge in) actually increases the googling problem-- "Oh, designing a lesson is beyond my simple powers," says the beginning teacher. "I will just have to trust this textbook or consult Dr. Google." This is one more unfortunate side effect of the Common Core era-- teachers who have been told that they must follow the dictates of a higher educational authority that understands mysteries they can never fully grasp.

5) The clogged crap filter. There's another irony here. If you are going to be your classroom crap filter, the final barrier against implementing bad instruction, you have to be knowledgeable about instructional design. We can't remove the instructional design piece from the teacher job description, because the teacher has to be able to tell the difference between junk and useful stuff.

Finally-- I cannot disagree with Pondiscio's last line:

Great teachers need great instructional materials. It's time we got serious about providing them.

But how does that even happen? Does some centralized government agency certify and regulate all the textbooks and teaching materials out there? I'm going to skip over the philosophical issues of governance, free markets, and central control and go to some more practical questions-- who would work at that agency? Who would decide that those people were qualified to work at that agency? How would they decide which materials were great?

Or do we somehow work on the vendors. Do we somehow get Pearson et. al. to stop producing crap in order to make a buck, and again, how would that happen exactly? Actually-- I have an answer for this one. District purchasing decisions must all be made by classroom teachers, not some non-teaching bureaucrat. And all textbook series and instructional programs come with a one year warrantee-- in other words, after we use your materials/texts/programs/whatever for a year, if the classroom teachers in the district are not satisfied, 100% money back guarantee. There's some creative disruption of an entrenched business model I could get behind.

Pondiscio is right about one other thing-- too little teacher preparation in some programs is spent on instructional design. This is yet another thing that has been further damaged by Common Core-- the average lesson planning class in college programs is now centered on How To Write Your Plan So That It Looks Like Its Aligned To The Core instead of How To Design An Instructional Plan So It Works. We could improve in this area by upping the teacher prep programs in two areas that have always needed to be improved-- more time studying the content you're going to teach, and more time in the field with real live small humans.

The solution is the same as ever. Trained, experienced professional educators in the classroom, making trained professional decisions about what instruction should be used by this particular teacher with these particular students. Have we achieved 100% implementation of this solution? Of course not-- but the solution to that is not to change to some other solution entirely.


  1. Pondiscio is talking about "good" and "great" and "crappy" without defining what those words mean. Obviously, materials that contain blatant errors or misinformation would be "crappy", but you'll find most of that in the mass produced materials created by "experts" (sic) rather than teachers. But otherwise, materials are "good" to the extent they help kids learn. If Chris understands working with mixed fractions better, then the materials were good - for him. If not, they weren't good, again, for him.

  2. My response as a college instructor to overpriced textbooks that don't give my students all the readings that I want has been to use free, online resources. I can easily put together a high-quality reading list for a philosophy course by just using the internet. Most of the classic texts are there and so are many famous, contemporary articles.

    I pick readings using my education in the field and my 20 years of experience teaching philosophy to undergraduates.

    This is more difficult to do in some fields, but there is typically no need to rely solely on a textbook. The math textbooks that my children have been using in the K-12 system the last few years are truly awful. They don't explain anything. I've found myself using Purple Math quite a bit. That website has excellent explanations of concepts along with detail examples of problems and the various strategies for solving them. I imagine that many K-12 math teachers could put together a great course just using internet materials if they only had the time.

    1. Exactly, the most challenging part is having the time.

  3. "Google and Pinterest (and few dozen other sites) make it possible to walk across thousands of other halls and ask millions of other fellow professionals what professional advice and materials they might have to offer. This is not a bad thing."

    So many times this. In an era of standardized "content delivery" to non-standardized kids, when relevant useful PD is rare and when the opportunity to collaborate with other teachers (especially if you're the school's ONLY music teacher, for example) is hard to come by, we either make it up as we go along, we rely on by-the-book "content delivery," or we use resources like this to help us along.

    Robert, didn't your ideal school use tech to make life easier for teachers too? There are uses for tech other than tests that grade themselves and essays that score themselves. This is one such application, and your criticism of it is contradictory, to say the least, unless teachers are supposed to passively let the tech do the teaching, I mean deliver the content, too. That would, IMO, be tantamount to educational malpractice, though.

  4. "Expecting teachers to be expert pedagogues and instructional designers is one of the ways in which we push the job far beyond the capabilities of mere mortals."

    Really Rob?

    I think you have been breathing that rarefied air in your ivory tower for too long. Not enough oxygen perhaps, causing you to forget just how simple teaching really is.

    Teaching "skills" requires practice and feedback and correction.

    Teaching "new ideas" simply requires that they are presented in an interesting format that requires students to think about them. We do this by asking questions in a wide variety of ways. Questions that demand student thought, combined with feedback and correction.

    We best teach the "vocabulary" of our disciplines the way sports coaches teach theirs. The meaning of a bunt, a pick and roll, or blitz never requires the copying of definitions. We just use the language naturally and appropriately and expect our students to do the same.

    However, teaching is always the easy part. The learning is often beyond our control when students are amotivated, distracted, defiant, under-skilled, or frequently absent.

  5. Peter, everything you say is exactly my experience, too.