Common Core Assessment: What do you think?

The two Common Core assessment consortia, Smarter Balanced and PARCC, have both recently released material giving us an insight into the upcoming Common Core math tests. One of the released items referenced by many articles is the 4th grade fractions question shown here:

 This is significantly different from a typical standardized test question in a number of ways:

  • There is no calculation to be done. Students have to understand the meaning of fractions as visual models.
  • A decision needs to be made about each part of the question. On a typical multiple-choice question, students only have to find one “answer”, so they’re often taught to literally discard the two most unlikely looking responses and then make a best “guess.” This strategy is now, thankfully, rendered completely useless. All four parts of this question could be yes, or all four could be no, or any other combination in between.
  • Every part of the question targets some potential misconception.
    • 1a is obviously correct, but 1b is not. Even though in both responses 2 out of 5 parts are shaded, the second diagram is not split into equal partitions.
    • In 1c, even though 6 boxes are shaded, the students need to understand that this is of visual model of an equivalent fraction to two fifths.
    • 1d requires students to clearly understand that a fraction is a means of writing a part-whole ratio rather than a part-part ratio.

This type of question presents a conceptual hurdle for many students, and the big question for schools is how are they going to ensure that they adequately prepare all students for this type of assessment? Blended learning provides a solution.

Dreambox Learning, the only truly adaptive educational program used in Blended Learning models across the county, includes games that would specifically help students be successful on this released item, but also build their overall conceptual understanding of fractions. The program utilizes all current research on mathematical concepts as other programs do but the differentiator for Dreambox is they use over 50,000 pieces of individualized data for each student when presenting them with the next question. Dreambox is game-based learning system that allows all students to learn by doing, solving problems using hands-on visual models and manipulatives. If students solve the question correctly they are rewarded and recognized with badges and the ability to play more games of their choosing, however, if they make a mistake, they receive immediate descriptive feedback, which shows them precisely why their answer was incorrect. This is crucial to child development and mathematical reasoning being developed by our children.

Twitter as an educational tool | Jeff Piontek wants to know what you think

I recently have been thinking about whether or not Twitter is actually a relevant tool in the classroom beyond those who are really dedicated to it and this is what I found.

On Feb. 10, 2011, the world was transfixed on the protests raging in Egypt. We all watched as thousands gathered in Tahir square, where they had been for the past several weeks, to listen to a speech by President Hosni Mubarak. Many figured this would be his resignation speech. Instead, it offered the citizens of Egypt very little in the way of change, even if it was being presented as something positive. For outsiders looking in, it seemed that the situation would only get worse.

What Mubarak might not have known is that while he was trying to maintain his iron grip on power, thousands of Egyptians were tweeting about their frustration with the dictator. Eventually, the people on the street, armed with nothing more than a cell phone and a free social media site, changed the course of history.

If you are a middle or high school social studies teacher, and you wanted to provide your students with a close-up view of the events unfolding in Egypt, you could turn to a traditional news service. Or, you could follow the hashtag #Egypt on Twitter and tap into the real-time pulse of unfolding events by people on the streets of Cairo.

Through our previous articles, we have introduced you to three pillars we believe are essential to be web literate. We have shown you how to use advanced search techniques to raise the quality of information found on the web, and we have explained how the information you find can be organized into a comprehensive library of knowledge using powerful web tools like Diigo. In this final part to the series, we will demonstrate how tools like Twitter can allow a researcher to share what is learned with the world, tap the knowledge of others to help make even stronger connections with the material, and even provide students with real-world problems at a moment’s notice.

At first glance, Twitter doesn’t appear to hold much value. Who cares about Justin Bieber’s haircuts! In fact, we both saw it as a waste and quit using it two or three times until we truly understood the organizational structure of information within this tool. Learning how to filter through tweets, organized using hashtags, will bring clarity and meaning to Twitter and will get you past the mosh pit of random thoughts and lackluster chitchat.

A hashtag is nothing more than a word or phrase (with no spaces) that is preceded by a # symbol. Examples include #edchat, #london2012, and #youthvote. Simply type a hashtag like one of these into Twitter’s search box to immediately generate results that are focused around the topic of your choice. Tagging is a beautiful thing, and a tag is something you can invent at any moment.

If you’re interested in a topic, but you don’t know of a hashtag that will be helpful with your research, simply do a search in Twitter using a keyword rather than a hashtag. Then, scan the results to see what hashtags people are using when they are discussing that particular topic.

For example, Brian did this the evening of President Mubarak’s speech, and he discovered that the two most popular hashtags being used at that time were #Egypt and #Jan25. By looking through the resources he found, he was able to see what the world was saying about this event. But then, Brian took it a step further.

He began a new Twitter post and typed in:

I wonder if the people in #Egypt are buying this? #Jan25

Upon posting, his message immediately gained a global audience interested in this topic. Within minutes, he had a response back from a woman in Cairo who confirmed his thinking: The Egyptians weren’t buying it at all! They chatted for a while, and at the conclusion of their conversation, he asked if she would be willing to Skype into a class of middle school students and teachers with whom he was working the next day. She agreed, and the students were able to ask her questions about what they had seen on television the evening before, about life in Egypt, and about her hopes for Egypt’s future. It was a powerful moment for everyone involved.

Reflecting back on this series of events, we have learned to appreciate the power of a social media tool such as Twitter to provide information and global communication. The role and knowledge of the educator is more important than ever in understanding how to use these tools to bring authentic experiences to our students. Unfortunately, many students do not see the educational value of a tool they might be using every day.

Any school or classroom can begin using Twitter as an important part of the learning process. To help the beginners out, we’ve developed a list of educational hashtags that can be used by teachers and students who are looking to connect beyond the classroom. Our recommendation is to print this list and hang it in the classroom near a computer. With a classroom account (under a teacher’s login and password), anyone in the class can tweet out questions requesting resources or sharing the learning that is taking place in that class. The appropriate hashtags should accompany each message. These messages might look like this:

Looking for global classrooms that can record their local water data to share with us over the next 12 months. #scichat

We are looking to shake up professional development in our district. What are some unique models you use. #profdev

Our class is looking to collaborate with another class to write and produce a PSA on #bullying and #cybersafety.

In addition to using Twitter as a way to connect globally, we’ve also seen examples of classrooms using Twitter as a way to share learning opportunities with others outside of the classroom. For example, supplementary photo and video tools provide the ability to share learning from anywhere someone can access an internet connection. This could be in a classroom, it could be on a field trip, or—as Jessica Caviness from Coppell High School in Texas explained to us—it could even be from a baseball game.

Mrs. Caviness was a new Twitter user who had attended a workshop of ours. Upon getting back to school, she told her geometry students that she just got a Twitter account. After jokingly welcoming her to the 21st century, students immediately began taking out their cell phones and following her. Then, a few nights later at a Texas Rangers baseball game, she was reminded of a problem from class a few weeks earlier. She decided to tweet the following, and within minutes, she had several replies from her students.

Days later, at yet another game, Mrs. Caviness decided to dig a bit deeper into students’ thinking. She tweeted a new picture and asked students to develop related problems.

Again, students jumped on this opportunity immediately. Before the game was over, she had quite a collection of student-created problems, including:

What Mrs. Caviness found most exciting was the fact that students dropped everything they were doing at home so that they could connect with her around these short math blasts.

Now, Mrs. Caviness sees many applications for using this tool to strengthen what students do at school each day and to build a library of material that she and her students can use in a flipped classroom environment. We invite you to read more about her class and their uses of Twitter here. You might also choose to follow Mrs. Caviness on Twitter.

We believe that there are three essential skills represented by the stories in this article:

  • Teachers should have the skill set to build their own personal learning networks (PLNs) to be global.
  • Teachers should be able to leverage their PLNs to bring the challenge of authentic conversation to their students.
  • Teachers should be able to use social media to connect their students to real-world problems.

Like Mrs. Caviness, we believe educators should be powerful role models and provide examples of how to use the most powerful social media tools to expand the boundaries of learning. Otherwise, our students might only end up following #Bieberhair.

This is a reprint of a great article that was published by Alan November and Brian Mull.


26 Talking Points to use with your staff about technology

I thought I would gather in one place many of the talking points that I use with principals and superintendents about Internet safety…

  1. Even though they may use fancy terms and know more than you do about their domain, you never would allow your business manager or special education coordinator to operate without oversight. So stop doing so with your technology coordinator.
  2. The technology function of your school organization exists to serve the educational function, not the other way around. Corollary: your technology coordinator works for you, not vice versa.
  3. Mobile phones, Facebook, Wikipedia, YouTube, blogs, Wikispaces, Google, and whatever other technologies you’re blocking are not inherently evil. Stop demonizing them and focus on people’s behavior, not the tools, particularly when it comes to making policy.
  4. You don’t need special policies for specific tools. Just check that the policies you have are inclusive of electronic communication channels and then enforce the policies you already have on bullying, cheating, sexual harassment, inappropriate communication, illicit behavior, etc.
  5. Why are you penalizing the 95% for the 5%? You don’t do this in other areas of discipline at school. Even though you know some students will use their voices or bodies inappropriately in school, you don’t ban everyone from speaking or moving. You know some students may show up drunk to the prom, yet you don’t cancel the prom because of a few rule breakers. Instead, you assume that most students will act appropriately most of the time and then you enforce reasonable expectations and policies for the occasional few that don’t. To use a historical analogy, it’s the difference between DUI-style policies and flat-out Prohibition (which, if you recall, failed miserably). Just as you don’t put entire schools on lockdown every time there’s a fight in the cafeteria, you need to stop penalizing entire student bodies because of statistically-infrequent, worst-case scenarios.
  6. You never can promise 100% safety. For instance, you never would promise a parent that her child would never, ever be in a fight at school. So quit trying to guarantee 100% safety when it comes to technology. Provide reasonable supervision, implement reasonable procedures and policies, and move on.
  7. The ‘online predators will prey on your schoolchildren’ argument is a false bogeyman, a scare tactic that is fed to us by the media, politicians, law enforcement, and computer security vendors. The number of reported incidents in the news of this occurring is zero.
  8. Federal laws do not require your draconian filtering. You can’t point the finger somewhere else. You have to own it yourself.
  9. Students and teachers rise to the level of the expectations that you have for them. If you expect the worst, that’s what you’ll get.
  10. Schools that ‘loosen up’ with students and teachers find that they have no more problems than they did before. And, often, they have fewer problems because folks aren’t trying to get around the restrictions.
  11. There’s a difference between a teachable moment and a punishable moment. Lean toward the former as much as possible.
  12. If your community is pressuring you to be more restrictive, that’s when it’s time to educate, not capitulate. Overzealous blocking and filtering has real and significant negative impacts on information access, student learning, pedagogy, ability to address required curricular standards, and educators’ willingness to integrate technology. It also makes it awfully tough to prepare students for a digital era.
  13. ‘Walled garden’ online environments prevent the occurrence of serendipitous learning connections with the outside world.
  14. If you’re prohibiting teachers from being ‘friends’ with students online, are you also prohibiting them from being ‘friends’ with students in neighborhoods, at church, in volunteer organizations, at the mall, and in other non-school settings?
  15. Schools with mindsets of enabling powerful student learning usually block much less than those that don’t. Their first reaction is ‘how can we make this work?’ rather than ‘we need to keep this out.’
  16. As the lead learner, it’s your responsibility to actively monitor what’s being filtered and blocked and to always reconsider that in light of learning and teaching needs.
  17. If you trust your teachers with the children, you should trust them with the Internet. Addendum: Mistrust of teachers drives away good educators.
  18. If you make it too hard to get permission to unblock something, you might as well not have the option in the first place.
  19. Unless you like losing lawsuits, remember that students and staff have speech and privacy rights, particularly off-campus. Remember that any dumb decision you make is Internet fodder and has a good chance of going viral online. Do you really want to be the next stupid administrator story on The Huffington Post?
  20. When you violate the Constitution and punish kids just because you don’t like what they legally said or did and think you can get away with it, you not only run the risk of incurring financial liability for your school system in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars but also abuse your position of trust and send messages to students about the corruption of power and disregard for the rule of law.
  21. Never make a policy you can’t enforce.
  22. Don’t abdicate your teaching responsibility. Students do not magically gain the ability at the end of the school day or after graduation to navigate complex, challenging, unfiltered digital information spaces. If you don’t teach them how to navigate the unfiltered Internet appropriately and safely while you have them, who’s going to?
  23. Acceptable use and other policies send messages to students, staff, and parents. Is the predominant message that you want to send really that ‘the technologies that are transforming everything around us should first and foremost be feared?’
  24. Imagine a scale with two balancing pans. On one side are all of the anxieties, fears, barriers, challenges, and perceived problems that your staff, parents, and community members put forth. If you want effective technology integration and implementation to occur in your school system, it is your job as the leader to tip the scale the other way. Addendum: It is difficult to understand the learning power of digital technologies – and easy to dismiss their pedagogical usefulness – if you are not familiar enough with them to understand their positive affordances.
  25. In a hyperconnected, technology-suffused, digital, global world, you do your children a disservice – and highlight your irrelevance – by blocking out our present and their future.
  26. Educating is always, always more powerful than blocking.

BONUS 1. Elsewhere in your state – perhaps even near you – are school districts that have figured this out. They operate under the same laws, regulations, rules, and procedures that you do. If they can be less restrictive, why can’t you?


Reposted from a blog by Scott McLeod.

Mapping our way on the e-learning highway

Children’s brains may be developing differently as a result of exposure to digital technology, with profound implications for the education system, says the prime minister’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman.

Sir Peter made the claim to Parliament’s science and education committee, which in May kicked off an unprecedented inquiry into “21st century learning and digital literacy”, examining in particular how schools may need to change in the wake of the Government’s $1.5 billion investment in ultrafast broadband.

The inquiry has pitched progressives, who want to see teachers quickly evolve into tech-savvy new-age knowledge brokers, against conservatives, who worry about the practicalities and believe there remains a big role for traditionally delivered classroom teaching.

Sir Peter argued that schools and parents splurged a lot of money putting computers into schools 20 years ago that “didn’t make much difference educationally”.

But he opened a new front when giving evidence to the select committee on Wednesday – appropriately, via video-conference – saying that today’s children were the guinea pigs in “a new world we don’t fully understand”.

“Anyone who has seen a two-year-old playing around with an iPad knows what I am talking about. The digital world is leading to different ways in which the brain develops, different environments in which we learn . . . and it does seem to be having impacts on cognitive, social and emotional development.”

Sir Peter said neuroscientists and teaching researchers in Britain and the United States were just starting to look at the implications for education but there was a lack of information and it was pointless talking about it being “good or bad”.

“Whether it has any meaning – I think we should be careful.”

He said, for example, that studies had shown that parts of the brains of British taxi drivers expanded when they memorised “the Knowledge”, London’s inner city street map.

But what was evident was that the human race was going through a “radical change” in the way it communicated and achieved knowledge, he said.

“Whereas 20 years ago it was unequivocal [that] parents and teachers were the sources of information, now much information is obtained from the web or other digital media and the teacher’s role is becoming one of helping students interpret what is likely to be reliable or unreliable information.”

New technology, such as the web, could lift education in rural areas and disadvantaged urban communities as well as help New Zealand meet its “moral responsibility” to assist education among its Pacific neighbours, he said.

The Post Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA), which represents 18,000 mostly secondary school teachers, said that although children now expected learning to be “ICT-based”, it was going too far to say that today’s children were “wired differently”.

“The focus on supporting 21st century students who are collaborative, open-minded, life-long learners is important but we are some way from dispensing with content-learning altogether,” it said in its submission.

“There are few signs . . . that either parents, tertiary institutions or employers are ready to relinquish expectations that secondary students will have a sound knowledge in certain curriculum areas.”

The same football is being kicked around in different ways by many of the 90 submitters to the Parliamentary inquiry. Margot McKeegan, learning adviser for the Greater Christchurch Schools Network, which is promoting collaboration between 100 schools in the city, told the committee that she did not believe teachers should be registered unless they had demonstrated they were capable of working in an “e-learning environment”.

But the National Council of Women said it would disagree with that approach. Effective learning had always happened in a wide variety of environments, but the relationship between children and their teachers remained the most influential factor in a successful school, it said.

ECONOMIC Development Minister Steven Joyce signalled the Government had a strong appetite for reform in a speech to InternetNZ NetHui in June.

E-education would be “quite disruptive” and would turn on its head the concept of teaching and learning, changing the dynamics between educators and pupils, he said. “For those that embrace it, it is something that is going to be wonderful for people to be part of.”

The Government will next year begin rolling out the Network for Learning, a $300 million to $400 million “closed” network running over the ultrafast broadband network that will provide secure access to online resources and internet access for schools on centrally-negotiated terms.

The initiative appears to have attracted widespread support, including from the PPTA, which said it was a “reasonable compromise” in tackling the problem that the education system had become “devolved and divided”.

But there are doubts about how quickly the education sector will be able to grasp the nettle, given it remains a “people industry”.

Albany Senior High School deputy principal Mark Osborne told the inquiry a leadership crisis in schools threatened to derail plans to reshape the education system to take advantage of ultrafast broadband and e-learning.

Ten thousand of the country’s 50,000 teachers were approaching retirement and between 30 and 40 per cent of newly qualified teachers were leaving the profession within their first five years on the job, he said.

“We are trying to replace an ever-increasing pool of leavers with an ever-diminishing pool of new teachers.”

An Education Ministry spokeswoman said that although it was true its workforce was ageing, losses had fallen for several years and retention was increasing.

“Baby boomers” were staying in work longer than had been expected, she said. “The ministry has monitoring in place and is planning for the retirement of this group, when it does occur.”

In the meantime, a proportion of teachers and schools are achieving educational stardom by positioning themselves on the crest of the digital wave.

Albany High School turned heads in the information technology industry when it opened in 2009 by eschewing Microsoft software and deciding to use only free open-source software, for example.

That meant the school could then encourage pupils to bring their computers to school, freeing up their own resources to buy computers for those who could not afford them, Mr Osborne said. “Proprietary” software, on the other hand, could not be installed on students’ computers without breaching suppliers’ licensing conditions, he said.

It is in addressing bread-and-butter matters such as this that the Parliamentary inquiry could make its mark.

Mr Osborne said only Albany High School and two other schools had adopted “creative commons” licensing policies that allowed teachers to share online resources they had developed with other schools, without having first to seek the approval of their boards. Other schools had “all rights reserved on teaching and learning resources”.

Open-plan learning spaces that aided e-learning reduced disruptive behaviour, Mr Osborne said, because there could always be three or four teachers on hand to prevent children “taking on” an inexperienced teacher. They also meant teachers could learn from one another, which was important because the difference between the “best and worst” teachers in a school was always greater than the differences between schools themselves, he said.

Sir Peter said it was “fundamental” to put more money into research. “Scientists are no better at predicting the future than anybody else, which means they are bloody hopeless at it. We don’t know all the answers.

“But the inquiry has got to help design the teacher of 2025 or 2040, not 2012.”

What If Teens Prefer Twitter to Facebook

Now That Grandma Is On Facebook,

Where Will Teens Go to Socialize?

A member of my wife’s family and a few of her friends told me recently that they are enamored with Twitter. They love its rapid-fire updates, and the sense Twitter provides of being right in the moment. Over a weekend they were constantly checking and posting updates on their smartphones, and when it came to socializing with friends, she and her peers simply preferred Twitter to Facebook.

This isn’t earth-shattering news, but here’s the catch – all were in high school. Teen social media users seem to be flocking to Twitter right now, continuing a trend over the past two years, and reducing Facebook usage in favor of the 140-character social network. We’ve seen such a shift in preference before, when users flocked to Facebook over Myspace in 2007. History may be on the verge of another social platform shift, and brands can’t be caught flat-footed when it comes to marketing to the younger generation.

Why they’re choosing Twitter
According to an Associated Press report, Facebook’s generation-spanning popularity is partly to blame. In a world where it’s considered rude to turn down a friend request, especially from a family member, teens were suddenly seeing their aunts, uncles and parents in their News Feeds. Twitter connections aren’t mutual friendships as they are on Facebook; just because someone follows your tweets doesn’t mean you have to follow them back. Teenaged users like this feature, and they’re employing Twitter’s simpler privacy controls as well, choosing to hide their tweets from public view and sending them only to a select group of friends.

The type of interaction plays a major role as well, according to the teens I’ve met. To them, Facebook is more about sharing content, whether it’s videos, photos, music, or articles. Twitter is far more conversation based, a place where teens can tell their friends what they’re doing or how they feel. It’s about the present moment – what you’re doing, who you’re seeing, where you’re going – whereas Facebook is more about sharing memories after the fact.

Teens aren’t giving up on Facebook, but they’re treating it the same way the gainfully employed treat LinkedIn. They feel it’s important to maintain a page, but they check the social network sporadically. Twitter is where they go to check in throughout the day.

What Facebook can do
Facebook, with its 901 million active users, isn’t necessarily reeling simply because teens are adopting Twitter much faster then ever before, but marketers should be aware of the possibility that Facebook’s teen audience could shrink, or be less engaged than were prior generations. You can say “No one gets fired for buying Facebook,” but brands need to be sure to extend investment and innovation to Twitter — especially if they are marketing to teens.

Facebook needs to be mindful of the shift in teen usage as well, unless it wants to join Myspace in the social media dustbin. It might seem far-fetched to hint at Facebook’s decline, but it’s worth noting Myspace was getting more visitors than Facebook at one point in time. Myspace lost ground to Facebook because it failed to adapt. Facebook had a sleeker design — one that was less frantic, and contained fewer ads. Twitter’s main features may appear scrawny compared to Facebook’s, but it wouldn’t be the first social network to experience a dramatic shift in popularity.

Facebook may already be preparing for this competitive threat, as evidenced by its recent acquisition of Instagram. Still, brand marketers shouldn’t take Facebook’s continued preeminence for granted. They should keep tabs on the way younger audiences are using social media if they want to stay ahead of the competition.

How to Turn Your Classroom into an Idea Factory



Brightworks School

Students building a cafe at Brightworks School in San Francisco.

By Suzie Boss
The following suggestions for turning K-12 classrooms into innovation spaces come from Bringing Innovation to School: Empowering Students to Thrive in a Changing World, published in July by Solution Tree.

How can we prepare today’s students to become tomorrow’s innovators? It’s an urgent challenge, repeated by President Obama, corporate CEOs, and global education experts like Yong Zhao and Tony Wagner. Virtually every discussion of 21st-century learning puts innovation and its close cousin, creativity, atop the list of skills students must have for the future.

If we’re serious about preparing students to become innovators, educators have some hard work ahead. Getting students ready to tackle tomorrow’s challenges means helping them develop a new set of skills and fresh ways of thinking that they won’t acquire through textbook-driven instruction. Students need opportunities to practice these skills on right-sized projects, with supports in place to scaffold learning. They need to persist and learn from setbacks. That’s how they’ll develop the confidence to tackle difficult problems.

How do we fill the gap between saying we must encourage innovation and teaching students how to actually generate and execute original ideas? The answers are emerging from classrooms across the country where pioneering teachers are making innovation a priority. Their strategies vary widely, from tinkering workshops and design studios to digital gaming and global challenges. By emphasizing problem solving and creativity in the core curriculum, these advance scouts are demonstrating that innovation is both powerful and teachable.

Across disparate fields, from engineering and technology to the social and environmental sectors, innovators use a common problem-solving process. They frame problems carefully, looking at issues from all sides to find opportunity gaps. They may generate many possible solutions before focusing their efforts. They refine solutions through iterative cycles, learning from failure along with success. When they hit on worthy ideas, innovators network with others and share results widely.

In the classroom, this same process corresponds neatly with the stages of project-based learning. In PBL, students investigate intriguing questions that lead them to learn important academic content. They apply their learning to create something new, demonstrate their understanding, or teach others about the issue they have explored. By emphasizing key thinking skills throughout the PBL process, teachers can guide students to operate the same way that innovators do in all kinds of settings.

Here are eight tips to borrow from classrooms where teachers are reinventing yesterday’s schools as tomorrow’s idea factories.


Good projects start with good questions. Listen closely to students to find out what makes them curious. Instead of presenting them with ready-made assignments, invite student feedback when you are designing projects. Make sure your driving questions for projects involve real-world issues that students care about investigating.


Projects offer an ideal context to develop students’ collaboration skills, but make sure teamwork doesn’t feel contrived. If projects are too big for any one student to manage alone, team members will have a real reason to rely on each other’s contributions. Teach students how to break a big project into manageable pieces and bring out the best ideas from everyone on the team. Offer them examples of innovations (from the Mars rover to the iPad) that wouldn’t have been possible without team efforts.


Innovators have a tendency to think big. They know how to use social networking tools to make a worthy idea go viral. Encourage students to share their projects with audiences beyond the classroom, using digital tools like YouTube or online publishing sites. Help them build networks to exchange ideas with peers and learn from experts around the globe.


Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Innovators who have empathy can step outside their own perspective and see issues from multiple viewpoints. Approaching a problem this way leads to better solutions. Teach students strategies for making field observations, conducting focus groups or user interviews, or gathering stories that offer insights into others’ perspectives.


Passion is what keeps innovators motivated to persist despite long odds and flawed first efforts. Find out what drives students’ interests during out-of-school time, and look for opportunities to connect these pursuits with school projects. Ask students: When you feel most creative, what are you doing? What tools or technologies are you using? Their answers should set the stage for more engaging projects.


In today’s flat world, where access to information is ubiquitous, innovation can happen anywhere. Opportunities to support good ideas are also getting flattened. Philanthropy and venture funding, once reserved for the wealthy, have been crowdsourced with online platforms like Kiva ( and Kickstarter ( To participate fully in the culture of innovation, students need to be able to do more than generate their own ideas. They also need to know how to critically evaluate others’ brainstorms and decide which ones are worth supporting. Develop classroom protocols for students to critically evaluate each other’s ideas. They may decide to throw their collective energy behind one promising idea or pull components from multiple teams into a final project.


Being a critical thinker also means being able to spot ideas that aren’t ready for prime time. Bold new ideas may have bugs that need to be worked out. An approach that appears to be a game-changer may be too expensive for the benefits it affords or may have unanticipated consequences. Give students opportunities to look for potential pitfalls and know when to say no.


Will students come up with breakthrough ideas in every project? Probably not, but you can encourage them to stretch their thinking by setting ambitious goals. What would students be able to do or demonstrate if they were truly operating as innovators?  Provide them with real-world examples by sharing stories of innovators from many fields, including social innovators who tackle wicked problems like poverty or illiteracy. Share the back stories of breakthroughs to show how much effort went into each inspired idea. Let students know they can’t expect to reach breakthrough solutions to every problem they tackle. Finding out what doesn’t work can be a useful outcome, too. Genuine innovation is indeed rare—but worth recognizing and celebrating when it happens.

Privatizing Public Schools: Big Firms Eyeing Profits From U.S. K-12 Market

In my opinion this is the beginning of the

end if this happens… is for the

masses not to be “privatized” to make

money for the few.

Privatizing Public Schools

By Stephanie Simon

NEW YORK, Aug 1 (Reuters) – The investors gathered in a tony private club in Manhattan were eager to hear about the next big thing, and education consultant Rob Lytle was happy to oblige.

Think about the upcoming rollout of new national academic standards for public schools, he urged the crowd. If they’re as rigorous as advertised, a huge number of schools will suddenly look really bad, their students testing way behind in reading and math. They’ll want help, quick. And private, for-profit vendors selling lesson plans, educational software and student assessments will be right there to provide it.

“You start to see entire ecosystems of investment opportunity lining up,” said Lytle, a partner at The Parthenon Group, a Boston consulting firm. “It could get really, really big.”

Indeed, investors of all stripes are beginning to sense big profit potential in public education.

The K-12 market is tantalizingly huge: The U.S. spends more than $500 billion a year to educate kids from ages five through 18. The entire education sector, including college and mid-career training, represents nearly 9 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, more than the energy or technology sectors.

Traditionally, public education has been a tough market for private firms to break into — fraught with politics, tangled in bureaucracy and fragmented into tens of thousands of individual schools and school districts from coast to coast.

Now investors are signaling optimism that a golden moment has arrived. They’re pouring private equity and venture capital into scores of companies that aim to profit by taking over broad swaths of public education.

The conference last week at the University Club, billed as a how-to on “private equity investing in for-profit education companies,” drew a full house of about 100.


In the venture capital world, transactions in the K-12 education sector soared to a record $389 million last year, up from $13 million in 2005. That includes major investments from some of the most respected venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, according to GSV Advisors, an investment firm in Chicago that specializes in education.

The goal: an education revolution in which public schools outsource to private vendors such critical tasks as teaching math, educating disabled students, even writing report cards, said Michael Moe, the founder of GSV.

“It’s time,” Moe said. “Everybody’s excited about it.”

Not quite everyone.

The push to privatize has alarmed some parents and teachers, as well as union leaders who fear their members will lose their jobs or their autonomy in the classroom.

Many of these protesters have rallied behind education historian Diane Ravitch, a professor at New York University, who blogs and tweets a steady stream of alarms about corporate profiteers invading public schools.

Ravitch argues that schools have, in effect, been set up by a bipartisan education reform movement that places an enormous emphasis on standardized test scores, labels poor performers as “failing” schools and relentlessly pushes local districts to transform low-ranked schools by firing the staff and turning the building over to private management.

President Barack Obama and both Democratic and Republican policymakers in the states have embraced those principles. Local school districts from Memphis to Philadelphia to Dallas, meanwhile, have hired private consultants to advise them on improving education; the strategists typically call for a broader role for private companies in public schools.

“This is a new frontier,” Ravitch said. “The private equity guys and the hedge fund guys are circling public education.”

Some of the products and services offered by private vendors may well be good for kids and schools, Ravitch said. But she has no confidence in their overall quality because “the bottom line is that they’re seeking profit first.”

Vendors looking for a toehold in public schools often donate generously to local politicians and spend big on marketing, so even companies with dismal academic results can rack up contracts and rake in tax dollars, Ravitch said.

“They’re taking education, which ought to be in a different sphere where we’re constantly concerned about raising quality, and they’re applying a business metric: How do we cut costs?” Ravitch said.


Investors retort that public school districts are compelled to use that metric anyway because of reduced funding from states and the soaring cost of teacher pensions and health benefits. Public schools struggling to balance budgets have fired teachers, slashed course offerings and imposed a long list of fees, charging students to ride the bus, to sing in the chorus, even to take honors English.

The time is ripe, they say, for schools to try something new — like turning to the private sector for help.

“Education is behind healthcare and other sectors that have utilized outsourcing to become more efficient,” private equity investor Larry Shagrin said in the keynote address to the New York conference.

He credited the reform movement with forcing public schools to catch up. “There’s more receptivity to change than ever before,” said Shagrin, a partner with Brockway Moran & Partners Inc, in Boca Raton, Florida. “That creates opportunity.”

Speakers at the conference identified several promising arenas for privatization.

Education entrepreneur John Katzman urged investors to look for companies developing software that can replace teachers for segments of the school day, driving down labor costs.

“How do we use technology so that we require fewer highly qualified teachers?” asked Katzman, who founded the Princeton Review test-prep company and now focuses on online learning.

Such businesses already have been drawing significant interest. Venture capital firms have bet more than $9 million on Schoology, an online learning platform that promises to take over the dreary jobs of writing and grading quizzes, giving students feedback about their progress and generating report cards.

DreamBox Learning has received $18 million from investors to refine and promote software that drills students in math. The software is billed as “adaptive,” meaning it analyzes responses to problems and then poses follow-up questions precisely pitched to a student’s abilities.

The charter school chain Rocketship, a nonprofit based in San Jose, California, turns kids over to DreamBox for two hours a day. The chain boasts that it pays its teachers more because it needs fewer of them, thanks to such programs. Last year, Rocketship commissioned a study that showed students who used DreamBox heavily for 16 weeks scored on average 2.3 points higher on a standardized math test than their peers.


Another niche spotlighted at the private equity conference: special education.

Mark Claypool, president of Educational Services of America, told the crowd his company has enjoyed three straight years of 15 percent to 20 percent growth as more and more school districts have hired him to run their special-needs programs.

Autism in particular, he said, is a growth market, with school districts seeking better, cheaper ways to serve the growing number of students struggling with that disorder.

ESA, which is based in Nashville, Tennessee, now serves 12,000 students with learning disabilities or behavioral problems in 250 school districts nationwide.

“The knee-jerk reaction [to private providers like ESA] is, ‘You’re just in this to make money. The profit motive is going to trump quality,’ ” Claypool said. “That’s crazy, because frankly, there are really a whole lot easier ways to make a living.” Claypool, a former social worker, said he got into the field out of frustration over what he saw as limited options for children with learning disabilities.

Claypool and others point out that private firms have always made money off public education; they have constructed the schools, provided the buses and processed the burgers served at lunch. Big publishers such as Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt have made hundreds of millions of dollars selling public school districts textbooks and standardized tests.

Critics see the newest rush to private vendors as more worrisome because school districts are outsourcing not just supplies but the very core of education: the daily interaction between student and teacher, the presentation of new material, the quick checks to see which kids have risen to the challenge and which are hopelessly confused.

At the more than 5,500 charter schools nationwide, private management companies — some of them for-profit — are in full control of running public schools with public dollars.

“I look around the world and I don’t see any country doing this but us,” Ravitch said. “Why is that?”

Six Scaffolding Strategies to use with YOUR students.

What’s the opposite of scaffolding a lesson? It would be saying to students something like, “Read this nine-page science article, write a detailed essay on the topic it explores, and turn it in by Wednesday.” Yikes — no safety net, no parachute, no scaffolding — just left blowing in the wind.

Let’s start by agreeing that scaffolding a lesson and differentiating instruction are two different things. Scaffolding is breaking up the learning into chunks and then providing a tool, or structure, with each chunk. When scaffolding reading, for example, you might preview the text and discuss key vocabulary, or chunk the text and read and discuss as you go. With differentiation, you may give a child an entirely different piece of text to read, you might shorten the text or alter it, and you may modify the writing assignment that follows.

Simply put, scaffolding is what you do first with kids, then for those students who are still struggling, you may need to differentiate by modifying an assignment and/or making accommodations for a student (for example, choose more accessible text and/or assign an alternative project).

Scaffolding and differentiation do have something in common though. In order to meet students where they are and appropriately scaffold a lesson, or differentiate instruction, you have to know the individual and collective zone of proximal development (ZPD) of your learners. (As education researcher Eileen Raymond states, “[T]he ZPD is the distance between what children can do by themselves and the next learning that they can be helped to achieve with competent assistance.”)

In the Classroom

So let’s get to some scaffolding strategies you may or may not have tried yet, or perhaps you’ve not used them in sometime and just need a gentle reminder on how awesome and helpful they can be when it comes to student learning:

#1. Show and Tell

How many of us say that we learn best by seeing something rather than hearing about it? Modeling for students is a cornerstone of scaffolding in my experience. Have you ever interrupted someone with “just show me!” while they were in the middle of explaining to you how to do something? Every chance you have, show or demonstrate to students exactly what they are expected to do.

  • Try the fish bowl activity, where a small group in the center are circled by the class as the group in the middle, or fishbowl, engage in an activity, modeling how it’s done for the larger group.
  • Always show students the outcome or product before they do it. If a teacher assigns a persuasive essay or inquiry-based science project, a model should be presented side-by-side with a criteria chart or rubric. You can guide students through each step of the process, model in-hand of the finished product.
  • Use think alouds, which will allow you to model your thought process as you: read a text, solve a problem, or design a project. Remember that children’s cognitive abilities are still in development so opportunities for them to see developed, critical thinking are essential.

#2. Tap into Prior Knowledge

Ask students to share their own experiences, hunches, and ideas about the content or concept of study and have them relate and connect it to their own lives. Sometimes you may have to offer hints and suggestions, leading them to the connections a bit, but once they get there, they will grasp it as their own.

Launching the learning in your classroom from the prior knowledge of your students, and using this as a framework for future lessons is not only a scaffolding technique, many would agree it’s just plain good teaching.

#3. Give Time to Talk

All learners need time to process new ideas and information. They also need time to verbally make sense of and articulate their learning with the community of learners who are also engaged in the same experience and journey. As we all know, structured discussions really work best with children regardless of their level of maturation. If you aren’t weaving in think-pair-share, turn-and-talk, triad teams or some other structured talking time throughout the lesson, you should begin including this crucial strategy on a regular basis.

#4. Pre-Teach Vocabulary

Sometimes referred to as frontloading vocabulary, this is a strategy that we teachers don’t use enough. Many of us, myself included, are guilty of sending students all alone down the bumpy, muddy path known as Challenging Text – a road booby trapped with difficult vocabulary. We send them ill prepared and then we are often shocked when they: a) lose interest b) create a ruckus c) fall asleep.

Pre-teaching vocabulary doesn’t mean pulling a dozen words from the chapter and having kids look up definitions and write them out (we all know how this will go. Again, see above a, b, and c). Instead, introduce the words to kids in photos, and in context to things they know and are interested in. Use analogies, metaphors and invite students to create a symbol or drawing for each word and give time for discussion of the words (small and whole groups). Not until they’ve done all this should the dictionaries come out. And the dictionaries will be used only to compare with those definitions they’ve already discovered on their own.

With the dozen or so words “frontloaded,” students are ready, you as their guide, to tackle that challenging text.

#5. Use Visual Aids

Graphic organizers, pictures, and charts can all serve as scaffolding tools. Graphic organizers are very specific in that they help kids visually represent their ideas, organize information, and grasp concepts such as sequencing and cause and effect.

A graphic organizer shouldn’t be The Product, but rather it’s a scaffolding tool that helps guide and shape the student’s thinking so that they can apply it. Some students can dive right into the discussion, or writing an essay, or synthesizing several different hypotheses without using a graphic organizer of some sort, but many of our students benefit from using them with a difficult reading or challenging new information. Think of graphic organizers as training wheels; they are temporary and meant to be removed.

#6. Pause, Ask Questions, Pause, Review

This is a wonderful way to check for understanding while students read a chunk of difficult text or learn a new concept or content. Here’s how this strategy works: a new idea from discussion or the reading is shared, then pause (providing think time), then ask a strategic question, pausing again. By strategic, you need to design them ahead of time, make sure they are specific, guiding and open-ended questions. (Great questions fail without giving think time for responses so hold out during that Uncomfortable Silence.) Keep kids engaged as active listeners by calling on someone to “give the gist” of what was just discussed / discovered / questioned. If the class seems stuck by the questions, provide an opportunity for students to discuss it with a neighbor.

Trying Something New

With all the diverse learners in our classrooms, there is a strong need for teachers to learn and experiment with new scaffolding strategies. I often say to teachers I support, you have slow down in order to go quickly. Scaffolding a lesson may, in fact, take longer to teach, but the end product is of far greater quality and the experience much more rewarding for all involved.

Please share with us scaffolding strategies that work well for your students.

Video gaming in art galleries Atari and Game Boys find love and appreciation outside of vintage and junk shops

In one corner of the Platform Centre for Photographic + Digital Arts in Winnipeg, a brown plaid sofa set on a shaggy brown rug faces a cathode-ray tube TV, which is hooked up to a vintage Atari game console. Gallery goers are invited to sit down and play A Slow Year, designed by video game poet Ian Bogost, who is also director of the digital media program at the Georgia Institute of Technology. It hearkens back to a simpler time, when consoles didn’t have much memory to work with, so the games weren’t as frenetic as today’s. The game takes the player through the year in a meditative manner: in winter, you use the joystick to sip a cup of coffee while the sun rises outside. In summer, you take a nap under fluffy clouds and try to predict where a log floating downriver will be when you open your eyes.

“It draws its inspiration from poetry, from haiku and imagism, the idea of precision in the image,” explains Bogost, one of six artists whose work is on display at the small Winnipeg gallery until July 28. “When you program with the Atari, you have to program within these very stringent technical constraints, and I saw a connection with the material constraints of poetry.” When he takes A Slow Year to gamer conferences, players ask if it’s a real Atari. At museums, gallery-goers are reluctant to sit down and actually touch the joystick.

At Platform, the focus of the Reset: Post-Consumer Gamer Culture exhibit is on vintage consoles. Along with the blaring beeps and blips of the music, it inspires nostalgia in those who remember a childhood spent in video arcades or their best friend’s basement. “It’s contemporary art with vintage technology,” explains guest curator Skot Deeming.

After 40 years of existence, video games are ripe for artistic evaluation. In the exhibition The Art of Video Games, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington celebrates commercial gaming, including iconic devices like the ColecoVision and the Commodore 64, along with the Xbox and PlayStation 3. Visitors get to play five games selected for their influence on the gaming industry: Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros., The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst and Flower.

“Within games, you’ll find illustration, painting, narrative and orchestral music. You have all of these things that we view as traditional arts, and when they’re combined, they’re greater than the whole,” explains the exhibit’s curator, Chris Melissinos.

Game-art exhibits also draw a different crowd than traditional art shows, a boon to galleries and museums trying to attract new audiences. At the Smithsonian, fans dressed as their favourite game character for the exhibit’s kickoff. Both gamers and the city’s artistic set have come out to the show in Winnipeg’s downtown core.

At Platform, Deeming (a.k.a. mrghosty), a graduate student at Toronto’s York University who studies video game development and art, seems tired of the debate over the artistic merits of the medium. “I don’t think the question is, can they be art, but how? What qualifies them as art? Where is the artistry coming from, what is the context?”

Deeming says not every mass-produced commercial game has artistic value, the same way not every Hollywood blockbuster is a masterpiece of cinematography. “There are some contemporary 3D realistic games that are striking and gorgeous. But if your interaction is limited to guns and bullets, where is the artistry?”

The gallery also features digital prints by California artist Max Capacity, who modified crude, low-resolution images from 1980s video games to create pixelated cityscapes. And Winnipeg video artist Clint Enns made a cheeky homage to Andy Warhol’s eight-hour film about the Empire State Building, but his lasts less than 15 minutes and uses footage of an art deco skyscraper from Grand Theft Auto IV.

Enns grew up playing games for fun, but sadly now when he plays it’s to generate footage for his movies. “I play them now when I want to work.”

What’s the Difference Between Games and Gamification?




So a few moths ago many people would have said Minecraft? What is that? Now it is one of the fastest growing communities online (one of which both my son Jonathan and I are both members of). Knowing how games engage and enthrall students around the world we need to figure out how to truly use them in education. One of the best sites I have found so far is a program CreativeAcademies where students create their own simulations and animations, then store them in an e-portfolio online. Check it out

Perhaps the best way to think about games in education is not to automatically call everything that looks like fun a “learning game.” Lumping all digital game approaches together makes no more sense than a toddler’s inclination to call every four-legged animal a “doggie.”

Game interest is definitely on the upswing in K-12 and higher education. It seems almost cyclical: every several years, almost in sync with the acceptance of new technologies (such as multimedia CD-ROM, then online, then mobile), there’s a surge of activity with games in education.

But everything game-like is not a game. And while game purists may wince at this simplification, it helps to consider games in education in terms of gamification, simulation and (simply) games. The three approaches aren’t always exclusive – they’re more of a continuum, or a Venn diagram’s overlapping circles – but they are notably different.


Gamification is the current bright-shiny of the three terms – and, as a result, is the most used and frequently misused. But the cleanest definition is straightforward: gamification is adding game elements and mechanics to things that aren’t designed to be games.


Providing feelings of competence, of being in control and that the outcome matters is critical, “and marketers (and frankly most people) don’t really have a clue.”


Outside of education, some call these “reward, recognition and motivation programs.” And Alex Chisholm, executive director of the Learning Games Network, a spin-off from the MIT Education Arcade and University of Wisconsin, shared an equivalent perspective recently when he noted that saying you’re going to “gamify” something in education means you’re applying game design principles to motivate and inspire learners.

In apps and software, this is commonly interpreted as adding point systems (sometimes with competitive student leaderboards), badges for accomplishments and levels of progression. One of the highest profile examples of this approach is the Khan Academy, which layers avatars, energy points and badges on top of completing traditional math activities.

But gamification can be done well or poorly.

“The first place people go with gamification is ‘rewards.’ There can be dragons,” says Scott Dodson, a gamification expert and executive with Bobber Interactive. “Rewards done wrong essentially train the user that the activity is devoid of intrinsic value which leads to amotivation, short-term engagement at best.”

Dodson adds that rewards can work, but the way the user experience is framed – providing feelings of competence, of being in control and that the outcome matters – is critical, “and marketers (and frankly most people) don’t really have a clue.”

Chisholm expresses similar skepticism when it comes to education. “We’re reserved, if not dubious, about how gamification is employed,” he says, adding it takes a good designer and serious thought about what is actually being gamified.


Mention the original 1989 SimCity as an example and pretty much everyone understands what you mean by a digital simulation that can be used in education. But a good simulation doesn’t have to be game-like. It just has to have both an internally consistent setting with rules and attempt to recreate a real-world scenario or situation.

One example: Platform Wars, a management simulator used by the MIT Sloan School of Management for its courses and released for public use in February. In it, the student heads up a video game company and has to make strategic decisions over a decade in simulated time to edge out a competitor’s platform and maximize profits. It’s definitely not flashy, resembling Excel more than Electronic Arts.

But that doesn’t mean a simulation can’t be pretty. MediaSpark, which has created business education software for high schools for a number of years, is preparing for the alpha release of GoVenture World, a web-based, massively multiplayer online role-playing business simulation. In it, players (teenagers and older) can choose a role in manufacturing, law, advertising, retail or investment, deal with each other and sell to simulated consumers. One month in play equals a year in time.

Defined another way, “Simulations are re-creations of systems,” says Scott Traylor, who frequently speaks and writes about learning games and is the CEO of digital kids’ content and tech developer 360KID. That simulation can be of a chemistry lab, gravity or even disaster response. “You are dropped into a situation and the only way you succeed is through trial and error, learning the correct ways of thinking to succeed in a particular role. Does learning occur in a well-designed simulation? You bet. Is this a game? You tell me.”


Successful games in education have a long history, dating back to at least 1985, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego (the first learning product to receive the software industry’s CODiE award) and that decade’s Reader Rabbit and Math Blaster, to massively multiplayer, web- and mobile-based learning games of today, like World of Warcraft.

Games, like simulations, are rule-based. But more so than gamified activities and simulations, there’s usually a strong emphasis on beating the game: that is, playing and winning.

“You, as the user, are intrinsically interested in the play experience. If you are engaged at that level, all games have the potential to teach,” notes 360KID’s Traylor. “Good play equals good learning. One example of where learning games tend to go wrong is when game developers apply an A-B-A-B approach to gaming. First you start off by offering some engaging gaming content (A), then you switch to some educational content you must get through in order to return to the game (B).

“That’s the chocolate-and-broccoli approach to gaming. Successful learning games seamlessly integrate learning content into the gaming experience,” he says.

Chisholm is equally direct, saying the field of game-based educational research has really exploded in the past dozen years. “We don’t want to mimic some of the interesting failures of the multimedia market of the 1990s,” he adds.

Traylor echoes the concern. “As people race to develop learning games, only thoughtful and solid collaboration (between gamers and teachers) guided by good research, game development expertise and content expertise will succeed. Learning games could become the latest fad if the market becomes flooded with really bad learning games. That is something I worry about.”

Then add in the reality that the lines between gamification, simulation and game aren’t clean: a fuzzy continuum, an overlapping series of circles or, as Bobber’s Dodson suggests, “a triangle, visually” with gamification off the axis and between the others.

Take Minecraft. Is it a massively multiplayer digital simulation of building with LEGO-like blocks? Or is it a learning game once teachers create projects for student collaboration using logic gates and objectives?

It could be the best response an educator or parent can have, when faced with a digital enthusiast who wants to use games in education, is to first simply ask, “What kind?” And then play on.

Frank Catalano is a consultant, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies. He tweets @FrankCatalano, consults as Intrinsic Strategy, and writes the regular Practical Nerd column for GeekWire.