Monthly Archives: December 2012

Meet Michael Horn, education disrupter

Michael Horn Michael Horn, activist and writer, is spearheading efforts to turn the education system on its ear: to move away from the familiar old classroom, in which students learn in large groups and advance from grade to grade, too fast for some kids, too slowly for others.

That’s been called “the factory model” of education. And just as the factory era has given way to the information age, Horn argues, it’s time for teaching methods that are far more individualized and geared to each student’s specific capabilities and learning pace.

Co-founder of the Innosight Institute, in San Mateo, Calif., he’s the co-author of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. BusinessWeek named it one of the 10 Best Innovation & Design Books of 2008 and Newsweek placed it 14th on its list of “Fifty Books for Our Times.”

“There’s a lot of reason for optimism now,” Horn says.

“I see so much innovation coming from the ground up. I see so many entrepreneurs coming out with solutions for students. I see teachers eager to make a change, and I see school leaders knowing that the current systems don’t work and looking for different ways of doing this.

“And online learning is growing very, very rapidly across the world, and so that presents itself as an opportunity to transform our education system into something that’s far more student-centric. Which is exciting.”

We spoke to Horn recently by phone.

You talk a lot about assessments — especially, competency based assessments. Why is that so important?

Basically, we know that everybody learns at different paces. We have different learning needs. And the way today’s education system works, subjects go by and you catch something at the time. And that creates this hole in your learning.

Think of the way we do assessments now. We test and measure at the end of the course — or the end of the factory line, if you will. We find, Oh my goodness, you didn’t understand the concept introduced back in Week Two, which then affected your understanding of the rest of the course, and it created just a spiraling effect — and we wonder why we have such high failure rates, and so many people who are turned off to learning, and so forth.

And a competency-based learning system, with competency-based assessments, really flips that around, so that you have assessments basically in real time as you’re going through the curriculum or learning. So you have assessments on the spot, so you master it. And if you didn’t get it, OK, we’re going to kick back in, until you really do get it.

Rather than assessment being an autopsy, to figure out the percentage of students who didn’t get it right, now assessments are being driven to inform learning and push every child forward.

Are there schools now that are doing it this way, and are we seeing good results?

Yeah, we’re starting to see some really bright lights around the country right now. There’s a lot of schools that have adopted blended learning — a combination of online learning inside of the school. To make that work and unlock the promise of online learning to individualize the learning for every student, you really need a competency-based framework.

So, for example, there’s Carpe Diem, a school based in Arizona and Hoosier Academies, in Indianapolis, where they’ve really adopted this mindset. Students don’t progress to the next units unless they truly master where they are, they’re getting outstanding results. Carpe Diem is one of the top schools in Arizona, with a pretty marginal population.

The state of New Hampshire is starting to take some big steps forward toward competency-based education, and it’s interesting, they needed to get waivers from the No Child Left Behind Education Act. Because to truly do competency-based learning you need a totally different assessment paradigm to go along with it.

In many states now, assessments are equated with standardized tests, which result in grades for schools. How would competency-based assessments satisfy  people who have pushed that kind of testing in the name of accountability?

I think if we’re being honest, we’re not quite sure exactly how some of these things will change, but we have some ideas. Today in a way, testing is based on this one snapshot in time. it’s sort of a top-down way of going about it.

With a competency based assessment we’ll have a much more bottoms-up, granular view of where every student is on any given day. So it will far more accountable, far more transparent. And we’ll start to look at true growth of each student and start judging schools, not on where all their students are at a given point in time, but based on are they truly able to make great progress with these students — which is a much more accurate measure of how good a school is, right?

I’ll give hypothetical. A student at a 2nd-grade reading level but is quote-unquote in the 5th grade based on age — if you improve them to a 4th-grade reading level, but give them the 5th-grade test, they’re still not going to look terribly good. But that school just made enormous progress with that student! And we ought to capture that and appreciate that.

I’d rather have an accountability system that actually could tell me that, and — even deeper than the way I just framed it — what concepts is he or she actually struggling on? I think that that would be a much more transparent system for parents, for schools, for teachers, for principals — and much fairer, as well.

Where does digital learning play into this?

I think it’s awfully hard to imagine how you’d do competency-based learning at scale unless you have digital learning. Competency-based coupled with digital learning just totally complement each other.

Digital learning allows you to give unbelievably rapid feedback to students in almost real time on lots of concepts. It allows you to individualize far more affordably and easily for students. And you can have assessments almost interwoven in some ways into content that students are working with, to constantly assess where they are and then planning what they do next.

So those things are really just two peas in a pod with each other.

It sounds like we’ve arrived at a point where technology and ideas on where to take education are coming together.

Yeah, I think that’s right. At long last, right?

Do you find that school districts are receptive to change?

It seems to me school districts are very receptive to these ideas, that they want to make these changes, and that they get excited by this vision. But the thing that I always see with districts though, is they can’t always figure out how to get out of their own way.

And I think the reason is that they’re running huge legacy systems that have built on themselves for years and years and years. Part of the shift is, you’re going to have to stop doing some things you have been doing, and start doing things you haven’t done before. And it’s hard because it requires different ways of budgeting and paying for things, and on and on.

I’m encouraged because the majority of districts are using online learning in some ways, whether it’s for credit recovery or advanced courses or foreign languages, things of that nature. Which is great, because I think it’s getting a start and it’s growing.

What I think the next step for them to do is to accelerate that adoption and to start asking the question, are we doing this just to save money or are we doing this to transform into a student-centric system? And that second question is going to be really the tough one to answer, I think — and where we’ll need the most work.

Do you see instances in which reform is headed in the wrong direction?

I think so. I see some credit-recovery courses [for students to make up courses they’ve failed] that are not particularly good. They’re just doing it to pass students on, and using the teacher in a passive role.

Trouble is, the teacher has to be involved, but the role is different. It’s not lecturing, but mentoring, answering questions.  This tends to be more rewarding, but the teacher needs to understand that the role is changing.

You’re saying teaching is becoming more interesting. Does this mean the profession will attract better people?

Yes, I think there’s a real possibility. While it’s true you may have larger class sizes, I think we’ll be able to pay teachers more under some of these models.

I think you can imagine some really exciting differentiated roles from teachers. For example, you can have some people who are good as content experts, and they can work from almost anywhere to answer students’ questions. And you can have some teachers on the ground who are mentors. And you can have case workers who can handle non-academic problems.

So you can allow for a lot of specialization for teachers to do what they’re really good at, and you can have team-teaching models that can make the profession a much more rewarding and exciting thing for a lot of people to get into.

(Interview conducted by staff writer Howard Goodman. It was edited for space and clarity.)



TeacherMate helps kids learn to read in Miami Dade

MDCPS_Seal_106921386_734817504An NPR-sponsored report gave a nice shout-out today to an Innovation for Learning project that’s teaching 600 South Florida children to read.

The students are using the digital TeacherMate program to learn how to read with help from volunteers.

According to the story from StateImpact, a project of local public radio stations and NPR:

The students are working with iPods purchased by the school district. They can access IFL’s learning app, which is used for small group instruction each day.

“Students are engaged in activities that improve their phonics, comprehension, vocabulary, and reading fluency skills,” says Sonya McSwain, Instructional Supervisor in the district’s Education Transformation Office.

Read the full story here.

Happy holidays from the staff of IFL!

DSC_0096The Innovations for Learning staff got together for a holiday party this week, and now we’d like to extend our warmest greetings to you, our readers, and all who are working to improve education.

It’s our 20th anniversary, DSC_0004and the staff surprised founder Seth Weinberger with this plaque to mark how far we’ve come since he began, as a lawyer working on his own time, to teach himself computer programming and principles of word-building — out of belief that computerized lessons which acted like games could greatly help children to learn to read, and that improving literacy rates is essential for bettering lives and society.

We’re proud of our progress so far, and excited by the possibilities ahead.

Happy holidays!


Tim Daly, developer of new teachers, joins IFL board

daly_TD (1)Timothy Daly, president of TNTP, a nonprofit that’s taking the lead in recruiting and training new teachers for poor and minority students, has joined the Innovations for Learning board of directors.

“We are thrilled to have Tim join the board of directors,” said Seth Weinberger, IFL’s founder and executive director. “He is one of the keenest strategic thinkers in education, and his experience in growing an education organization is invaluable to us at our stage of growth. ”

The New York-based TNTP believes that “nothing our schools can do to give every child a great education matters more than giving them great teachers.

“Ending educational inequality starts with providing excellent teachers to the students who need them most.”

According to the organization’s website,

[Daly] played a key role in the publication of The Widget Effect (2009), an acclaimed study detailing the flaws in teacher evaluation. The report informed the federal government’s $4.3 billion Race to the Top initiative and helped catalyze legislation in more than 15 states.  More recently, he participated in the writing of The Irreplaceables(2012), which explored the teacher retention crisis through the experience of the country’s best teachers.

Daly came to TNTP in 2001 after serving as a Teach For America corps member at Baltimore middle school. He began with the New York City Teaching Fellows, a program that recruits and prepares highly qualified people to become teachers in the nation’s largest school district. Nearly 10,000 NYC Teaching Fellows now work in city classrooms, accounting for one in five science teachers, and one in four math and special-education teachers, the organization says.

In 2012, Daly and TNTP CEO Ariela Rozman were co-recipients of the Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education.

He holds a MA in Teaching from Johns Hopkins University and a BA in American Studies from Northwestern University.

An easy call: Classrooms connecting worldwide with Skype

Screen Shot 2012-12-04 at 12.49.48 PM

Victor Villegas is a fifth-grade teacher in Irving, Texas. His 22 students mostly come from poor, struggling families whose first language is Spanish and whose way forward to college or careers is not certain or easy.

But Villegas sees technology as a great equalizer: with only an Internet connection, a very wide world is within his kids’ reach.

“I love everything about technology,” says Villegas, who’s in his mid-30s. “I love learning about it and incorporating it into my life.”

In October, he got on a teacher-exchange board called Skype In The Classroom and posted a message proposing a collaborative math project: His students were learning division and problem-solving skills. Were any other teachers out there interested in having their students join in?

There were.

He soon heard from elementary-school teachers in Tampa, Mexico City, and London.

Since then, he’s been in touch with all of them by email, working out details of connections and time zones. The first collaborative class will meet via computer video hookup, Villegas hopes, before winter break.

Making this possible is a remarkable initiative from Skype, the Luxembourg-based company that provides inexpensive computer-based phone calls and video communications. Having learned that teachers around the world were improvising with Skype to expand the world for their students, the company launched Skype In The Classroom in March 2011 to make it easier for teachers to link up with one another and with experts who could conduct virtual field trips or virtual career days.

“We heard they were doing amazing and interesting things,” Andrew Schmidt, Skype’s director of social good, said by telephone, “and we wanted to make it easy for them to find other teachers.”

A year and a half later, more than 43,000 teachers have signed on in more than 200 countries, their largest numbers in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil and India. They’re proposing collaborations like Villegas’, but also offering 3,600 live lessons in 66 languages.

A quick look around the site gives an idea of the range.

Heidi Hutchinson, who teaches fourth grade in Baltimore, wants her class to discuss tolerance and understanding of other cultures with three other classes from around the world. Hanaa Khamis, an English teacher in Egypt, wants her adult students to discuss food with students from other countries. The Cotswold School in England wants its 11- to 13-year-olds to discuss the different ways that Christmas is celebrated around the globe.

On a video on Skype’s website, Kara Cornejo, a fifth-grade teacher from St. Louis, tells how she used Skype to find classes from far-flung places to talk about weather around the world.

“You know, not everyone has tornados like we do,” she says on tape.

It only took a minute to hear from another teacher after she posted her request for a collaboration, she continues. And she soon found four more teachers to join in. Skype, she concludes, “was an amazing resource” for bringing people “into your classroom that you never would have been able to bring in.”

In Norway, a teacher named Ann tells on video how her 11th-graders answered questions about the Vikings from a fifth-grade class from Kansas.

“My students were so excited,” she says, “and afterwards, the teacher wrote back and said that it was the neatest thing ever. They were so excited and they would never forget that experience. That was really fun for us.”

In rural Lodi, north of Madison, Wis., high school students are taking an accredited Asian cultural studies course with a Thai teacher, Karnteera Ingkhaninan, who speaks to them over Skype from Thailand. In exchange, Thai students are learning about U.S. history from a retired Lodi teacher.

“We’ve learned a lot about the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, political organizations and government structures,” Garit Schmidt, 16, a junior, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Schmidt, the executive in charge of Skype In The Classroom, said the platform has expanded to include experts who have some special knowledge they offer for free. And 13 “partners” — organizations that have opened their virtual doors to interested students.

Thus, kids can speak Mark Wood, a British explorer, about his travels to the North and South Poles and what those tell us about climate change. Or Yellowstone National Park rangers. One day in October, Shaquille O’Neal, the NBA superstar center, spoke to 600 Indiana students about the importance of reading.

Guides from the Royal Naval Museum will a guided tour. Children’s authors from Penguin Books will talk about their works. NASA scientists offer lessons in aeronautics and pulsar algebra.

“I’ve sat in as a fly on the wall for some of these lessons,” Schmidt said. “It’s amazing, the learning experiences the students are having. It makes me want to go to school again.”

Unlike watching an instructional video, students get the chance to see and hear someone speaking to them live and to ask questions. In turn, the speakers can see the students they’re addressing.

“I’ve been quite impressed by the level of the questions, the curiosity,” Schmidt said.

Skype has no idea how much larger the teacher network might get, but the attitude is: the bigger the better. “We believe we’re right at the start of this,” Schmidt said.

It’s branching into education in other ways as well. This week, it’s offering $10,000 in technology products from Microsoft (Skype’s parent company, since 2011) to a teacher who writes the most impressive short essay on how they’d use the gift certificate to help their classrooms. (Deadline for entries: Midnight, Dec. 9)  Oh, the winning classroom also gets a phone call from Santa.

For Villegas, turning to Skype was an easy call. He’d used the technology in his own life for conference calls. When his school district required him to create a computer-based lesson for his fifth-graders, he naturally wondered if the same distance-conquering properties could help his students.

Hence, the plan to hook up classes to learn math together. His idea is for teachers to set things up, but let the kids teach each other. “When kids explain things to each other, it’s the best,” he said by telephone the other day. “One, they have understand it. Two, they retain it longer.”

“I talked to some of the kids about it,” he said, “and they got really excited. They wondered if they could get their own Skype accounts.” They couldn’t, but their parents could. And now four of his fifth-graders have their “own” Skype accounts,

“So now they’re getting on Skype after school and doing their homework together,” said Villegas, who’s in his fourth year of teaching.

What’s more, they’re inviting classmates who lack computers at home to come over to their houses to join in the video sessions. Which, from his viewpoint, is great. One, they’re getting their homework done. Two, they’re teaching one another.

“As a teacher, I asked myself: What more could I ask of my students?” Villegas marveled.

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