‘Emerging Technologies in Distance Education’ ed. by George Veletsianos

Claude AlmansiBy Claude Almansi
Editor, Accessibility Issues

Emerging Technologies in Distance Education, edited by George Veletsianos, has just been published by Athabasca University Press, a Canadian publisher of Open Access, peer-reviewed, scholarly publications. The book, under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada  Creative Commons License, can be bought in print or downloaded (at no cost) as PDF from aupress.ca/index.php/books/120177.

Cover of Emerging Technologies in Distance Education, ed. by George Veletsianos Continue reading

Deconstructing STEM

Retort by Harry Keller with a distilling retort on the left

In K-12 education these days, you’ll see frequent use of the acronym, STEM. This word stands for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.” This term is so widespread that no one even seems to question its use. Yet, the inclusion of these four subjects and the exclusion of any other is actually rather arbitrary and tends to mislead the general public about the nature of these subjects and how to teach them. Possibly, it’s the push from industry for more employees trained in these areas that has resulted in this emphasis.

Many people, even in education, do not have a full understanding of the essential differences between these four subjects. Science teachers may present them to students as being essentially the same. Funding agencies are proposing lots of money for STEM education. What are they proposing to fund? Even if you know all about STEM, please take a moment to read the analysis below and comment on anything that’s incorrect or incomplete.

To begin with, why exclude other subjects? For example, physical education uses science, technology, engineering, and mathematics extensively. If the use of one subject by another is reason enough for inclusion in a grouping, then physical education certainly should be added to form something like STEPEM. You can make a case for inclusion of some other subjects as well. Roping off four subjects from everything else makes no real sense for education.

However, it’s the lumping together of these four that makes the least sense. Why not HELASSAWL, grouping history, English language arts, social science, arts, and world languages? Yeah, it’s a mouthful compared to STEM, but logically, it makes as much sense. To understand why, take a look at each of the four STEM subjects.

Mathematics began centuries ago as a means to an end. It was used to regulate trade (arithmetic) and to deal with land (geometry). Then, Euclid came along and made logical, step-by-step proofs the bedrock of geometry. Mathematics hasn’t been the same since. Instead of being just a means to an end, mathematics now stands by itself in pure abstraction with its proof-based system of functioning.

Something that hasn’t been proved in mathematics is merely a conjecture. Mathematicians don’t have to relate their work to anything going on in science, technology, or engineering. They start with axioms and build a tower of theorems, corollaries, and lemmas. Doing mathematics requires a special way of thinking and extensive training.

In total contrast to mathematics, science is all about disproof. Science doesn’t stand apart from the real world in abstractions. Science involves inquiry, exploration, and discovery within the context of reality. It’s a voyage into the world of ideas that develop into explanations of the universe. Scientific theories mean nothing unless they can be compared with real data.

Scientists know that they can never prove their theories. That’s one reason that they’re called theories. New data tomorrow could overturn or at least modify today’s favorite theory. Examples abound. The geocentric view of the universe was overturned (probably more than once) by the heliocentric theory, which itself was modified when all stars were found to be rotating around a galactic center.

Mathematics plays an important role in every branch of science. The eponymous Lord Kelvin, immortalized as a temperature scale, said, “When you measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers, you know something about it.” Mathematics then allows processing of those numbers. Whether physicists are doing quantum mechanics or biologists are making statistical analyses of experimental results, mathematics permeates science. Nevertheless, mathematics is not science. Doing science requires a special, nonintuitive way of thinking and extensive training.

Engineering is all about making things. Engineers use the knowledge they have of how things work to create new physical entities. Much of this knowledge comes from other engineers who have tried numerous approaches and found which work best, and the data used are empirical. Other knowledge comes from the discoveries of scientists.

Engineers design, build, and test. They create skyscrapers and highways, toasters and microwave ovens, automobiles and racing bicycles. Scientists discover; engineers create. These two acts, discovery and creation, seem to be wired into our brains so that we consider them to be very pleasurable. There’s little other connection between these two disciplines, except that they seem to require each other. The discoveries of science help to fuel new engineering, and the new stuff that engineers create often provides devices that scientists use in their research such as telescopes, microscopes, spectrophotometers, and so on. Engineers require extensive training.

Technology is the stuff that mankind creates. It comes originally from engineers and inventors.

Technology is the stuff that mankind creates. It comes originally from engineers and inventors. Building a fire and crafting a spear were early examples of using technology. Today, it’s hard to take a step without involving technology, for example, the technology represented by your shoes. Because technologies are closely tied with scientific discoveries and with engineering designs and creations, people may readily confuse these.

A course on technology, by itself, will be a rare occurrence in elementary and secondary schools. Instead, you find technology woven into K-12 science courses along with engineering (e.g., robotics). Technology makes our lives easier, delivers better health, and allows us to explore places previously inaccessible. It also complicates our lives, pollutes our environment in numerous ways, and requires us to extract our planet’s resources to feed it.

Scientists discovered the ideas that made today’s flat panel televisions possible. Engineers turned these ideas along with engineering principles into televisions. The technology consists of the televisions, all of their pieces and parts, and the means to capture and send the images and sound to the individual televisions. In all of these activities, the scientists and engineers use lots of mathematics, but mathematicians play no role in creating televisions. A technologically literate person will know much about the technologies involved in delivering the television experience to living rooms but may not be familiar with the engineering principles involved in the design. This same person may not understand the nature of science either.

Interestingly, the California Institute of Technology provides bachelor’s degrees in mathematics, many branches of science, and several disciplines of engineering. However, there’s no degree in technology.

This conflation of four terms into STEM, an artificial thing that we’re supposed to be excited about teaching to K-12 students, makes little sense. Science and mathematics departments like it because it elevates them somewhat in the din of the discussion of how to improve education. Here’s what’s actually happening on the ground in many school districts. The districts receive some federal money for improving education. The various departments put in their proposals for a piece of this funding. ELA (English language arts) and mathematics ask for more, in total, than is available and receive all of the money. The science and history departments, not to mention music, arts, physical education, and others, get nothing.

The push for improved reading and mathematics scores trumps everything else and shortchanges the places where real learning takes place. But that’s material for another column.

[Note: The paragraphs on technology were revised by the author after initial publication. 1.15.10]

India Steps Forward in Science Education

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

A recent press release in The Hindu newspaper, titled “Virtual lab for exploring science in top 10 institutes,” explained a new initiative by the government of India.

The release states, “Students pursuing higher studies at the country’s top technical institutes will now be able to do any experiment without going to a laboratory but through virtual labs.” It goes on to note that the government will be spending $40 million (Rs 2 billion) to complete this project within a year.

Coming on the heels of new virtual science lab commercial products from Romania, Turkey, and Scotland, this announcement should have our attention for two reasons.

It shows that India has made a huge commitment to gaining ground in science and engineering. They have decided to increase their ability to graduate qualified students in these fields from their premier education organization, the India Institutes of Technology.

The announcement also highlights our own problems. Rather than engaging in our own initiatives, we are spending our education tax dollars to import simulation software from foreign countries. We’re sending our stimulus dollars to the Middle East! As I have noted previously, the end of this process could be outsourcing not just of software services, but of entire courses including the teachers to foreign countries.

keller_21apr2009aFor a relatively paltry fraction of the money that India is spending, we could be promoting great science education technology initiatives right here at home. A few million dollars to make us more competitive in science education seems like nothing compared with trillions in spending and even with $40 million being spent on a single project by India.

I contacted our Department of Education about this topic and received a polite letter informing me that the Department does not do this sort of thing. I should contact the states, all 50 of them, one at a time! I have contacted many of the states too. They say that I should contact the individual districts, most of which say to contact the schools. Talk about buck passing!

I have a vested interest in all of this. My modest company produces a solution for online science labs that uses prerecorded real experiments. I do my best to avoid bias and like to think that my involvement just allows me to focus better on what’s going on. I see little support for innovation and entrepreneurship in education. As a scientist, I have great concern about this entire issue, which is why I entered the virtual lab business in the first place.

This journal is the perfect place to discuss these matters. It’s all about technology and change, after all.  While these two can be discussed separately, I prefer to discuss the use of technology to effect change in education. In fact, I see technology as our only hope for bringing about real and useful change, at least in science education.

The well-known challenges in science education today include:

  • increasing class sizes, sometimes over forty students
  • decreasing budgets made even worse by the recession
  • loss of lab time to high-stakes testing
  • complete removal of some labs due to new safety regulations
  • increasing costs for hazardous waste disposal
  • greater insurance costs for science labs where overcrowding causes more accidents
  • reluctance of overworked and underpaid teachers to change their methods
  • high teacher turnover due to the stresses of some current school environments
  • lack of new teachers trained in science, especially physical sciences

Great efforts have been made over the last quarter century to improve science education. The National Science Education Standards (NSES) were published to great fanfare, and have not fixed the problems. New professional development efforts also leave the science classrooms unimproved. Billions of dollars have been spent.

The Obama administration has proposed new curriculum standards, new science labs, and more professional development. These solutions require an abundance of two things we have little of: time and money. The sort of technology that involves physical materials, for example, smart boards, also requires lots of money and professional development to utilize them well.

Internet technology, on the other hand, requires only Internet access, which now is available nearly everywhere, and Internet-literate teachers. This evolving technology, if applied well, can overcome all of the above list of challenges except for the reluctance of many teachers to change methods to employ the new ideas. Given the potential benefits, we should certainly be investigating this approach in as many way as possible.

Why should our government talk about bold steps and yet be so timid compared with India?

Interview with Bert Kimura: TCC 2009 April 14-16

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro
Editor

The following ETC interview with Bert Kimura, coordinator of the annual TCC (Technology, Colleges and Community) Worldwide Online Conference, the longest running virtual conference, was conducted via email on April 7-8, 2009. Dr. Kimura, a professor at Osaka Gakuin University, orchestrates the completely online event from Japan. The theme of the 14th annual conference is “The New Internet: Collaborative Learning, Social Networking, Technology Tools, and Best Practices.” It will be held on April 14-16, 2009. TCC is a conference designed for university and college practitioners including faculty, academic support staff, counselors, student services personnel, students, and administrators.

Question: What’s the theme of this year’s conference and, more specifically, why did you choose it?

The Internet world is abuzz with social networking and Web 2.0 technologies and, recently, its impact on teaching and learning. We thought that this focus would be appropriate for faculty along with what their colleagues have been doing with these technologies in their (i.e., the early adopters’) classrooms.

TCC coordinators pay attention to the Horizon Report published annually by the New Media Consortium and EduCause. Two years ago, the report cited social media as a technology to have short term impact on teaching and learning.

bert_kimura2Question: What are the primary advantages of online vs. F2F conferences?

1. Ability to “attend” all conference sessions, including the ability to review sessions and content material.
2. No travel expenses or time lost from the workplace.
3. No need to obtain travel approval and submit complex documents to meet administration and/or business office requirements.

Question: What are some innovative or new features that you’ve added to TCC?

1. Live sessions have made the conference alive, i.e., people seem to like knowing that others are doing the same thing at the same time. Through these sessions they can interact with each other through the “back door,” a background chat that is going on simultaneously; this is the same as speaking to your neighbor when sitting in a large plenary session at a conference. Additionally all sessions are recorded and made exclusively available for review to registered participants for six months.
2. Collaboration with LearningTimes. The LearningTimes CEO and president are very savvy technically and hands-on, and they understand how educators work, how tech support should be provided, and they provide an excellent online help desk to conference participants, especially presenters. Their staff support responds quickly and accurately to participant queries. They also respond graciously and encouragingly to those with much less technical savvy.
3. Paper proceedings (peer reviewed papers). We believe that this is one way to raise the credibility of this event and make it accessible to a broader higher education audience. Research institutions still require traditional (and peer reviewed) publications for tenure and promotion. However, by publishing entirely online, we also promote a newer genre. Proceedings can be found at: http://etec.hawaii.edu/proceedings/
4. Inclusion of graduate student presentations. We feel that we need to invest in the future and that TCC can also become a learning laboratory for graduate students. Grad students, especially if they are at the University of Hawai`i, may have much greater difficulty in getting to F2F conferences than faculty.

Question: What’s the secret to TCC’s success?

1. Great collaboration among faculty, worldwide, to bring this event together. We have over 50 individuals that assist in one way or another — advisory panel, proposal reviews (general presentations, e.g., poster sessions), paper proceedings editorial board, editors (writing faculty that review and edit descriptions), session facilitators, and a few others.
2. Quality of presentations — they are interesting, timely, and presented by peers, for and about peers.
3. Continuity and satisfaction among participants. Our surveys (see Additional Sources below) consistently show very high rates of satisfaction. We have managed to persist, and TCC is recognized as the longest running online (virtual) conference.
4. Group rates for participation — i.e., a single charge for an entire campus or system.
5. TCC provides a viable professional development venue for those that encounter difficulty with travel funding.

Question: What are the highlight keynotes, presentations, workshops, etc. for this year’s conference?

See tcc2009.wikispaces.com for the current conference program, presentation descriptions, etc. For keynote sessions, see http://tcc2009.wikispaces.com/Keynote+sessions

tsurukabuto_kobe
“Sakura in early morning. Taking out the trash was pleasant this morning.”
iPhone2 photo (8 April 2009) and caption by Bert Kimura. A view of cherry
blossoms from his apartment in Tsurukabuto, Nada-ku, Kobe, Japan.
See his Kimubert photo gallery.

Question: What’s the outlook for online conferences in general? Are they growing in popularity? Will they eventually surpass F2F conferences? If they’re not growing or are developing slowly, what are some of the obstacles?

At the moment, I’m not sure about the outlook — there are more virtual individual events or hybrid conferences, but not many more, if any, that are entirely online. One thing that is clear is many established F2F conferences are adding or considering streaming live sessions. Some openly indicate that a virtual presentation is an option.

The biggest challenge is the view that online events should be “free,” i.e., they should use funding models that do not charge participants directly. For an event that is associated with a public institution such as the University of Hawai`i (Kapi`olani Community College), it is impossible to use “micro revenue” funding models because institutional business procedures do not accommodate them easily.

Likewise, there is no rush among potential vendors to sponsor single online events. I have been talking with LearningTimes, our partners, to see if a sponsor “package” might be possible, where, for a single fee, a vendor might be able to sponsor multiple online conferences.

Even with 50+ volunteers, a revenue stream is vital to assure continuity. We operate on a budget that is one-twentieth or less of that for a traditional three-day F2F conference. Without volunteers, we could not do this.

Question: What are the prospects for presentations in different languages in future TCC conferences? If this is already a feature, has it been successful? Do you see it growing?

At the moment and with our current audience, there has not been an expressed need for this. However, if we were to target an event for a particular audience (e.g., Japan or China), then we would need to provide a support infrastructure, i.e., captioning and/or simultaneous interpretation.

On the other hand, the Elluminate Live interface that we use for live sessions does allow the user to view the interface and menus in his native language. Elluminate is gradually widening its support of other languages. Having experienced the use of another language interface, Japanese, I find that it makes a big difference to see menu items and dialogue boxes in your native language.

Question: Tell us about your international participants. Has language been a barrier for their participation?

– So far language has not been a challenge. It might be that those who suspect that it will be don’t register. Some, I think, see this as an opportunity to practice their English skills.
– International participants are much fewer in number (less than 10 percent). We’ve had presenters from Saudi Arabia, UK, Scandinavia, Brasil (this year’s keynoter), Australia, Japan, Sri Lanka, Canada, Israel, Abu Dabi,  Greece, India, as well as other countries.
– In some regions such as Asia (Japan is the example that I’m most knowledgeable about) personal relationships make the difference in terms of participation. On the other hand, it is difficulty for a foreigner, even if s/he lives in the target country, to establish personal networks. I have been able to do this gradually over the past seven years — but it is still, by far, not enough to draw a significant number (even with complimentary passes) to the event. In Japan, it also coincides with the start of the first semester (second week of classes) and, consequently, faculty are busy with regular duties. If we were to hold this event in the first week of September, the effect would be the same for the US. We would have difficulty attracting good quality presentations and papers that, in turn, will draw audiences to the event.

Question: What’s in the works in terms of new features for future conferences?

– Greater involvement with graduate students as presenters and conference staff. It provides TCC with manpower and, at the same time, TCC serves as a valuable learning laboratory for students.
– Events, either regional or global, on occasion, to keep the community interacting with one another throughout the year.
– Some sort of ongoing social communications medium to keep the community informed or to share expertise among members on a regular basis (e.g., a blog, twitter, etc.)

[End of interview.]
_________________________
The official registration period for TCC 2009 is closed, but you can still register online at https://skellig.kcc.hawaii.edu/tccreg
The homepage for the event can be found at http://tcc.kcc.hawaii.edu

Additional Sources: For additional information about the annual TCC conference, see the following papers presented at the 2006 and 2008 Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU) Distance Learning and the Internet (DLI) conferences at Toudai and Waseda: Online Conferences and Workshops: Affordable & Ubiquitous Learning Opportunities for Faculty Development, by Bert Y. Kimura and Curtis P. Ho; Evolution of a Virtual Worldwide Conference on Online Teaching, by Curtis P. Ho, Bert Kimura, and Shigeru Narita.

All Learning Is Hybrid Learning: The Idea of ‘The Organizing Technology’

By Steve Eskow
Editor, Hybrid vs. Virtual Issues

Our vocabularies conceal as well as reveal, our conceptual tools often build walls where we need windows.

Consider the instruction on college campuses prior to the arrival of the Internet: a hybrid made up of various forms of reading, writing, listening, making — learning technologies all. And the forms of those learning technologies were, and are, varied and blended: “listening” and “speaking” include forms as diverse as the mass lecture, the small group discussion, the individual tutorial.  “Reading”: in the library, that old great technology, or on the lawn, or in one’s dorm room. And the hands-on lab. And bulletin boards. And of course, more recently, the media technologies that could bring in distant lecturers or music or drama via radio, television, film, 35mm slides . . .

uh_manoaThe campus has always been the scene of blended learning.

However, the master technology — what I’ll call “the organizing technology” — is the one that is usually unremarked and unnoticed, yet it sets the terms and conditions for all the others. And that technology is, of course, the “campus” itself: a piece of real estate in a particular geography; and a set of buildings whose shape and environment allowed or disallowed what sorts of instructional activities could go on within them.

And, of course, the master limitation of the campus was its setting in a particular space: only those who were invited to that space, and whose life conditions allowed them to accept the offer, could study at the college, could benefit from all the other technologies of instruction and learning that it housed.

International education and service-learning  support the case, not refute it. If you wanted to learn in a workplace, or a community agency, or another country, you had to leave the campus for that kind of “blended” learning. Such forms of experiential learning do not “blend” with the campus, but require leaving it. And, of course, such episodes away from “campus” had to “blend” with the rhythms and routines set by the master technology, the campus: fitted into a “semester,” or a spring or summer break.

acer_manoaThe search for ways to avoid the restraints and limitations of the “campus” are almost as old as the campus itself: the search for a university without walls includes university extension and its various forms: circuit-riding teachers; correspondence study; instruction by radio and television.

Distance learning is the negation of place-bound learning.

So what is being called “hybrid” or “blended” learning is the addition of Internet-based learning to the other learning technologies available to the campus-based student. The organizing technology, the master technology, of such hybrids is the campus, and students must live with the limitations as well as the benefits imposed by a particular piece of geography and the buildings erected upon it.

The discussion, then — the argument — is not between the champions of “blended” learning and those who propose all-online learning.

The struggle is between learning defined and organized by one technology — the “campus” — and another — call it “cyberspace” or “Internet” for now — that wants to exploit the possibilities of a technology that frees instruction and learning from the traditional constraints of space, place, and time.

And “blended” learning continues the hegemony of the campus: it does not end it.

A Model for Integrating New Technology into Teaching

By Anita Pincas
Guest Author

I have been an internet watcher ever since I first got involved with online communications in the late 1980s, when it was called computer conferencing. And through having to constantly update my Online Education & Training course since 1992, I’ve had the opportunity to see how educational approaches to the use of the internet, and after it, the world wide web, have evolved. Although history doesn’t give us the full answers to anything, it suggests frameworks for looking at events, so I ‘d like to propose a couple of models for understanding the latest developments in technology and how they relate to learning and teaching.

First, there seem to be three broad areas in which to observe the new technology. This is a highly compressed sketch of some key points:

1. Computing as Such

Here we have an on-going series of improvements which have made it ever easier for the user to do things without technical knowledge. There is a long line of changes from the early days before the mouse, when we had to remember commands (Control +  X for delete, Control +  B for bold, etc.), to the clicks we can use now, and the automation of many functions such as bullet points, paragraphing, and so on. The most recent and most powerful of these developments is, of course, cloud computing, which roughly means computer users being able to do what they need on the internet without understanding what lies behind it (in the clouds). Publishing in a blog, indeed on the web in general, is one of the most talked about examples of this at the moment. The other is the ability to handle video materials. Both are having an enormous impact on the world in general in terms of information flow, as well as, more slowly, on educational issues. Artificial intelligence, robotics, and “smart” applications are on the way too.

2. Access to and Management of Knowledge

This has been vastly enlarged through simple increase in quantity, which itself has been made possible by the computing advances that allow users to generate content, relatively easy searches, and open access publishing that cuts the costs. Library systems are steadily renewing themselves, and information that was previously unobtainable in practice has become commonplace on the web (e.g. commercial and governmental matters, the tacit knowledge of every day life, etc.). As the semantic web comes into being, we can see further advances in our ability to connect items and areas of knowledge.

3. Communications and Social Networking

We can now use the internet – whether on a desktop or laptop or small mobile – to communicate 1 to 1, or 1 to many, or many to many by voice, text and multimedia. And this can be either synchronous or asynchronous across the globe. The result has been an explosion of opportunities to network individually, socially and commercially. Even in education, we can already see that the VLE is giving way to the PLE (personal learning environment) where learners network with others and construct and share their own knowledge spaces.

For teachers there is pressure not to be seen as out of date, but with too little time or help, they need a simple, structured way of approaching the new technological opportunities on their own. The bridge between the three areas of development should be a practical model of teaching and learning. I use one which the teachers who participate in my courses regularly respond to and validate. It sees learning and teaching in terms of three processes:

  1. acquiring knowledge or skills or attitudes,
  2. activating these, and
  3. obtaining feedback on the acquisition and activation.

I start off by viewing any learning/teaching event as a basic chronological sequence of 3Ps:

But this basic template is open to infinite variation. This occurs by horizontal and vertical changes. The horizontal variations are: the order in which the three elements occur; the repetition of any one of them in any order; the embedding of any sequence within any other sequence. The vertical changes are in how each of the three elements is realised. So the model can generate many different styles of teaching and ways of learning, e.g., problem based, discovery based, and so on.

Finally, this is where the bridge to technology comes in. If a teacher starts from the perceived needs in the teaching and learning of the subject, and then systematically uses the 3Ps to ask:

  • What technology might help me make the content available to the learners? [P1]
  • What technology might help me activate their understanding/use of the new content? [P2]
  • What technology might help me evaluate and give the learners feedback on their understanding or use? [P3]

then we have needs driving the use of the technology, and not the other way around.

Here is a simple example of one way of organising problem based learning:

(Click on the table to zoom in.)

I have developed the model with its many variations in some detail for my courses. Things get quite complex when you try to cover lots of different teaching and learning needs under the three slots. And linking what the learners do, or want to do, or fail to do, etc., with what the teacher does is particularly important. Nevertheless, I find that my three areas of new development plus the 3P scaffolding make things rational rather than being a let’s-just-try-this approach. Perhaps equally important, it serves as a template to observe reports of teaching methods and therefore a very useful tool for evaluation. I have never yet found a teaching/learning event that could not be understood and analysed quickly this way.

Poetic Faith—the Magic of Belief

adsit80By John Adsit
Staff Writer

Bill Turque’s January 5 Washington Post article on Michele Rhee’s reform efforts contains this interesting comment in reference to staff development efforts:

  • Within the first five years on the job, most enroll in The Skillful Teacher, a program of six day-long sessions devised by Jon Saphier of the Massachusetts-based Research for Better Teaching program.
  • Saphier said the program fosters teachers’ belief in their power to lift student achievement despite conditions outside school.
  • An independent study in 2004 showed that before taking the course, Montgomery teachers rated students’ home life and motivation as the factors that most influenced learning. After the course, home life dropped to 11th on the list, and teacher enthusiasm and perseverance were described as most important.

A skeptical reader’s response would almost certainly be “So what? What difference would that change in attitude make?” In my experience, it is the most important difference-maker of all, for it is the basis of all other positive change.

In my own teaching, nothing transformed what I did more than adopting that attitude. Once I believed that all students could succeed if I made the right instructional decisions, I became diligent in seeking those approaches, but before that I just accepted student failure as a problem beyond my control.

When I was still a relatively young teacher, I was assigned sections of sophomores with a history of failure in writing. I saw that they universally wrote in fragments and run-ons, so I dedicated the next few weeks to intense, traditional, grammar-based instruction on sentence structure. When I saw scant improvement despite my most diligent efforts, I determined that they were incapable of doing better and moved on. There was no reason for me to change because their failure was their fault.

Not many years later I was a department chairperson trying to improve a school’s horrid writing achievement. I created an innovative (and controversial) approach, and, as a part of it, I assigned myself a class of sophomores with a history of writing failure. Once again, I had an entire class writing in fragments and run-ons, but this time I was armed with a new belief, a belief that they had the ability to succeed if I did the right thing. I therefore abandoned that intense, traditional, grammar-based approach that had failed in the past and did something totally different.

I taught almost all mechanics through editing. In my mastery learning system, students could not get credit for a piece of writing until the conventions met standard. A draft might be met with a response like, “Great ideas and support! This makes a lot of sense! Now, just fix those fragments and you’ll be done with it, and you’ll get a great grade!” Within a few weeks, 100% of the students were writing in complete sentences.

coleridgeNot long after that, I was part of a research team examining the results of a writing assessment given at the elementary, middle, and high school levels in a low SES area in a large school district. The overall results (a little over 50% proficient) had been reported for each grade level, and we surveyed the teachers to try to get more information. What none of the teachers knew was that none of them had anywhere near 50% proficiency in student performance. Teachers had either nearly all of their students proficient or nearly none of their students proficient. Even though our survey was anonymous, it was therefore easy to tell from their responses to certain questions which camp they were in.

We asked them for their overall beliefs about student achievement, using the kind of wording you see in the Turque article. All the teachers with high success rates believed that their actions were the primary forces determining student success. Every single teacher with high failure rates believed student success was entirely determined by student ability and other factors beyond the teacher’s control.

Just after Turque’s article was published, my hometown newspaper published an article about a similar survey done by the state department of a school with a history of failure to meet No Child Left Behind achievement goals. The school has a large Hispanic population, and the audit revealed that teachers believe that their population is not capable of achieving at a high level on state tests. The report noted that “Some parents and students feel that some of the teachers do not believe that all students can achieve at high levels. . . . It was observed and reported that there are some populations of students held to higher standards than others.”

Once you have accepted a reason for failure that is beyond your control, you are freed from any obligation to try to succeed.

In his Biographia Literaria, Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the famous phrase “willing suspension of disbelief,” which he called “poetic faith.” In modern terms, this is the human trait that allows us to weep as a movie actor pretends to die. It causes us to jump in fright at the flickering image of a monster on a TV screen.

Poetic faith is a trait that serves a teacher well. The effective teacher looks at every student and thinks, “I believe that if I make the right instructional decisions and follow the right approach for you as an individual, you will succeed, despite all that stands in the way of that success. If I look long enough, I will find the path to your success.” The effective teacher searches education literature for strategies that will lead to that success.

In Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, Clayton Christensen predicts that technology and online education will transform education because it will enable the teacher to identify student learning needs and take the appropriate steps to meet those needs. That cannot happen, though, until teachers fully believe there is a reason to make that effort.