Five Things I Learned About Ed Tech While Playing ‘Zelda: Breath of the Wild’

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I don’t mean to brag, but I just beat “Zelda: Breath of the Wild.”

 

This summer I sat down with my 9-year-old daughter and together we played the most popular Nintendo Switch game for hours, days, weeks.

 

And at the end of all that time, I came away victorious – something I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do when I started.

 

There are so many buttons to learn, two joy sticks, various info screens and menus.

 

But when it was all over, I had cleared all four divine beasts. I got all 18 captured memories. I completed about 80 shrines. I mastered about 45 side quests. I shredded guardians, lynols and bokoblins. And, yes, I opened a major can of whoop ass on Calamity Gannon.

 

As the kids say, I’m jelly.

 

My video game skills are lit.

 

You can’t handle me, bro.

 

And so on.

 

 

But I’m not a kid. I’m a grown man.

 

Didn’t I have anything better to do?

 

Couldn’t I have found a more productive use for all that time?

 

Maybe. Maybe not. However, beyond the sheer fun, I did learn something from the whole experience.

 

As a public school teacher, I learned about my students by following in their footsteps.

 

That’s really why I started playing in the first place – my middle school kids this year loved that game.

 

I got more Zelda doodles, more Hyrule poetry, more Link fan fiction than you might at first believe.

 

The world of the game was really important to my children and having even a passing knowledge of that world helped me relate to them.

 

I even asked for a few tips after class.

 

One of my best students took her Switch out of her backpack and showed me a prime location to pick hot peppers so I could withstand the cold of Mount Hyrule (Don’t ask).

 

It was worth doing just for that – I showed my willingness to be the student and for them to be the teachers. I showed them we were all a community of learners.

 

At least, that’s my hope.

 

But now that the dog days of summer are here and my video game victory is complete, I keep thinking of the implications of my experience in Hyrule on the world of education.

 

Specifically, I’m thinking about education technology or Ed Tech.

 

I’m thinking about how we use various software packages to try to teach students and how they invariably fail at the task.

 

Well-meaning administrators hear about this program or that classroom management system or an assessment app and they spend beaucoup bucks on it.

 

We’re instructed to give up valuable instruction time so our kids can sit in front of a computer while a digital avatar attempts to do our job.

 

Kids listen to a cartoon person instruct them in the rudiments of grammar or literacy, play loose skills exercises and earn digital badges.

 

It may sound like fun to us, but they hate it.

 

The reason: nine times out of ten it’s little more than a standardized test given on a computer.

 

Sure, there are lots of bells and whistles, but the kids catch on mighty quickly. There is no student as bored as a student forced to play an educational video game.

 

I have real concerns with issues of student privacy and how the data being collected by these apps is used. I have real problems with how this technology facilitates dumbing down the curriculum – narrowing it to only that which can be measured on a multiple choice assessment. I take umbrage that these programs are used by some as “evidence” that human educators and brick and mortar schools are unnecessary. And I shed real tears at the massive amounts of funding being funneled to corporations that could be better spent in our own districts.

 

But playing this game has given me hope.

 

In seeing how “Zelda” succeeds with kids – because it succeeded with me – I think we can illuminate some ways ed tech goes awry.

 

I found five distinct lessons from the game, five areas where “Zelda” succeeds where ed tech fails.

 

Perhaps these could be used to improve the quality of ed tech devices to make them better at teaching students.

 

Or they could show why ed tech will never be as effective at teaching as flesh and blood instructors.

 

In any case, here is what I learned.

1) Focus on Fun

 

One of the biggest differences between ed tech and “Zelda” was the focus.

 

The games we make children play at school are designed to teach them something. That is their purpose. It is their raison d’être. The point behind the entire activity is to instruct, test and reward.

 

By contrast, the purpose of “Zelda” is fun.

 

Don’t get me wrong. “Zelda” can be very educational.

 

There are points where the game is actively trying to teach you how to do things usually associated with game play.

 

You have to learn how to make your character (Link) do what you want him to do. You have to learn how to manipulate him through the world. How to run, how to climb, how to heal, how to use weapons, how to cook and make elixirs, etc.

 

However, the point behind the entire game is not instructional. It’s fun – pure and simple.

 

If you have to learn something, it is all in service to that larger goal.

 

In the world of the game, learning is explicitly extrinsic. It helps you have more fun playing. Only the pursuit of winning is intrinsic or even conceptualized as being so.

 

In real life, this may not be the right approach to education, but it seems to be a rule of virtual experience. If it is superseded, the game becomes just another class assignment – lifeless, dead, boring.

 

If educational software is going to be effective in the classroom, it must find a way to bridge this divide. It must either put fun before pedagogy or trick the user into thinking it has done so.

 

I’m not sure this is possible or desirable. But there it is.

 

2) Logic and Problem Solving Work but not Curriculum

 

There are many aspects of “Zelda” one could consider educational.

 

However, when it comes to things that have importance outside of the game, the biggest would be problem solving and logic games.

 

A great deal of game play can be characterized under this umbrella.

 

The ostensible mission is to defeat the bad guy, Calamity Gannon. However, to do so you often have to solve various puzzles in order to have the strength and skills to take him down.

 

The most obvious of these puzzles are shrines. There are 120 special areas throughout Hyrule that Link needs to find and solve.

 

Each one involves a special skill and asks the gamer to decipher problems using that skill. For example, one asks you to manipulate fans so that the air flow makes windmills turn in a pattern. Another asks you to get a ball through an obstacle course.

 

In each case, the emphasis is on logic and critical thinking.

 

That has tremendous educational value. And it’s something I’ve seen done easily and well in many educational video games.

 

The problem is it doesn’t teach any particular curriculum. It doesn’t teach math, science, English or social studies – though it does help contribute to all of these pursuits.

 

 

Ed tech games are not nearly so coy. They often try to go right for the curriculum with disastrous results. Ed tech software, for instance, will have you find the grammatical error in a sentence or solve an equation in order to move on in the game.

 

That just doesn’t work. It feels false, extraneous and forced. It’s doesn’t seem like an organic part of the experience. It’s something contrived onto it from outside and reminds the gamer exactly why you’re playing – to learn.

 

3) Option to Seek Help

 

One of the most surprising things to me about playing “Zelda” on the Switch was how much of an on-line gaming community has formed around the whole experience.

 

If you get stuck in a particular area, you can find numerous sites on-line that will help you get passed it. You can even find gamer videos where YouTubers will show you exactly how they solved this or that problem. And they don’t all have the same solution. Some provide elegant, well-detailed advice, and others seem to stumble on it and offer you their videos as proof they could actually get the job done somehow.

 

It’s a lot different from when I was a kid playing video games. Back then (30 years ago) you had your friends but there were few other places to go for help. There were fan magazines and a few video game companies had tip hotlines. But other than that, you were on your own.

 

One of my favorite YouTubers this summer was Hyrule Dude. His videos were clear, informative and helpful. However, I didn’t always agree with his solutions. But they invariably helped me find things that would work for me.

 

It reminded me a bit of Khan Academy and other learning sites.

 

If kids really want to grasp something today, they have so many places they can go on-line. As educators, it’s hard to incorporate them into a classroom environment because there are certain things we want kids to find out for themselves.

 

For instance, as a language arts teacher, I want my students to do the assigned readings on their own. Yet I know some of them try to skip to the on-line summaries they can find and use that instead of reading the text. I have no problem if they access good summaries and analysis but I don’t want them to take the place of trying to comprehend the text on their own first.

 

I think there are ways to use this larger social media community to help support learning without spoiling the hard work kids need to put in on their own. But it’s something we need to think about more and find better ways to incorporate.

 

4) Open Ended

 

One of the most striking things about this new “Zelda” is how much choice the gamer has. In most games you have to complete the first board and then the second and so on until you win.

 

On the Switch, the world you’re thrust into is incredibly open ended. You can do pretty much what you want, when you want. Or at least you can try.

 

At first, your character is limited to one area of the world – a plateau. But once you complete a certain number of the challenges there, you get the paraglider which allows you to access most of the rest of the world.

 

It’s a huge area to explore – impossible to travel the entire length of it without spending hours of game play. And it’s entirely up to you where to go and what to do next.

 

The central mission of the game is to defeat Calamity Gannon in Hyrule Castle. However, that would be incredibly difficult early on. You’re advised to get the four Divine Beasts first. And you can do them in any order you want.

 

Moreover, I mentioned shrines earlier. When you complete four shrines, you can either increase your hearts (the amount you can be hurt without dying) or your stamina (how long your character can do something hard like climbing or swimming without having to rest). Technically, you don’t have to complete more than a few shrines, but doing so makes your character stronger and better able to get the Divine Beasts and defeat Gannon.

 

There are also side-quests (totally optional) that reward your character with money, items, etc.

 

I think this is the secret to the game’s success. It’s why game play is so immersive and addictive.

 

Ed tech software is exactly the opposite. You must do section A before section B before section C. It’s little more than a multiple choice test with only limited possible answers of which only one is correct.

 

In “Zelda” there are often multiple ways to achieve the same end. For instance, I would assume the programmers wanted me to fight my way through every room of Hyrule Castle to get to Calamity Gannon. However, I simply climbed over the walls and swan through the moats – a much quicker and efficient method.

 

If we could recreate this freedom of movement and multifarious solutions within educational software, we might really be onto something. But, frankly, it’s something that even traditional video games have difficulty being able to recreate.

 

5) Choice to Play or Not

 

And speaking of choice, there is the choice whether to play or not.

 

Video games are one of the things kids choose for leisure. When we force kids to play them in school, that choice is gone.

 

They become a task, a trial, an assignment.

 

Moreover, not every child enjoys video games.

 

We can’t mandate kids learn from games – even the best of ed tech games. At best, they should be an option. They could be one tool in the toolbox.

 

In summary, I think the goal of the ed tech industry is deeply flawed.

 

Ed tech will never adequately replace brick-and-mortar schools and flesh and blood teachers.

 

At best, it could provide a tool to help kids learn.

 

To do so, games would have to primarily be focused on fun – not learning. They would have to be organized around critical thinking and logic – not curriculum. They would need to utilize the on-line community for help but not cheating. They would need to be open ended worlds and not simply repackaged standardized testing. And finally, students would need the choice whether to play them or not.

 

Unfortunately, I am skeptical that the ed tech industry would even attempt to incorporate these ideas in its products.

 

They are market driven and not student driven. The corporate creatures behind these products don’t care how well they work. They only want to increase profitability and boost market share.

 

Cheaper commodities are better – especially when the consumer isn’t the student forced to play the game but the politician or administrator in charge of school policy.

 

Ed tech’s potential as a positive tool in a school’s toolbox has been smothered by the needs of business and industry. Until we recognize the harm corporations do in the school, we will be doomed to dehumanizing students, devaluing teachers and wasting our limited resources on already wealthy big business.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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The Necessity and Importance of Teachers

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Are teachers necessary?

 

 

That’s the question big business is asking.

 

 

Well, “asking” isn’t really the right word. They’re implying an answer.

 

 

Hedge fund mangers and ed tech soothsayers are betting hundreds of millions of dollars that educators aren’t really all that important.

 

 

They’re planning a future where real live people play a much smaller role in student learning.

 

 

They’re mapping out a world where kids don’t even have to go to school to grasp the basics, where learning can be accomplished anywhere but instigated, tracked, and assessed on-line through various computer platforms.

 

 

It’s called a learning ecosystem, personalized learning, competency based or individualized education. With little to no guiding principles, management or oversight, kids would engage in educational tasks on various devices in order to earn digital badges.

 

 

Children would bounce from a few hours of Khan Academy videos here to a software package there and Voila! “Modern” education!

 

 

It’s a brave new world where investors hope to make a bundle by reducing the cost and pocketing the savings.

 

 

Since teachers are the biggest cost, they’re the first things to go.

 

 

Since their rights as workers and human beings are a roadblock on this learning superhighway, they’re the first to go.

 

 

And since they’re in a prime position to see exactly what’s going on and to object when this ed tech paradise exploits the students it ostensibly is being built for, they MUST go – now, as soon as possible.

 

 

The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Janus v AFSCME is part of that process. It’s another way to weaken labor and clear the path for business – the collusion of politics and corporations to steamroll the rest of us and swipe more of our money regardless of the children in the steamrollers way.

 

 

So when I ask “Are teachers necessary?” it’s not a purely philosophical question.

 

 

The answer will have a major impact on both the education of today and where we go in the future.

 

 

If teachers are not necessary, that removes one of the biggest obstacles to this frightening and uncertain future.

 

 

Unfortunately, no matter how much I want to answer in the affirmative that teachers are necessary, I can’t do so.

 

 

Even after thousands of years of recorded history, learning remains a mysterious process. Yet it doesn’t take much reflection to realize that it can take place without the presence of a teacher.

 

 

Some things can be figured out solely by the learner in the right circumstances.

 

 

 

In fact, many academic studies have shown that teachers are not even the most important factor in the process.

 

 

Roughly 60% of academic achievement can be explained by family background – things like income and poverty level. School factors only account for 20% – and of that, teachers account for 15%. (see Hanushek et al. 1998; Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).

 

 

Estimates vary somewhat from study to study, but the basic structure holds. The vast majority of impact on learning comes from the home and out-of-school factors. Teachers are a small part of the picture. They are the largest single factor in the school building, but the school, itself, is only one of many components.

 

In short, teachers are not necessary to student learning.

 

But neither are doctors necessary to healing or lawyers necessary to acquittals.

 

Necessity is a very high bar.

 

To survive, you need food, shelter and clothing. However, having all three does not mean you have a good life. Slaves had all three – no free person would choose to trade places with someone in generational servitude simply because they had everything they needed to survive.

 

The same with medicine. If shot in the arm, you could provide me with all the medical equipment necessary to remove the bullet, but I would still have a difficult time doing it by myself. I COULD. A doctor is not NECESSARY for that operation. But without a doctor present, my chances of getting the best medical care drop dramatically.

 

Moreover, you could pop me in a courtroom without the benefit of legal counsel and it’s not impossible that I could argue my way to the dismissal of all charges against me. But the likelihood of doing so is infinitesimal – as undocumented youngsters are discovering when forced into the courtroom to defend against deportation without an attorney or even their parents present.

 

The same is true of education.

 

Though teachers are not necessary to learning, they are vital to it.

 

Having a teacher dramatically boosts a student’s chances, and the more disadvantaged that student is, the more he or she benefits from an educator.

 

The academic schemes of the corporate class amount to changing the field into the equivalent of an automated teller or a business robocall.

 

You can purchase your groceries through the self-checkout line. You can get your customer service from an automated list. But neither of these are the highest quality service.

 

They are cheap alternatives.

 

They are ways for the business to cut costs and boost profits. Neither have anything to do with making things better for the customer.

 

And when it comes to education, eliminating (or even drastically reducing access to) the teacher will decrease the quality of the service beyond recognition.

 

A 2009 report, Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success, released by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice outlined several real world solutions to increase academic outcomes. None of them involve the elimination of teachers.

 

They are:

 

1. Reduce the rate of low birth weight children among African Americans

2. Reduce drug and alcohol abuse

3. Reduce pollutants in U.S. cites and move people away from toxic sites

4. Provide universal and free medical care for all citizens

5. Insure that no one suffers from food insecurity

6. Reduce the rates of family violence in low-income households

7. Improve mental health services among the poor

8. More equitably distribute low-income housing throughout communities

9. Reduce both the mobility and absenteeism rates of children

10. Provide high-quality preschools for all children

11. Provide summer programs for students from low-income homes to reduce summer losses in their academic achievement.

 

These are ways you improve education FOR CHILDREN.

 

This is how you make things better FOR THE LEARNER and not necessarily for the investor class.

 

And when it comes to teachers, there are numerous ways you can help them provide support for students.

 

First of all, hire more of them!

 

Today’s public schools employ 250,000 fewer people than they did before the recession of 2008–09. Meanwhile enrollment has increased by 800,000 students.

 

So if we wanted our kids to have the same quality of service children received in this country only a decade ago, we’d need to hire almost 400,000 more teachers!

 

That’s how you cut class size down from the 20, 30, even 40 students packed into a room that you can routinely find in some districts today.

 

And if you want to improve the quality of the teachers in those classrooms, here’s an easy fix – pay them.

 

According to the Economic Policy Institute, teachers in the United States make 14 percent less than people from professions that require similar levels of education.

 

Sadly, it only gets worse as time goes on.

 

Teacher salary starts low, and grows even more slowly.

 

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According to a report by the Center for American Progress, on average teachers with 10 years experience only get a roughly $800 raise per year. No wonder more than 16 percent of teachers have a second or third job outside of the school system. They simply can’t survive on the salary.

 

They can’t buy a home or even rent an apartment in most metropolitan areas. They can’t afford to marry, raise children, or eke out a middle class existence.

 

If you want to attract the best candidates to the profession, you need to make it more attractive. One way to do that is to increase the salary.

 

And finally, stop micromanaging everything teachers do and stomping on their rights. To do their job effectively teachers need autonomy. They need the ability to make decisions on the ground based on the empirical evidence gathered in the classroom.

 

Moreover, they need the freedom to speak out when something is going wrong in their buildings or districts. When software packages are purchased that spy on students for corporations, they need the ability to sound the alarm. When high stakes standardized testing is out of control, they need to be able to voice their objections. When shoddy, second-rate academic standards are forced onto them by politicians and business people, they need to be able to blow the whistle.

 

To do that, they need their union protections. They need collective bargaining rights to give them the power to counterbalance the forces of greed and corruption that have always been at the schoolhouse door.

 

As a country we have taken our attention away from what’s really important. We’ve stopped focusing on how to make education better and instead equated it with how to make it more profitable for those who are already wealthy.

 

Teachers are vital to education. They are lifelines to struggling students. We should find ways to support them and not constantly undercutting their social standing, autonomy and rights.

 

The importance of teachers is beyond doubt. As is the importance of society in supporting them.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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School Vouchers and Runaway EdTech Pave the Way for the Destruction of the Very Concept of School

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School is where you learn to learn.

 

A teacher with an advanced degree and decades of experience devotes her time to figuring out what helps you comprehend the world around you.

 

And, if she’s good, she imparts that lesson to you as well.

 

Imagine if we took that away.

 

Imagine a world where there are no schools – just free range children plopped in front of a computer or an iPad and told to go learn something.

 

No schools, no teachers, just gangs of students walking the streets, stopping along the way to thumb messages to each other on social media, play a video game or take an on-line test.

 

That’s the world many EdTech entrepreneurs are trying to build.

 

And school vouchers are helping them do it.

 

Take Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) and other market based privatization schemes.

 

Normally, the federal, state and local government collect taxes to fund an individual child’s education, which is then spent at a public or charter school.

 

At a public school all that money must be spent on the student. At a charter school some of that money can be pocketed as profit by the private company who runs the school.

 

Public schools provide a better alternative because the funding must be dedicated to the student, living within a district’s coverage area guarantees enrollment, the school must be managed by an elected school board with open meetings and a plethora of other amenities you won’t find at a privatized institution. But at least the charter school is a school!

 

However, an ESA or other voucher would allow that money to go elsewhere. It could go to funding the tuition at a private or parochial school where organizers can use it however they like – pocketing some and using the rest to help the child as you’ll find in most charter schools.

 

But as bad as that is, vulture capitalists want to add another destination for that money – let it pile up in the bank where it can be used for discrete education services provided by the EdTech industry.

 

It’s almost like homeschooling – without the loving parent being in charge.

 

It goes by many names – a learning ecosystem, personalized learning, competency based or individualized education.

 

But it’s really a single person cyber school with little to no guiding principles, management or oversight.

 

Education is reduced to a series of badges students can earn by completing certain tasks.

 

Reading a book or an article gives you a badge. Answering a series of multiple-choice questions on a reading earns you more badges. And if you’ve completed a certain task satisfactorily, you can even earn a badge by teaching that same material to others.

 

It’s the low wage gig economy applied to education. We just transform a crappy job market where workers bounce from a few hours of minimum wage labor here to a few hours of minimum wage toil there – all without benefits or union protections – into learning. Children bouncing from a few hours of Khan Academy videos here to a software package there and Voila! “Modern” education!

 

In short, it’s school without the school or teachers.

 

And make no mistake, it’s not about improving the quality of education. It’s about providing the cheapest possible alternative and selling it to rubes as innovation.

 

The wealthy will still get institutions of learning. They will still be educated by the most qualified teachers in the world. They will still learn how to learn.

 

The best path to becoming a truly educated person involves human interaction and mentorship. You need experienced professional educators who use the empirical evidence they see in the classroom about your child to tailor lessons to their needs. The wealthy would never dream of making their children learn from the academic equivalent of an automated check out aisle or telemarketer robocall.

 

It is only the poor and middle class who will be released like chickens into the pasture of a learning ecosystem.

 

And as an added benefit, the badge structure creates a market where investors can bet and profit off of who gains badges and to what degree on the model of crypto-currencies like Bitcoin! So all the stability of the pre-crash housing market! What could possibly go wrong!?

 

Let me be clear – this is the ultimate goal of the school privatization movement.

 

Charter and voucher schools are only the tip of the iceberg. They still require real human beings to act as teachers (though they need not be as well educated or have as much experience as public school teachers). They still require buildings and grounds.

 

But this depersonalized learning approach allows them to do away with all of that. They can just provide students with an Internet accessible device and some dubious on-line tracking and management system.

 

Then they can pocket all the rest of the money taxpayers put aside to educate children and call it profit.

 

And they can use the programs students access to “learn” as a way to gather valuable marketing data about our kids. Everything students do on the device is free market research – every word they input, every keystroke, every site visited down to the slightest eye movement.

 

This is the logical conclusion of the monetization of education and an economy that only sees value in others as human capital that can be bought, sold and exploited.

 

This is where the privatization movement is going. And they’re laying the groundwork in legislation being proposed in our state capitals today.

 

In Pennsylvania, for instance, Senate Bill 2 proposes the creation of just such ESAs. If approved, the immediate result would be to boost private and parochial schools.

 

However, given a few years to strengthen the technologies and systems needed for a full learning ecosystem, the same law would allow taxpayer money to be used in this way.

 

And it’s something hardly anyone is talking about.

 

We’re fighting the privatization systems of today as the plutocrats set up the privatization systems of tomorrow.

 

Even if school vouchers never take off to the degree necessary to scaffold the most robust learning ecosystems, EdTech lobbyists are trying to install as much of this garbage as they can into our existing schools.

 

They are using one-to-one iPad initiatives and grants to fund up-to-date computers, Wi-Fi networks and software packages to pave the way for this brave new world of digital exploitation. They are selling our test score obsessed bureaucrats software like iStation and IXL that bridge the gap between test prep and learning ecosystems lite.

 

You can walk into many schools today where students spend hours on-line earning digital badges for watching videos and taking stealth assessments.

 

Few people are sounding the alarm because few people understand what’s going on.

 

This is not conjecture. This is not a conspiracy theory. This is the goal the edtech entrepreneurs will gladly tell you all about hoping you’ll invest.

 

There are hours of videos, pages of documents, mountains of graphs, charts and graphics about how this scheme will pay off for investment bankers and venture capitalists. (See below)

 

The only true way to win this battle is a cultural shift away from dehumanizing runaway capitalism.

 

We need to stop thinking that the private sector is always better than the public good. We need to stop allowing big business and corporations to get away without paying their fair share. We need to increase the voice of citizens and decrease the megaphone of money and privilege.

 

Otherwise, the science fiction dystopias of books like “Ready Player One” will no longer be fiction.

 

They will become the reality for every school child in this country.

 

A reality where school, itself, is a thing of the past.

 

And education is reduced to the mercenary collection of discrete skills that add up to nothing of value for the students except their own enslavement.


 

But don’t take my word for it. Here is the learning ecosystems model from the EdTech industry, itself, in corporate officers own words and graphics:

LEARNING IS EARNING – the scariest 6:58 video you’ll ever see.

 

KNOWLEDGEWORKS Vision for the Future of Education:

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Graphic as a PDF

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FIGHT BACK AGAINST SCHOOL PRIVATIZATION AND RUNAWAY EDTECH:

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Every Public School Teacher Should Support Opting Out of Standardized Tests

Education-not-testing-chicago-protest

 

Over the last few years, educators and parents have built up a wall of opposition to high stakes testing in the Opt Out movement.

 

But now it seems some teachers are starting to tear it down.

 

Not so long ago, tens of thousands of parents refused letting their children take the tests – with full support of their teachers.

 

Yet today you hear some educators question their involvement or even if they’re on the right side.

 

It’s almost like an anthropomorphic red pitcher smashed through the bricks and offered beat down educators a drink.

 

koolaidman1

 

And far from refusing that rancid brew, some are actually gulping it down.

 

“OHH YEAH!”

 

You hear things like these:

 

“Opt Out’s dead. Stealth assessment schemes like Personalized Learning and Competency Based Education have replaced the federally mandated tests.”

 

GLUG. GLUG. GLUG.

 

“The tests often take up fewer days now so there’s no reason to opt out.”

 

GLUG. GLUG. GLUG.

 

“The kids who opt out aren’t doing it for the right reasons. They just want to get out of work.”

 

GLUG. GLUG…

 

Blargh! I can’t drink any more of that artificially flavored propaganda crap!

 

I’ve even heard of some teachers in New York State agreeing to call families who have refused testing in the past and asking them to reconsider!

 

What the heck!? Have we all lost our minds!?

 

We’re educators!

 

If anyone knows the problems with standardized testing, it’s us.

 

We know in intimate detail how these assessments are biased and unscientific.

 

So let me counter some of this dangerous disinformation going around.

 

1) You say the tests take up less time?

 

Marginally, yes. There are fewer test days.

 

But we’re still being pressured to narrow the curriculum and teach to the test just about every other day!

 

2) You say stealth testing has made the traditional standardized assessments irrelevant?

 

Okay. Competency Based Education is a real problem that threatens to make everyday test day – I’ll go with you there. In fact, schemes like Personalized Learning could transform every app into an opportunity to test kids without them even knowing it.

 

But that doesn’t mean the old fashioned high stakes tests have gone away!

 

Far from it. The federal government still requires all states to give these assessments to public school students in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

 

Let’s say the feds required teachers to give rich kids higher grades than poor children.

 

Or say the state commanded teachers to copy down sensitive information about students and give it to private corporations.

 

Imagine if the school board instructed teachers to put minority kids in slower classes than white kids.

 

If any of that happened, there would be wide scale revolt!

 

Yet standardized tests do all of these things!

 

They dishonestly give higher scores to rich kids and lower scores to poor kids.

 

The apps used for preparation and remediation often steal student data and sell it to third parties.

 

They are used to justify increased segregation within school buildings because implicit testing bias means white kids generally score higher than children of color. So the white kids get more advanced courses and the brown ones get test prep.

 

3) You say the Opt Out kids are just trying to get out of doing work. It’s just laziness.

 

First, of all, it is the parents who are opting their children out of standardized testing – not the students. Second, who are you to question their motives?

 

We serve the parents and children of the community. If they say they don’t want their children tested in this way, we should listen to them.

 

Third, why are you defending these tests? They are used by charter and voucher schools as “proof” that the public schools are failing.

 

These tests are used to justify unfairly evaluating YOUR work, narrowing YOUR curriculum, repealing YOUR union protections, reducing YOUR autonomy, cutting YOUR funding, and ultimately laying YOU off.

 

Why are you standing up for THAT?

 

So why are some teachers wavering in their opposition to high stakes tests?

 

I think it has to do with who we are.

 

Most teachers are rule followers at heart. When we were in school, we were the obedient students. We were the people-pleasers. We got good grades, kept our heads down and didn’t make waves.

 

But the qualities that often make for the highest grades don’t often translate into action. That, alone, should tell you something about the limits of assessment which are only exacerbated by standardized test scores. When it comes to complex concepts, it’s hard to assess and even harder to determine if success on assessments is a predictor of future success.

 

Bottom line: Every teacher should be in favor of the Opt Out movement.

 

And I don’t mean quietly, secretly in favor. I mean publicly, vocally in favor.

 

Many teachers are parents, themselves, with children in the districts where they teach. Every educator should opt out their own children from the tests.

 

If we can’t at least do that and lead by example, what good are we?

 

Next, we should force our unions to do the things that we can’t as safely do as individuals.

 

Call parents and ask them to opt IN!? We should be doing just the opposite, but that would put a target on our backs.

 

As a teacher, I can’t unilaterally call or send a letter home to my students’ parents explaining why they should opt their kids out. If I did that, I could find myself in administration’s cross hairs and face grave repercussions.

 

But isn’t that why we have a union? To stand up as a collective and do the necessary things we can’t do as individuals?

 

Imagine if every teachers union in the country routinely sent open letters to all parents asking them to opt their kids out! What an impact that would make!

 

Imagine if the unions put pressure on the school boards to pass resolutions against testing and in favor of opt out! What effect would that have on state legislatures and the federal government?

 

How could the feds continue to demand we give high stakes tests when nearly every school board across the country objected and advised parents to refuse testing for their children?

 

Taken individually, these aren’t really all that difficult things to do.

 

They require a certain degree of moral courage, to be sure. And teachers have been beaten down by a society that devalues their work and begrudges them just about everything.

 

But what do we have to lose?

 

Our backs are already against the wall.

 

We are being slowly erased – our numbers dwindle more every year while policymakers shrug and point to a teacher shortage that they refuse to explain by reference to the way we’re treated.

 

The tech moguls and the testing giants are salivating over the prospect of replacing us with apps and low-skilled, low paid babysitters to oversee students hunched over computers and tablets. (See? Told you Personalized Learning was poison.)

 

We shouldn’t be helping them destroy our own profession by advocating for the same tests they’re using as a tool in our destruction.

 

It’s high time teachers get some backbone.

 

We may all end up on the unemployment line, but that’s where we’re headed already.

 

I’d rather go kicking and screaming.

 

Who’s with me?

When Students Stay Up All Night Playing Fortnite and You’ve got to Teach Them in the Morning

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There is something monstrously unfair about our teacher evaluation systems.

 

If your students fail because they were up all night playing video games, it’s your fault.

 

Seriously.

 

When students fail at academic tasks, there is no responsibility attributed to the students, no responsibility attributed to the parents and certainly no responsibility given to society.

 

It’s all just thrown on the teacher because, hey, someone’s got to be responsible. And it might as well be them.

 

I’ve written scores of articles about how standardized tests forced on students by the federal government are unfair.

 

They are developmentally inappropriate, culturally biased, and subject to a deep conflict of interest because the people making the tests get more money if test takers fail.

 

The tests drive the curriculum instead of the other way around. The scores needed to pass change from year-to-year invalidating annual comparisons. And many lawmakers pushing for these assessments are funded by the school privatization industry that uses failing test scores to sell its own fly-by-night brand of education.

 

These are real problems our education system faces every day.

 

But we mustn’t forget an even more fundamental one: we’re all responsible for student success or failure.

 

Not just teachers. EVERYONE.

 

Society, lawmakers, business people, parents – but those most responsible are the students, themselves.

 

Case and Point—

 

Over the last few months a word has entered my students’ vocabulary that hadn’t been there before: Fortnite.

 

It’s not that they’re so interested in an antiquated term for a two-week period. It’s the name of a popular multiplayer on-line shoot-em-up video game for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows, and Mac. Players build forts with teammates to defend against other players or enemies.

 

Apparently, many of my students got it for Christmas. Or since there’s a free on-line version, they were turned on to it by others who had gotten the deluxe version as a present.

 

It started as an undercurrent of trash talk. “You suck at Fortnite.” “You can’t beat me on Fortnite.” “You just wish you could take me on Fortnite.”

 

And then it started to manifest physically.

 

Those same kids would come in to school with Fortnite Face – glassy red eyes, heads slumped on the table and the inability to stay awake for more than 10 minutes at a time.

 

It’s not all of my students, but it’s a significant percentage. Almost all boys. And almost all at a distinct learning disadvantage.

 

Teaching them is like teaching someone in a deep sea diver suit. They can’t really see or hear you very well. And any message you get back from them sounds like it’s coming from the bottom of the ocean.

 

When I noticed it, I cleared as much of my schedule as I could to call parents. It’s hard because administration decided not to fill positions in my department for teachers who retired last year – so all our classes are larger. And they gave me a new class I haven’t taught in years so the planning load is more cumbersome.

 

Plus I have as many special education students as legally allowed in every class, which requires mountains of extra paperwork and monitoring for each child.

 

And of course the phone in my room doesn’t call out and the cell reception is terrible, so I have to move to one of the few phones that will actually allow me to contact parents and try to communicate my concerns.

 

Most parents I talked to noticed the same things I had. Fortnite was taking over their children’s lives. Their kids were playing the game at every opportunity and ignoring most everything else.

 

However, most parents I couldn’t reach. Those cricket burner phones get disconnected quick. Others go straight to a voicemail box that’s so full it won’t accept new messages. Others allow me to leave a message that will never be returned.

 

But sometimes I did get through. And sometimes parents didn’t simply throw up their hands and say they don’t know what to do. Sometimes a parent actually laid down ground rules or took the game away.

 

However, if I’m being honest, contacting parents did not solve my problem.

 

I’m not blaming them. Most of my students live below the poverty line. That means their folks are working two or three jobs just to make ends meet. Or they’re grandparents raising their sons’ or daughters’ kids. Or they’re foster parents with a full house.

 

They’re doing the best they can. But it doesn’t end up stopping the addiction.

 

And – let’s be honest – it is an addiction.

 

For the first time in 2018, the World Health Organization recognized video game addiction as a real thing. Not every video game. Not every time someone sits down to play a video game. But video games can lead to addictive behavior.

 

That’s what I’m seeing in my students.

 

So after talking with as many parents as I could, I came to a mostly dead end.

 

My next step was to try to use student interests to influence instruction.

 

We were in the middle of a poetry writing unit. So I allowed students to write their poems about Fortnite.

 

That perked up a few heads.

 

Here’s a cinquain about Fortnite. Here’s an acrostic, a narrative, a concrete poem in the shape of a soldier or his gun.

 

To be honest, none of them were masterpieces.

 

They were just the normal trash talk and braggadocio written down in verse.

 

So I got an idea. Use the heightened competitive urge to push artistry.

 

We came to limericks – a difficult but fun type of poetry with five lines, a specific rhyme scheme and meter.

 

We read funny examples, we sang the rhythm together in chorus – da Dum da da Dum da da Dum – and then I set them the task of writing their own limericks.

 

With one twist. Whoever wrote the best limerick would get a homework pass.

 

That got them going like a shot.

 

All of my Fortniters perked up.

 

They wrote like I’d never seen.

 

Each wanted to one-up the others. And no one wrote about the game.

 

By the end of class, we had some pretty good poems. I wouldn’t say they are the best ever written, but they were miles better than where we were before.

 

So what does it all mean?

 

When we talk about video games these days, the conversation usually strays toward violence.

 

Pundits caution that video games will desensitize children and make them more prone to aggression and acting out. It might even contribute to the creation of school shooters.

 

Wrong.

 

In general, video games don’t make children more violent. Fortnite is a game where students shoot each other with guns all night long and it hasn’t made my students any more aggressive or violent than they already were.

 

Many cultures like the Japanese are much more into video games than ours and they have fewer violent incidents or school shootings.

 

However, video game addiction is a real thing and it impacts learning.

 

Some corporations want to try to harness this addiction to push learning. Hence the move to personalized or competency based education. That’s pure rubbish.

 

It’s a way to monetize education without paying attention to what’s best for kids. The same with gamification – using game theory to drive instruction.

 

And don’t think I’ve lost sight of my own use of competition in class. I haven’t.

 

Games and competition can be used to positive ends in moderation.

 

You can motivate reluctant kids to do things they wouldn’t normally do with competition. But it doesn’t work for everyone and it doesn’t work all the time.

 

It needs to be a novelty. Any tool can be overused.

 

Even video games aren’t bad in moderation. I used to be a gamer, myself.

 

The problem is when it becomes an addiction.

 

Our social structures can’t handle it.

 

Game corporations only care if it makes money. Parents are often stressed to the limit just to provide the basics.

 

The only group we require to be responsible is teachers.

 

And that’s just not going to work.

 

Video game addiction is another area where it becomes painfully clear how much work we all need to do to help our children succeed.

Gamification – The Hottest New Trend to Monetize Education

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When I was a kid, Super Mario Bros. was my jam.

 

After school, I couldn’t wait to take on the role of plucky plumber Mario or his brother Luigi. I’d jump on a few turtle shells, bounce over a bottomless pit and smash just the right secret brick to get my flashing star power up and wipe the floor with endless levels of Koopa Troopas.

 

But through it all, I never really learned anything.

 

With the possible exception of a few Italian stereotypes, the only knowledge I gained was where the warp zones were, which blocks to hit and the muscle memory necessary to defeat the next bad guy.

 

However, now-a-days that’s all changed.

 

Someone in marketing and accounting has decided that the same techniques I used to save Princess Toadstool would make an exceptional method of pedagogy.

 

They call it gamification, the process of making academic lessons, courses and objectives look more like video games.

 

Sure, the process has applications in the business world and advertising, but its biggest market has been education.

 

In fact, the Gamification industry is worth $2 billion worldwide and some estimate it to jump to $22 billion by 2022.

 

Want to teach grammar? Welcome to the good ship Verb sailing on the seas of Nouns and Pronouns. Interjections, A-hoy!

 

Wish your students knew fractions? Let them blast away the wrong numbers so only the correct numerator matches with the correct denominator.

 

That kind of thing.

 

It’s incredibly popular in some circles.

 

Advocates claim it increases student engagement and enthusiasm, provides instant feedback and the opportunity for social interactions.

 

Critics say it reduces students’ attention spans, narrows the curriculum and replaces human interaction with canned interfaces.

 

But when something is bringing in this kind of cash for big business, it’s kind of beside the point whether it works or not.

 

It’s the latest form of snake oil out of the cobra factory, and your teacher may be forced to pour it into your children’s brains.

 

That’s just Education 2018. Under the old model, the hucksters would have to approach each teacher one-at-a-time and convince them to try the shinny new toy in the box. But when you remove teacher autonomy, that frees all the used car salesmen to go right to the one person in your district – often the technology coordinator or academic coach – who controls the purse strings and convince him or her to buy what they’re selling.

 

In short, I’m not a fan.

 

In fact, I think gamification is one of the dumbest fads to hit public schools since standardized testing.

 

Don’t get me wrong.

 

Games can have limited use in the classroom.

 

My students love reviewing already mastered material in teams or competing against each other individually.

 

But there’s a big difference between playing Jeopardy or Kahoot with soon-to-be-tested material and plopping kids on an app or software package that pretends to teach them the concept.

There’s a world of difference between a 10-minute detour and an entire curriculum structured around game theory.

 

The biggest problem seems to be this.

 

Games are not intrinsically valuable.

 

They are good or bad based on the amount of fun they provide the user.

 

Be honest. No one really cares if Link puts together the Tri-force. No one is losing any sleep over rampaging Metroids on the loose. No one is putting out an Amber Alert the next time Princess Peach is inevitably kidnapped by Bowser. The only thing that matters is if meeting these objectives and countering these fictional bad guys is fun and exciting.

 

However, the same is not true for the ends of education.

 

People care whether you can read and write. You may lose sleep over being unable to add, subtract, multiple and divide. Co-workers will be alerted if you don’t comprehend the basics of science and history.

 

And the higher the skill we’re aiming for, the greater the degree of importance.

 

Gamification divorces these two ends. It turns education from an intrinsic activity into an extrinsic one.

 

This is a big deal.

 

Students shouldn’t struggle through a reading passage so they’ll get a score or a badge. They should actually care about what they’re reading.

 

My students and I just finished reading Lois Lowry’s “The Giver,” and they loved it.

 

After the first few chapters, they weren’t reading for a grade or to please me, their teacher. They truly wanted to know what would happen next. And to fully understand that, they had to exercise and refine their reading skills.

 

Look at it like this.

 

When I was playing Super Mario Bros., I often took a few warp zones to the last board so I could beat Bowser quickly and win the game. But that means I skipped over most of the first seven boards.

 

This didn’t matter because the only reason to play was to win. But if those first boards had included something important to the experience, skipping them would have greatly diminished my experience.

 

Gamification reduces learning until its meaningless. Why would anyone want to know something unless it carried with it a video game like reward?

 

And that’s merely the worst part.

 

In practice, most of the applications and software being pushed on kids to increase enthusiasm and motivation aren’t really very much fun at all. After a few times through, there isn’t much reason to plow through exposition heavy content with little to do. This material doesn’t connect to students’ lives, it doesn’t foster authentic competition, it doesn’t stoke their sense of wonder – it’s just a boring set of hoops to jump through to satisfy the instructor.

 

Admittedly, it does provide instant feedback, but that doesn’t matter if students don’t care about the matter at hand.

 

Social interactions are possible here but rarely have I seen this opportunity explored. A good group project will get students more engaged socially than messaging back and forth about the software challenge du jour.

 

Education can be so much more than this.

 

Students are being robbed of authentic interactions, authentic instruction and authentic learning.

 

Not all things should be turned into a game.

 

Gamification is another example of trying too hard to market something to people who won’t actually be using it in the hopes that they won’t notice it doesn’t actually work that well.

 

The consumer isn’t the gamer – it’s the administrator who buys the program. And the people best suited to assess the program’s success – teachers and students – aren’t even part of the equation.

 

It’s about monetization, not education.

 

Mario may grab a bunch of coins on his way to save the princess, but it is the corporations who are getting rich off this sad fad.

 

All that glitters is not gold, just as all that is new and technological is not cutting edge.

 

 

Can we stop letting big business drive the field and let education be determined by educators?

 

 

Otherwise, it will be game over for an entire generation of kids duped into accepting crap for curriculum.

Economists Don’t Know Crap About Education

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I hate to be blunt here, but economists need to shut the heck up.

 

 

Never has there been a group more concerned about the value of everything that was more incapable of determining anything’s true worth.

 

 

They boil everything down to numbers and data and never realize that the essence has evaporated away.

 

 

I’m sorry but every human interaction isn’t reducible to a monetary transaction. Every relationship isn’t an equation.

 

 

Some things are just intrinsically valuable. And that’s not some mystical statement of faith – it’s just what it means to be human.

 

 

Take education.

 

 

Economists love to pontificate on every aspect of the student experience – what’s most effective – what kinds of schools, which methods of assessment, teaching, curriculum, technology, etc. Seen through that lens, every tiny aspect of schooling becomes a cost analysis.

 

 

And, stupid us, we listen to them as if they had some monopoly on truth.

 

 

But what do you expect from a society that worships wealth? Just as money is our god, the economists are our clergy.

 

 

How else can you explain something as monumentally stupid as Bryan Caplan’s article published in the LA Times “What Students Know That Experts Don’t: School is All About Signaling, Not Skill-Building”?

 

 

In it, Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University, theorizes why schooling is pointless and thus education spending is a waste of money.

 

It would be far better in Caplan’s view to use that money to buy things like… oh… his new book “The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money.”

 

His argument goes something like this: the only value of an education is getting a job after graduation.

 

Businesses only care about school because they think it signifies whether prospective employees will be good or bad at their jobs. And students don’t care about learning – they only care about appearing to have learned something to lure prospective employers. Once you’re hired, if you don’t have the skills, employers have an incentive to give you on the job training. Getting an education is just about getting a foot in the door. It’s all just a charade.

 

Therefore, we should cut education funding and put kids to work in high school where they can learn how to do the jobs they’ll need to survive.

 

No wonder economics is sometimes called “The Dismal Science.” Can you imagine having such a dim view of the world where THAT load of crap makes sense?

 

We’re all just worker drones and education is the human equivalent of a mating dance or brilliant plumage – but instead of attracting the opposite sex, we’re attracting a new boss.

 

Bleh! I think I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.

 

This is what comes of listening to economists on a subject they know nothing about.

 

I’m a public school teacher. I am engaged in the act of learning on a daily basis. And let me tell you something – it’s not about merely signifying.

 

I teach 7th and 8th grade language arts. My students aren’t simply working to appear literate. They’re actually attempting to express themselves in words and language. Likewise, my students aren’t just working to appear as if they can comprehend written language. They’re actually trying to read and understand what the author is saying.

 

But that’s only the half of it.

 

Education isn’t even just the accumulation of skills. Students aren’t hard drives and we’re not simply downloading information and subroutines into their impressionable brains.

 

Students are engaged in the activity of becoming themselves.

 

Education isn’t a transaction – it’s a transformation.

 

When my students read “The Diary of Anne Frank” or To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, they become fundamentally different people. They gain deep understandings about what it means to be human, celebrating social differences and respecting human dignity.

 

When my students write poetry, short fiction and essays, they aren’t merely communicating. They’re compelled to think, to have an informed opinion, to become conscious citizens and fellow people.

 

They get grades – sure – but what we’re doing is about so much more than A-E, advanced, proficient, basic or below basic.

 

When the year is over, they KNOW they can read and understand complex novels, plays, essays and poems. The maelstrom of emotions swirling round in their heads has an outlet, can be shared, examined and changed.

 

Caplan is selling all of that short because he sees no value in it. He argues from the lowest common denominator – no, he argues from the lowest actions of the lowest common denominator to extrapolate a world where everything is neatly quantifiable.

 

It’s not hard to imagine why an economist would be seduced by such a vision. He’s turned the multi-color world into black and white hues that best suit his profession.

 

In a way, I can’t blame him for that. For a carpenter, I’m sure most problems look like a hammer and a nail. For a surgeon, everything looks like a scalpel and sutures.

 

But shame on us for letting one field’s myopia dominate the conversation.

 

No one seems all that interested in my economic theories about how to maximize gross domestic product. And why would they? I’m not an economist.

 

However, it’s just as absurd to privilege the ramblings of economists on education. They are just as ignorant – perhaps more so.

 

It is a symptom of our sick society.

 

We turn everything into numbers and pretend they can capture the reality around us.

 

This works great for measuring angles or determining the speed of a rocket. But it is laughably unequipped to measure interior states and statements of real human value.

 

That’s why standardized tests are inadequate.

 

It’s why value added teacher evaluations are absurd. It’s why Common Core is poppycock.

 

Use the right tool for the right job.

 

If you want to measure production and consumption or the transfer of wealth, call an economist.

 

If you want to understand education, call a teacher.