The Ultimate Education Reform: Messy Learning & Problem Solving


via Powerful Learning Practice

Have you ever gone to the doctor with a rather vague problem? The kind of problem that has no obvious solution?

“Doctor, my elbow hurts.”

“Doctor, I have a runny nose.”

“Doctor, look at this rash.”

From that ambiguity, we expect our physicians to narrow down something that could have a thousand origins to the one specific cause, then make it all better with one specific treatment. It is not just physicians that we expect to have uber-problem solving skills either. Many of the people we run into in life are asked by us to solve our hazy dilemmas.

We tell the mechanic: “My car is making a funny noise, can you fix it?”

A quarterback asks: “What’s the best play to run, coach?”

We might ask a decorator: “I need help redoing this room. What can be done with it?”

We might ask friends: “What do you think is the best car for me to buy?”

Some of our ambiguous problems are mundane: “What toothpaste should I use?” or “What should I have for dinner?” On the other hand, some of our conundrums are much more life changing: “Should I get married?” which leads to “Whom should I marry?” which leads to “Should we have children?” which leads to all kinds of other ponderables. Mundane or life changing, they are all problems to be solved.

The better we are at problem solving, the better chance we have at making a proper decision when the time comes and being successful in both our personal and career pursuits.

From our first activity in the morning until the last thing we do before we visit dreamland each night, we are constantly engaged in a series of problems to solve — some easy, some hard. Problem after problem after problem. Question after question after question. Simply put, life is a series of ambiguous questions to be answered. The better we are at problem solving, the better chance we have at making a proper decision when the time comes and being successful in both our personal and career pursuits.

Some of the questions we have pretty much solved long ago and have placed them into our routine of daily life: The best route to drive to work each morning, the team we should root for, even the types of food we like to eat and how much time we watch TV. But even the most routine of things that we do each day were at one time, problems to be solved. That route to work that you drove this morning was at one time a question for you to answer. Should you drive this way or that? What were the advantages of each route? This route may be shorter, but there is always a morning back-up. This route is longer, but traffic flows more smoothly. I think I will go this way. Problem solved.

So what’s this got to do with school?

Problems like these are not like problems we give our students to solve. Problems we traditionally give to students have a single correct answer (think multiple choice, true and false, and fill in the blank). We spend, an inordinate amount of time teaching students how to find the the “single-answer-that-is-the-correct-answer.” While that might be good in the short term, and easy to grade, in the long term I believe we are doing them a terrible disservice.

As one of my colleagues once stated, we might be practicing educational malpractice. By not teaching and pushing our students to develop problem solving skills, we fail to prepare them adequately for life outside of school. We are “preparing” them, in fact, for a world where the questions and answers are pre-packaged and easy to bubble in. And that world does not exist.

Problems like the ones I’ve mentioned above are called “messy problem” by some educators and “ill-structured problems” by others. Messy problems have no single, certifiably correct answer. There is no “one right way” to solve a problem like “should I get married” or “what should I study in college?” The answer is the goal, but the answer can manifest itself in many correct ways and lead to a lot of unexpected learning along the way. Ambiguity envelopes us. It begins at birth and follows us through to the last days of our lives. Start to finish, life is messy.

I love ill-structured problems. When offered in a classroom setting, they present students with real life situations and devilish dilemmas. Problem based learning, a methodology begun in the late 1960’s in medical schools in Canada (and expanded into K12 education in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s) was developed after medical experts in teaching hospitals could not understand why otherwise excellent interns froze up when real life humans were placed in front of them with real life problems (there might even be panic and bleeding).

After long investigation, if became clear to instructors that while the students were “book smart” and could recite page after page of diagnostic information from memory, most patients did not present their symptoms in a way that matched the book: “You know Doc, my elbow hurts just like the description on page 354 of the Jensen Ortho text,” said no patient ever.

We need to move away from the pedagogy of the single answer and move towards teaching the messy problems of Problem Based Learning. This is different than Project Based Learning (as I wrote about here), where the end goal is already known (and thus a single correct answer is reached in many cases). Life does not work so much like a project; human development is pretty much Problem Based Learning. The best outcome or solution is usually not known when the problem is presented. Sometimes it is, but not often.

In pursuit of the messy answer

Moving towards messy answers to messy problems is not just a matter of shifting the way we test (although that’s a messy problem in itself). It’s first and foremost a shift in the way we expect our teachers to teach and our students to learn. We cannot in all honesty think that students can possibly be prepared to solve life’s messy problems when for years all they have been taught to do was look for the single best answer on the standardized test. (Watch out for those distractors!)

I love ill-structured problems. When offered in a classroom setting, they present students with real life situations and devilish dilemmas.

Consider these current very messy problems now facing the nation:

How should education be reformed? 

What is the best way to handle gun violence?

What should be done about how the government spends money?

What should be our response to global climate change?

And on and on and on…

We have seen what happens when groups of people have little or no problem solving skills: Nations go to war. Religions fight. Congress cannot talk to the President. Gun owners cannot talk to gun control advocates. Husbands cannot talk to wives. Students bully each other. All of these snarls and snafus are directly the result of a pervasive lack of problem solving skills among the populace.

When problem solving (and its twin sister critical thinking) isn’t business as usual, then charlatans and conmen can easily manipulate a situation. If you don’t believe that this is true, consider the current highest rated show on cable’s History Channel, “Ancient Aliens,” a program that is neither historically accurate nor even close to being scientifically factual. Yet millions watch this show which, somehow, every week, links obscure cave drawings, religious texts, nut job theories and tin foil conspiracies into stories of how our ancestors were the spawn of human/alien mating. (Great-great grandma was a Klingon. Get used to it.)

As our students grow up and enter adult life and work, those with a lack of problem solving skills will be at a distinct disadvantage to those who can solve problems and detect flimflam and flummery. And those who realize there are many “correct” ways to solve problems will have a great advantage over those who believe there’s a single answer for each and every question.

Let’s start reform here!

Education reform — a topic that we have now been discussing since forever, according to education-historian-turned-reform-skeptic Diane Ravitch — must actually begin somewhere. I suggest this: Let us take a good hard look at the curricula and standards that are now out there. Let us agree on a common set of goals, and let us at least consider the idea of making true problem-based learning part of the standard curricula for grades K to 12 and beyond.

Yes, it’s messy and harder to teach. Yes it takes more time. But if you truly believe that clichéd phrase hanging on the wall in your school somewhere about preparing students for the future, and how they will be future leaders, then you have to know, deep down, that just teaching kids to take tests is not preparing them for anything other than just taking tests. Nobody will pay you for that for too long.

If we can teach kids to solve messy problems before they graduate, they might not have such a hard time solving messy problems when they start running the world. Or trying to figure out what is wrong with my elbow.

(And they will start running the world, you know. That’s one question we can be pretty sure has a single answer.)

The Tragedy of Student Loans


One of the big scams going around right now is student loans for individuals attending for-profit universities. It goes something like this: Heavy advertising for pain free, at-your leisure online or on-site degrees—encouraging students to take on a large debt load to pay for their studies—and then frequently little (if any) support for students, inadequate classes, and difficulty transferring credits to other institutions. The dropout rate is typically substantial. Personal student debt is growing at a staggering rate.

Here’s the thing though—students at for-profit institutions represent only 9% of all college students, but receive roughly 25% of all federal Pell Grants and loans, and are responsible for 44% of all student loan defaults.

study by The National Bureau of Economic Research, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, suggested that students who attend for-profit education institutions are more likely to be unemployed, earn less, have higher debt levels, and are more likely to default on their student loans than similar students at non-profit educational institutions. Although for-profits typically serve students who are poorer or more likely to be minorities, these differences do not explain the differences in employment, income, debt levels, and student loan defaults. The Government Accountability Office has also found that graduates of for-profits are less likely to pass licensing exams, and that poor student performance cannot be explained by different student demographics.

For-profits have higher completion rates for one- and two-year associate’s degree programs, but higher dropout rates for four-year bachelor’s degrees. However, studies have suggested that one- and two-year programs typically do not provide much economic benefit to students because the boost to wages is more than offset by increased debt. By contrast, four-year programs provide a large economic benefit.

An investigation by the New York Times suggested that for-profit higher education institutions typically have much higher student loan default rates than non-profits. Two documentaries by Frontline have focused on alleged abuses in for profit higher education.

The following infographic from will give you a good visual of what’s going on with student debt. Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always thought that the fundamental purpose of an educational institution should be to educate, not to turn a profit.


The Tragedy of Student Loans

What Did 2013 Hold for Educational Technology in Schools

Looking back at the article I was astounded to find that basically none of the information in the first chart was relevant and the proposal that “Apps” would be the prevalent part of the year actually was/is true. 
via Smartblogs/Katharine Haber

To connect with those working on the front lines of education technology, SmartBrief on EdTech editor Katharine Haber asked readers about their thoughts on what 2013 will bring for technology in schools.

According to our results, about one-third of respondents see classroom technology as the most significant issue on the horizon, while a slightly smaller group is concerned about online education, followed by computer-based testing and digital citizenship.

When asked how their schools and districts are using technology to enhance student learning, a majority of respondents reported that some teachers are employing tech tools in the classroom, while a significantly smaller proportion said technology is playing a broader role throughout the curriculum or being integrated through blended-learning programs or “bring your own technology” programs.

Readers reported that online applications and games are the most effective tools for engaging students, while digital textbooks and resources, along with mobile devices, are not far behind.

Interestingly, few respondents see social media as an effective tool. Given the ongoing buzz about Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, this response begs the question of whether many schools simply are not using social media as part of classroom instruction.

There are arguably numerous factors to consider when using social media with students, and many schools and districts might be blocking or otherwise prohibiting use of such websites on campus. However, given their popularity, is it possible there is an untapped resource here? What do you think?

What do you see as the most significant issue in education technology for 2013?

Technology in the classroom


Online education


Computer-based testing


Digital citizenship


Which statement best describes how your school or district is integrating technology into student learning?

Some teachers use tech tools as part of classroom lessons


Technology is integrated throughout the curriculum


Our school/district has a bring-your-own-device policy


Our school/district employs blended learning


Which tech tools most effectively engage students in your classroom, school or district?

Online apps and games


Digital textbooks and resources


Mobile devices


Social media


Katharine Haber is an associate editor for SmartBrief, writing and editing content about a variety of topics in education.

The Teacher’s Guide To Digital Citizenship


via Edudemic

How you act online is important. Not just because everything is stored, backed up, and freely available to anyone with a keyboard. But because your online reputation is actually just your reputation. There’s really no difference between online and offline anymore.

In an effort to keep everyone behaving, Microsoft has just unveiled a new (free) curriculum that’s all about digital citizenshipintellectual property rights, and creative content. It offers cross-curricular classroom activities that align with the AASL and ISTE national academic standards. So far, more than 6,500 people have registered to use the curriculum. No matter how you feel about Microsoft, this free offering is worth checking out. You’ll have to register an account but after that it’s easy to find, select, download, and implement some of the objectives presented.

How It Works

Four units comprise the curriculum resources. Each unit consists of standalone yet complementary lesson plans that play off a creative rights scenario presented through a case study. Four units comprise the curriculum resources. Each unit consists of standalone yet complementary lesson plans that play off a creative rights scenario presented through a case study.

Each unit has 4-6 of these project-oriented activities, one of which serves as the culminating lesson for the unit. Guiding questions help set the expectation for what students learn, and pre/post assessments establish baseline knowledge to gauge student learning. Modification and Extension suggestions recommend ways to abridge or expand the activities within the unit, and provide tips for engaging parents and peers outside of the classroom.

The following is simply a description of each unit followed by the learning objectives for that particular unit. You’ll have to register to download the actual units (PDF format).

Unit One: Creative What?

This unit explores the general topics of intellectual property, creative content, and creative rights. Using the backdrop of a high school’s Battle of the Bands, the unit will help students define intellectual property and creative content by relating it to a common scenario they might encounter. Students will begin to recognize and internalize the importance of respecting creative rights, conduct their own research to better understand the relevance of creative content to their lives, and help clear up confusion about the rights that apply to them and their peers.

Student Learning Objectives

  • Associate intellectual property with various legal rights to protect creative content.
  • Utilize research techniques to determine public awareness of, and misconceptions about, intellectual property; effectively present their evaluation of data; and identify and share complexities and consequences related to violating creative rights.
  • Understand the importance of copyright laws and fair use exceptions of media reproduction, modification, distribution, public performance, and public display; determine effective steps to take when they discover unauthorized use of intellectual property; and recognize the importance of developing safeguards that will help them avoid copyright law violations.
  • Differentiate between commercial media products that are in the public domain and those that are protected under copyright laws; recognize and follow the protocols for obtaining the rights to use copyrighted material; and determine how best to develop a multiedia presentation within the parameters of copyright laws, as well as available time and equipment.
  • Use various information sources to determine how issues of intellectual property such as creative content are locally relevant; and answer personal questions, solve local problems, and impact local issues of copyright, fair use, and intellectual property.

Unit Two: By Rule Of Law

Intellectual property is a valuable commodity, and thus, those who develop creative content are protected by laws in the United States and around the world. In this unit, students explore creative content copyright and learn about the rights they have as creators and the laws that exist to protect the creative process. The unit’s activities encourage students to form opinions about what’s right, what’s wrong, and how the laws affect them as creators, consumers, and good digital citizens.

Student Learning Objectives

  • Recognize the consequences for illegal downloading and copying and why these consequences exist, and apply understanding from a real downloading court case and outcome to create their own consequence and/or law.
  • Recognize the components and key characteristics of an effective user agreement; synthesize learning and apply it to a real-world problem – i.e., the challenge of creating a user agreement; and evaluate work based on a set of established criteria.
  • Recognize the potential risks of using counterfeit software and other forms of intellectual property, evaluate and explain the relative risks associated with both original and counterfeit goods, and translate understanding of risks to others who may be less familiar with them.
  • Connect the creative process behind gaming software with creative content and present the game creation process visually for the benefit of others.
  • Summarize knowledge of creative content, how it can be used, and how it can be protected; distinguish between instances of fair use of creative content and violations of copyright law; understand the socio-cultural factors contributing to behaviors, policies, and systems; and suggest policies that will help avoid copyright violations.
  • Recognize similarities and differences among copyright laws in different countries; collaborate with other students to create a plan for standardizing copyright laws around the globe; and recognize the value of developing a consensus for solving problems.

Unit Three: Calling All Digital Citizens

Copyright and other creative rights empower the artists, musicians, and writers who produce creative works. But how does the prevalence of online media — and its ease of access — change the conversation about those rights? With social media as the backdrop, this unit explores that very question, as the students learn more with the Digital Citizenship in Schools curriculum. Students analyze the use of creative content on social media Web sites, recognize the responsibilities involved with using these media, and form their own opinions about what makes a good digital citizen.

Student Learning Objectives

  • Relate the concepts of copyright and creative content to social media, analyze how copyright issues affect the creative content on social media sites, and establish a set of rules on digital citizenship for young people that consider the rights of creators when using social media sites.
  • Identify the process to obtain copyright permission for a specific type of creative content, analyze the efficiency and effectiveness of common processes, and recommend changes to common permission request processes.
  • Draw conclusions about young people’s opinions on creative content, creative rights, and fair use related to social media; state their own opinions about creative content, creative rights, and fair use related to social media via video blog; and use persuasive language to influence their school peers.

Unit Four: Protect Your Work, Respect Your Work

This unit explores the theme of protecting creative content through a series of experiential activities. Students learn how to protect their own creative works and how to use other people’s creative works in a fair and legal manner. They explore issues related to originality and plagiarism, and then have a chance to become agents of change in the culminating activity by developing a public service announcement.

Student Learning Objectives

  • Define intellectual property; distinguish among different forms of creative content, and distinguish between the creator and the intellectual property owner; complete the copyright filing process or Creative Commons licensing in order to better understand the legal rights associated with both; and understand what constitutes original work.
  • Understand that they should seek permission to use someone else’s creative content, unless permission has already been given, an exception like fair use applies, or a Creative Commons license permits the use; compose a letter to obtain permission to use someone else’s creative work on a personal Web page; and compare and contrast their letter of request with a legally binding template to ensure that their request is thorough.
  • Determine the qualities that characterize an advertisement as being original, inspired by other works, or plagiarizing other works; create an advertising campaign that is original, inspired, or plagiarized, depending on assignment; and evaluate one another’s work to determine whether the work is original, inspired, or plagiarized.
  • Define intentional and accidental plagiarism, and compare the consequences of accidental plagiarism and intentional plagiarism.
  • Critique public service announcements, state their opinions about creative rights, and develop a public service announcement to support their opinions and influence their peers.

27 Presentation Tips For Students And Teachers

via Edudemic

We all have to get up in front of a group of our peers and deliver a presentation at some point. Whether it’s a TED talk or a book report in your elementary school classroom, there’s a pressure and sense of nervousness that strikes us all. And that’s just the mere thought of giving a presentation. What about the actual presentation itself? How do you make it successful and awesome? In an effort to help you become the next Steve Jobs of presenting, here are more than two dozen different presentation tips perfect for both students and teachers alike.

Personally, I like the ‘visualize’ tip as it gets you a bit looser and thinking about something other than your own presentation. By learning about how others performed and making it a bit funny, you’re able to tell your brain that it’s okay to think about something other than your upcoming presentation. This is a great tip for first-timers and students who may be a bit unsure of themselves in front of a room filled with their peers.

The Rise of EduTech in K-12 Classrooms


via Teacher Portal

Technology use is ubiquitous in K-12 classrooms across the U.S.  The Pew Research Center (2013) surveyed teachers of Advanced Placement (AP) and National Writing Project (NWP) classes about their use of education technology, or “EduTech”, including cell phones, e-readers, tablets, and smartboards (commonly written as “SMART boards”).  They found that these new media not only influence teachers’ teaching methods, but students’ learning processes as well. Some teachers feel that a digital lifestyle has given today’s students a shorter attention span, and as a result, many educators have striven to make their style of teaching more engaging.

Technology affects  the lesson planning and professional development of teachers. Respondents to the Pew survey were described as tech-savvy overall, but they still had to put in extra work to master technological tools.

Refer to the infographic below to take a tour of the classrooms of Ms. Digital and Mr. Tech, and explore how EduTech is used in education, how successful it is, and how it affects students and educators.


“How Teens Do Research in the Digital World”, Pew Research Center, November 2012

“How Teachers Are Using Technology at Home and in Their Classrooms”, Pew Research Center, February 2013

“Technology Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say”, New York Times, November 2012

“Children, Teens, and Entertainment Media: The View From The Classroom “, Common Sense Media, November 2012



Teacher Knows if You’ve Done the E-Reading


via The New York Times

SAN ANTONIO — Several Texas A&M professors know something that generations of teachers could only hope to guess: whether students are reading their textbooks.

They know when students are skipping pages, failing to highlight significant passages, not bothering to take notes — or simply not opening the book at all.

“It’s Big Brother, sort of, but with a good intent,” said Tracy Hurley, the dean of the school of business.

The faculty members here are neither clairvoyant nor peering over shoulders. They, along with colleagues at eight other colleges, are testing technology from a Silicon Valley start-up, CourseSmart, that allows them to track their students’ progress with digital textbooks.

Major publishers in higher education have already been collecting data from millions of students who use their digital materials. But CourseSmart goes further by individually packaging for each professor information on all the students in a class — a bold effort that is already beginning to affect how teachers present material and how students respond to it, even as critics question how well it measures learning. The plan is to introduce the program broadly this fall.

Adrian Guardia, a Texas A&M instructor in management, took notice the other day of a student who was apparently doing well. His quiz grades were solid, and so was what CourseSmart calls his “engagement index.” But Mr. Guardia also saw something else: that the student had opened his textbook only once.

“It was one of those aha moments,” said Mr. Guardia, who is tracking 70 students in three classes. “Are you really learning if you only open the book the night before the test? I knew I had to reach out to him to discuss his studying habits.”

Students do not see their engagement indexes unless a professor shows them, but they know the books are watching them. For a few, merely hearing the number is a shock. Charles Tejeda got a C on the last quiz, but the real revelation that he is struggling was a low CourseSmart index.

“They caught me,” said Mr. Tejeda, 43. He has two jobs and three children, and can study only late at night. “Maybe I need to focus more,” he said.

CourseSmart is owned by Pearson, McGraw-Hill and other major publishers, which see an opportunity to cement their dominance in digital textbooks by offering administrators and faculty a constant stream of data about how students are doing.

In the old days, teachers knew if students understood the course from the expressions on their faces. Now some classes, including one of Mr. Guardia’s, are entirely virtual. Engagement information could give the colleges early warning about which students might flunk out, while more broadly letting teachers know if the whole class is falling behind.

Eventually, the data will flow back to the publishers, to help prepare new editions.

Academic and popular publishers, as well as some authors, have dreamed for years of such feedback to direct sales and editorial efforts more efficiently. Amazon and Barnes & Noble are presumed to be collecting a trove of data from readers, although they decline to say what, if anything, they will do with it.

“It’s Big Brother, sort of, but with a good intent.”

The predigital era, when writers wrote and publishers published without a clue, is seen as an amazingly ignorant time. “Before this, the publisher never knew if Chapter 3 was even looked at,” said Sean Devine, CourseSmart’s chief executive.

More than 3.5 million students and educators use CourseSmart textbooks and are already generating reams of data about Chapter 3. Among the colleges experimenting this semester are Clemson, Central Carolina Technical College and Stony Brook University, as well as Texas A&M-San Antonio, a new offshoot.

Texas A&M has one of the highest four-year graduation rates in the state, but only half the students make it out in that time. “If CourseSmart offers to hook it up to every class, we wouldn’t decline,” said Dr. Hurley, the dean.

At a recent session here of a management training class, Mr. Guardia addressed how to intervene efficiently with underperformers. The students watched a video of a print shop manager chewing out an employee without knowing the circumstances. The moral: The manager needed better data.

Then Mr. Guardia discussed with his students the analytics of their own reading, which he had e-mailed to them. The students suggested that once again better information was needed. Several said their score was being minimized because they took notes on paper.

Others complained there were software bugs, a response Mr. Guardia has heard before. The student who was cramming at the last minute said, for example, that he had opened the textbook several times, not just once. Perhaps these are the digital equivalent of “the dog ate my homework.” CourseSmart said it knew of no problems with its software.

The start-up said its surveys indicated few privacy concerns among students or colleges, and this was borne out by the class. “Big Brother,” said one student, but that was a joke, and everyone snickered. Being watched is a fundamental part of the world they live in.

“Amazon has such a footprint on me,” said Carol Johnson, 51, who works in the tech industry. “It knows more than my mother.”

Chris Dede, a professor of learning technologies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, is more apprehensive. He believes analytics are important in the classroom, but they must be based on high-quality data.

The CourseSmart system has other potential problems; students could easily game the highlighting or note-taking functions. Or a student might improve his score by leaving his textbook open and doing something else.

“The possibilities of harm are tremendous if teachers are naïve enough to think these scores mean anything for the vast majority of students,” Professor Dede said.

CourseSmart says the data it collects now is a beginning. “We’ll ultimately show how the student traverses the book,” Mr. Devine said. “There’s a correlation and causality between engagement and success.”

There is also correlation, the students are learning, between perception and success.

Hillary Torres, a senior, is a good student with a low engagement index, probably because she is taking notes into a computer file not being tracked. This could be a problem; she is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management, whose local chapter is advised by Mr. Guardia. “If he looks and sees, ‘Hillary is not really reading as much as I thought,’ does that give him a negative image of me?” she wondered. “His opinion really matters. Maybe I need to change my study habits.”

After two months of using the system, Mr. Guardia is coming to some conclusions of his own. His students generally are scoring well on quizzes and assignments. In the old days, that might have reassured him. But their engagement indexes are low.

“Maybe the course is too easy and I need to challenge them a bit more,” Mr. Guardia said. “Or maybe the textbooks are not as good as I thought.

Great Post by David Warlick

via 2¢ Worth

Today’s infographic is simple and to the point. A big part of grade school and even college and onward, is writing papers. Some professions write more papers than others, but it is still an important skill in order to get your point across. This infographic uses venn diagrams to convey the importance of different parts of papers, and to show how they interact with one another. It also shows how much of your paper should include each part.

Of course every paper should begin with an introduction and end with a conclusion. It should also include several point in the middle, that are introduced and concluded in the introduction and conclusion. But how should the middle be laid out? That is up to the author, but it should there is a bit of a formula.

This infographic does a great job of showing that there should be pros and cons. You should always share how your paper may be argued against, and go ahead and prove some of these points wrong. In addition, a good paper should show why the information is important. Why should someone read your paper?

Show this to your students whenever a paper is assigned. Make sure your students are ready to write a good paper, and know what is involved in writing such a paper.