Monthly Archives: November 2012

World’s best education systems respect teachers, reflect culture of learning

The countries that top the world in education tend to offer teachers higher status in society and nurture a culture of learning, according to a chief adviser of the education firm Pearson.

Unfortunately, the United States is not one of those nations. According to a new global report from Pearson,  the world’s largest economy ranks 17th among developed countries in educating its young.

Finland and South Korea hold the first two spots on the list of 40 countries, followed by Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore. The Huffington Post reports:

The study notes that while funding is an important factor in strong education systems, cultures supportive of learning is even more critical — as evidenced by the highly ranked Asian countries, where education is highly valued and parents have grand expectation.

While Finland and South Korea differ greatly in methods of teaching and learning, they hold the top spots because of a shared social belief in the importance of education and its “underlying moral purpose.”

The study arrives at a moment when the linkage between American education and America’s position in the world is getting serious attention from two very different men who seek to influence policy.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a perennial potential Republican candidate for president, said yesterday that the U.S. should adopt global benchmarks for students. He told an audience in Washington, D.C., that American students are competing in a world that is increasingly global and digital.

“Where is the outrage?” demanded Bush, who has long made education reform his signature issue — with some controversial results.

According to ABC News:

Education gaps yield income gaps, Bush said, which are perpetuated by a lack of knowledge, particularly among socioeconomically disadvantaged students.

Those who are born in the middle class tend to stay there, Bush pointed out, but those who are born poor also tend to stay poor, so upward mobility is limited.

“This idyllic notion of who we are as a nation is going away,” he said.

The United States spends more money on its students than other countries, yet many students are not qualified for jobs. Even in this tough economy, there is a dearth of qualified candidates for many jobs in science and engineering fields. Conversely, countries such as India graduate an increasing number of qualified jobseekers.

And just this morning, Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist and best-selling author, offered his own, unorthodox choice of U.S. secretary of state to replace Hillary Clinton, who is soon to retire: Arne Duncan.

Friedman wants the education secretary and former chief of Chicago’s school system to represent America on the world stage because education is so crucially important.

The biggest issue in the world today is growth, and, in this information age, improving educational outcomes for more young people is now the most important lever for increasing economic growth and narrowing income inequality. In other words, education is now the key to sustainable power. To have a secretary of state who is one of the world’s leading authorities on education, well, everyone would want to talk to him.

Back to that global ranking. Sir Michael Barber, Pearson’s chief adviser on education, said the survey’s findings show that spending on education is important, but not as much as having a culture that supports learning.

The BBC writes:

Spending is easier to measure, but the more complex impact of a society’s attitude to education can make a big difference.

The success of Asian countries in these rankings reflects the high value attached to education and the expectations of parents. This can continue to be a factor when families migrate to other countries, says the report accompanying the rankings.

Looking at the two top countries – Finland and South Korea – the report says that there are many big differences, but the common factor is a shared social belief in the importance of education and its “underlying moral purpose.”

The report also emphasises the importance of high-quality teachers and the need to find ways to recruit the best staff. This might be about status and professional respect as well as levels of pay.

The rankings show that there is no clear link between higher relative pay and higher performance.

And there are direct economic consequences of high and low performing education systems, the study says, particularly in a globalised, skill-based economy.





Learning opportunities seen in video gaming

Educational innovations are emerging from all sorts of places — including the much-maligned world of video games.

Take Minecraft, a create-your-own-world game for that’s so popular that has sold more than 12 million copies after just a year in circulation. Played on PCs, smartphones and Xbox devices, it is already the subject of its own fan convention, Minecon 2012, which just took place in Paris.

In Minecraft, players use Lego-looking blocks to build anything they can imagine, often to survive obstacles in a sometimes-hostile environment.  And some adventurous teachers are using it to teach principles of physics.

As‘s Mark Walton writes:

There’s no question that Minecraft’s physics system bears little resemblance to reality. And yet, students are learning via that very idiosyncrasy. Why is it unrealistic for blocks float in mid air? Why would your character not really be able to chop through solid rock in seconds? And why can’t you swim up a vertical shaft of water? As video game teaching advocate Stephen Reid put it, “teachers can look at the tools and encourage learning from them regardless.”

Teachers are also using the game to teach English, geography and the principles of electronics, Reid told a Minecon audience.

Reid pointed to the millions of Minecraft tutorial videos uploaded to YouTube, many of which have been created by children. “Self learning is more powerful than listening to what any teacher has to say,” he quipped.

The comments section below Walton’s article features a bunch of testimonials from young people who attest to the educational value of their hours spent on video games. Although, there is this dissent from “Sinistery”:

When you teach children to play video games such as these you are sacrificing months from their adolescence in return for a few moments of pale feeling of accomplishment from building something that does not exist.

What’s your opinion?


(Image from



Where Sandy beset schools, NYC to teach online

With their schooling disrupted by Superstorm Sandy, New York students are being offered online courses to make up for lost learning time.

The district is expanding its online courses. Thousands of students are eligible to take subjects including English, economics, calculus, world history and Spanish for sixth grade through high school, GothamSchools reports.

The added courses will be taught by about 60 teachers already working for New York’s iZone, an initiative that’s bringing a blend of computer-based and personal instruction to more than 200 schools in the nation’s largest district.

Most schools have returned to working order since Sandy left dozens of them flooded or without power, and attendance is slowly rising,” GothamSchools says. “But department officials say they are concerned that students who missed many days of school, or continue to miss school because their home situations prevent them from getting to school, will fall behind.”

(Photo of students at Olympus Academy, in Brooklyn, using online learning to move ahead at their own pace: GothamSchools)

3rd-graders love iPads. Let us count the ways.

Here’s a charmer of a blog post from a third-grade teacher in Massachusetts who lists the changes she sees in her classroom every time the iPads roll in.

A weakening of attention spans is not one of the effects.

Far from it. Suzy Brooks, who blogs under the name Simply Suzy, says her students increase their focus, get to work faster, stay more engaged, and communicate better when working with the iPads. And the devices also help her make better assessments of her kids’ progress.

“Though digital solutions aren’t always the best fit in every situation,” she says, “there are many ways to enhance and deepen both learning and understanding through the use of technology.   I can only imagine how amazing school can be once I really get the hang of these buggers!!”

You can enjoy the whole blog post, complete with comic art, here.

For low-income students, high-nutrition meals

Now, here’s an innovation we can sink our teeth into.

The five high schools in the Escondido Unified High School District, north of San Diego, have revamped their kitchens.

Instead of the usual cafeteria fare, students are eating freshly prepared breakfasts and lunches high on nutrition, low on salts and sugars and void of trans fat. A typical lunch: southwestern salad of black beans, salsa, mixed green lettuce, corn, shredded chicken, a carton of milk, baked corn chips, and a green organic apple.

Made from scratch, not some food factory.

“How can we expect kids to excel academically if we feed them plastic foods?” Pamela Lambert, the district’s nutrition services director, told New America Media.

The district, which serves many Hispanic and African-American kids from low-income households, meets guidelines set down by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, championed by Michelle Obama, which is pushing many school districts nationwide in a healthier direction.

Escondido, led by Lambert, had already changed its menus in 2007, a move recognized last month by The California Endowment, a private, statewide health foundation. Last month it named Lambert one of its “Health Happens Heroes” as a school nutrition innovator.

The Escondido district serves 10,000 meals a day, most for free or at reduced prices. In San Diego County, one in five kids lives below the federal poverty line, New America Media reports.

Money is tight (the feds pay $2.86 per lunch served), and everything must be prepared on each school’s four-burner stoves. But the staff improvises to keep costs down, and most of the fruits and vegetables come from farms within a 150-mile radius to assure freshness.

Lambert said the effort is paying off in “higher attendance, better academic performance and fewer nurse visits.”

Whether academic performance is indeed rising in the district, which is graded C+ in state rankings, is something we couldn’t immediately determine. But the Escondido dropout rate of 2.9 percent is about half the California average of 5 percent.

Maybe it’s those meals that are keeping the kids in schools.

(Video: New America Media)

Teacher: 3 takeaways from iPad conference

Here’s an indication of how fast technology may change education.

It’s only 2 1/2 years since Apple introduced the iPad. Last week, the group EdTechTeacher held its first iPad Summit, bringing together more than 500 educators and experts at Harvard Medical School to talk about this single device —  what it can do to revolutionize education.

“The conference was one of the most innovative and exhilarating experiences I have had as an educator,” says Jennifer Carey, a teacher from Fort Worth, Texas.

Carey blogged about the conference at her website. And she wrote an essay for the Powerful Learning Practice blog, summarizing her findings.

Her biggest takeaways:

The iPad is “is simply a tool – it is not the magical, shiny object that will innovate education.”

To be effective, the iPad must be more than a replacement program for, say, a word processor, but imaginatively used for tasks that weren’t possible before, such as creating digital stories on the fly.

And there was this insight, which especially connects with our work at Innovations for Learning: “Any integration of iPads in the classroom must come with professional development.”

You cannot simply “add iPads and stir.” Administrators must be prepared to fully support the faculty and students before any significant technology initiative is going to be successful.

Simply handing out iPads to teachers and students (and going over the security protocols) isn’t going to accelerate learning in your school.

Educators need to become skillful at using these tools and then think deeply about how to integrate them into the learning environment in powerful ways.

Here’s a wrap-up of the entire conference. A second conference is already being planned for April, in Atlanta.

IFL wins philanthropy award

Make It Better, a Chicago-area organization that promote good works, today gave Innovations For Learning its 2012 national award for educational innovation.

The prize will include a professionally made video that IFL will be able to use to help spread word about how it’s using digital technology and volunteer tutors to help children learn to read and write.

Make It Better officials presented the award at IFL’s offices in downtown Evanston today, National Philanthropy Day.

(Photo: Make It Better)

According to the Make It Better website, the award was to recognize “the best in educational innovation at the local and national levels. We are looking for projects and programs that demonstrate efficacy of the educational innovation through tangible outcomes such as testing results, lives made better, expanse of  program reach or new skills retained.”

UPDATE: Here’s a video of the award presentation:


Give an illiterate child a tablet, see what happens

Plenty of people are wary of laptops and other mobile devices making their way into classrooms. A couple of weeks ago, a Pew survey of teachers found that almost 90 percent said digital technologies are hurting kids’ attention spans.

But here’s a side of the story that compels attention.

In April, the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC)  project delivered about 40 PCs to a remote Ethiopian village, a place with no written language — no street signs, no newspapers, not even  labels on boxes or bottles. None of the children had ever seen a written word.

OLPC left the tablets in several sealed boxes. The Motorola Xoom tablets, charged by solar power, were loaded with books, games and other apps in English. They also had tracking software to let researchers see how the tablets would be used.

The organization’s founder, Nicholas Negroponte, described what happened:

We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being. I thought, the kids will play with the boxes!

Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, but found the on/off switch. He’d never seen an on/off switch. He powered it up.

Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs [in English] in the village.

And within five months, they had hacked Android. Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera! And they figured out it had a camera, and they hacked Android.

Ed McNierney, OLPC’s chief technology officer, elaborated:

The kids had completely customized the desktop—so every kids’ tablet looked different.  We had installed software to prevent them from doing that. And the fact they worked around it was clearly the kind of creativity, the kind of inquiry, the kind of discovery that we think is essential to learning.

The continuing question, Negroponte told a conference last month in Cambridge, Mass., is whether those Ethiopian children learn to read and write in English, and how quickly they might do it.

This is critical because “if you can learn to read, you can read to learn,” he said. “If they can do that, it [could] not only impact the 100 million kids who can’t go to school, but might also help us understand how to help the educational system here.”

The implications of such powerful evidence of self-learning can be enormous, even for the developed world. American school administrators generally work very hard at regulating students’ use of high-tech gizmos. Maybe they should think a bit about leaving the kids to their own devices.

“I’ve seen what my 6-year-olds can do with an iPad,” says Robert Schwartz, a Los Angeles educator in the Huffington Post. “This generation of students are digital natives and we need to honor that by encouraging them to surpass what we know and are able to do with the technology.”

Schwartz says that adults shouldn’t abdicate their responsibilities, but should use technology to change the way they interact with students.

For example:

Create a culture in the classroom/school where students help each other by teaching each others what they learned on-line while the teacher steers and guides each student through the completion of the specific task, helping them when they are stuck or off-track. Sometimes that help may be telling them to learn from another student who knows more about that than the teacher.

Where do you think Negroponte’s experiment could lead to?

(Photo: One Laptop Per Child)

Miami teacher: ‘I love’ lessons on iPod

From the Miami Herald, Friday, November 9:

At Auburndale Elementary in Miami, Yahaira Rufin has her first-graders use iPod touches and digital players for reading exercises in a pilot program with Innovations for Learning, a group in Illinois that focuses on digital learning and online tutoring. The pilot expanded this year to kindergarten and first-grade classrooms in nine struggling schools, and the school district bought 580 devices, according to Innovations for Learning.

With the players, Rufin’s students listen to a text and read along in a booklet. With the iPod touch, they work on drills, like frequently seen words. “I love it because not only do you see the kids, and they’re so enthusiastic, but I know it’s controlled by me,” Rufin said.

The excerpt is part of a story describing the growing use of cell phones, laptops and tablets in the Miami-Dade school district, which has instituted a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy as a way to get today’s technology into classrooms at little cost.

We’ll have more about BYOD in future posts.

The Herald story, by reporter Laura Isinsee, is well worth your time.

Laptops, tablets make inroads into classrooms, but Idaho voters say no

Laptops and tablets are no longer entering American classrooms in a trickle.  We’re starting to see something approaching a stream.

The Dallas Morning News reports that a move to give an iPad to every fifth-grader at Rutherford Elementary in Mesquite, Texas, was “an undeniable success,” and now it’s the fourth-graders’ turn to get the eagerly sought devices:

In the long history of Rutherford Elementary School, no learning tool has been as eagerly consumed. To know why a school district would put the expensive resources into the hands of 9-year-olds, you need only to know a 9-year-old.All but a few logged seamlessly into their school system accounts. A table of boys quickly hooked into a learning application to the solar system. Another had taken his photo and was displaying to classmates how he stretched the features to make a silly face.

In the Mayberry-like small town of Moorestown, N.C., the decision four years ago to issue a laptop to every student and teacher in the 5,500-pupil district has paid off, according to Education Week‘s Ian Quillen:

Since the digital conversion began, the district has seen an improvement of 20 percentage points—from 68 percent to 88 percent—in the portion of its students who scored “proficient” on all core-subject state exams, in the subjects of reading, math, and science.Six of eight schools achieved Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, up from two of seven schools during the conversion’s first year. And its 2010-11 graduation rate rose to 91 percent, up 14 percentage points from four years ago.All of those gains have occurred while the district sat at 99th of the state’s 115 districts in per-pupil funding, at $7,463 a year, as of last spring … And while Mooresville’s population is by no means impoverished, the gains came during an economic downturn that has seen the proportion of the district’s students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch rise from 31 percent to 40 percent since 2007-08.

In North Carolina’s Research Triangle, the 7,300-student Orange County School District is expanding its distribution of laptops. In September, the district became one of the first in the state to give a laptop to every middle- and high-school student. That has gone so well that the district now plans to give them to fourth and fifth-graders too,  writes the Raleigh News & Observer:

Some teachers say they can’t imagine going back to a no-laptop classroom. “It would be like trying to go back and teach math using an abacus,” said Michele Johnson, who teaches English at A.L. Stanback Middle School…Before they had computers in front of them, some students were visibly bored, even sleeping in class. The laptops are a tool for teachers to enter a world familiar to students and engage them in learning – often without students realizing it. Teachers do not have to ask students to take notes anymore, Johnson said. They just open their laptops and go at it.

County voters last year approved a quarter-cent sales tax, part of which was to pay for school technology. It came at time when state dollars for textbooks were dwindling and schools had to adapt to a new curriculum and online statewide testing, the News & Observer reported.

Voters in Idaho, however, resoundingly said no this week to a proposition that would have required every high school teacher and student to receive a laptop computer. The ballot proposal also would have required students to earn two credits through online or blended learning courses in order to graduate.

The measure went down, 66 percent to 33 percent, after opponents said it would have enriched computer companies while marginalizing teachers. A group supporting the measure — as well as one that would have limited teachers’ collective bargaining rights and another that would have set up a metrics-based performance pay system for teachers (both failed) — tried to keep its donors secret until Idaho’s secretary of state sued to force disclosure.

It turns out, the contributions included $200,000 from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and $250,000 from Albertsons’ grocery heir Joe Scott, as well as $1.4 million from an Idaho businessman, Frank VanderSloot. The National Education Association spent more than $1 million to defeat the three propositions, according to Education Week.


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