Friday, August 2, 2013

Why my friend Senja is so S-M-R-T

I have been hearing lately that I'm a failure so I decided to investigate these claims. I figured if I am going to be a failure, at least I should know why I am a failure and how I can be the best failure ever. In what sense am I failure? Well, apparently, the American education system is in a shambles and I, as a teacher, am to blame. I will skip a whole lot of the intermediate stuff like how anyone quantifies that I am a failure, how anyone creates expectations against which to measure, what can be attributed to the classroom teacher etc. I won't wade into questions of value added teacher quantification, or mention the poverty gap in public education as it correlates to performance. I'll ignore issues of common core and standardized testing and I won't touch the question of selected populations, teacher salaries and ineffective professional education which devalues teachers. I figured if enough people decided I was a failure then they must know, right? But instead of waiting to hear how anyone measured my failure, I decided to go to the google and ask it who are the successes. And I found Finland.

So I did a whole bunch of reading about Finland. Nice place, apparently. Cold. Lots of schools and lots of students who do well in school. Do they do well in life? I'd like to think so. They seem like such an industrious people. I only know one Finn and she's American. I met her dad once. Nice guy. Too thin. Articles like this one helped me understand how the Finnish education system is rolling along so merrily. I enjoyed reading the comments on it which both defended and attacked the system as that fleshed out the debate and showed that even a statistical slam dunk is up for angry web-based argument.

I figured if I wanted to be a success, then I should emulate what went on in a Finnish school. I realized that that would require my teaching Lutheranism and learning Swedish so I demurred. But I also know that the Next Big Thing in education is "blended learning." I figured that if Finland has a successful school system and blended learning is the cutting edge of successful teaching, then the two should coincide somehow. Back to the google. I found this title but I don't have the article and it is from 1998 which is, I believe, before there were computers and thinking and stuff, so I ignored it. I kept looking and I found this -- and I read the whole durned thing. Neat stuff. It points out how blended learning (the combination of face-to-face teaching along with online resources for pre- and post- "teaching") has been really useful in enhancing reflection and collaboration. So THIS must be how they do it in Finland. Well, apparently, it is, in Finnish universities. The entire report was on implementation in higher education and the iteration of blended learning here is not about the differentiated and tailored delivery of content, but about the presentation of background material and the availability of technologically mediated cross talk and cooperation among students outside of traditional class time. Just control-f the document for the word "lecture." It is in there. And the words "computer" and "blended" are not in the Smithsonian article. It isn't that Smithsonian doesn't know about blended learning. They wrote this article (2 years later, true) but if Finland is that far ahead of us that we are trying blended learning in an effort to catch up, you'd think that it would have played some part in their successful system. It seems that it didn't. Somehow, they got there mostly unplugged. The article actually says that on the high school level, the expectation is that "blended learning" will be one in which schools "operate a self-blend model, where a student takes one or two online courses—often Advanced Placement or credit recovery courses—to supplement their in-class education." Strangely enough, many high schools do this already and have for a while, and yet we are still failures.

I wasn't giving up on Finland, though, so I kept reading. I came upon this which gave me more information about the use of blended learning and computer instruction in...oh...higher education. My google search also pointed to an article which is entitled "What does Finland claim is the secret to its educational success?" According to my search, this also mentioned "blended learning," so I figured that that had to be part of the secret. Then I read the article. The author decided to throw in, at the end, the following: "Many American educators are giving a closer look at some Finnish education values. For one, blended learning, which incorporates a variety of teaching mediums into educational theory, is also right in line with Finland’s progressive ideals approach." So, no they don't do it, but this guy thinks that they would approve. Then I watched a video about the Finnish system. I figured that I would see classrooms rife with technology and stress on student driven courses of study. I saw some computers at 4:14. Is that their blended learning? It didn't much look like it. I also saw many classrooms jammed with students listening to a teacher at the front. Some kids even had (gasp) pens and paper. I decided to give up on Finland. No offense, guys, but all you seem to be stressing is teacher professionalism and student engagement. How is that going to help me succeed. I try that all the time and apparently, I am not succeeding.

So I started trying to read up on blended learning sans Finland. First, I read about a school in Yuma, Arizona which is using a hybrid model of blended learning. A hybrid model combines aspects of computer instruction with continued teacher interaction. This is similar to (though not identical with) the rotational model. The article does mention that there are critiques of the system by educators who say that the system does not foster critical thinking skills, but what do educators know about, um, education. It isn't like they are Finnish educators, or anything. And how is the blended system different from, say, letting students watch videos on a VCR at home, or read the textbook on their own, at their own pace? Clearly this is superior because it allows students to take multiple choice quizzes so the student, the teacher and the computer know how much the student gained from the video/online presentation. This will allow the teacher to use classroom time to move between students and answer specific questions about material. You can see how this would be effective in a debate over the merits of the Articles of Confederation. Watch the video, and wait for the teacher to move to you and answer what is probably a simple question with a short answer before the teacher moves on to someone else. Perfect. Now you know all there is to know about the pre-Constitutional American government.

I traced the information back from that article to the Hechinger Report. They claim the data which will prove the efficacy of the blended system. Oh goodie. Data! Wrong data. The article is about how many schools in California use some sort of computer/technology in instruction and how this relates to the author's predictions (the titular "theory") about how blended learning will be implemented. Much seems to be in the hybrid form -- that's the form that has teachers using some technology as they continue with traditional teaching forms as well. This seemed familiar to me, so I looked in the mirror. Oh, yeah. That's what we are all already doing. Pity we are failing. The author by the way seems to be a real serious journalist. Educator, not so much but hey, who writes best about educational trends, and who makes the most accurate prediction about future success of various models? That's right: investment bankers. I looked at another piece on the site to learn about Next Generation teaching. This article was in Forbes so I figured it had all the answers. Not so much. To wit: "despite what we’re starting to see in the field as some consistent models of blended learning that can bolster student learning, we’ve yet to see anyone create “the solution”—and we’re unlikely to ever see that I suspect." Oh, ok. Not even in Finland? So I went to the website of the innovators in the filed of disruptive innovation. In truth, I suspected that my students were already innovators in disruption but I am willing to learn. The Clayton Christensen Institute provided me with lots of links and taught me all about non-consumers and hybrids and like that. I looked in their media room to see how the news outlets are spreading this gospel and I found a really neat blog post in Education Week. Education Week! that's by educators! I read through it. It really pointed out to me how blended learning will allow students to respond to their teachers after reflection and private consideration and not under the time pressure of the classroom. It mentioned how "forums and wikis replace raising hands in a classroom. More students can contribute to a discussion - with deeper thought. The structure allows for students to respond to each other and to the teacher as well." So that is the blended learning that is so great? We use wikis. We use blogs. And we still fail?

Then I thought, maybe I'm not a failure as an English teacher in a private high school. Maybe I am just a failure in my institution's inability to inculcate a love of religion and a sense of spirituality in students. I know that when I left 8th grade and when I left high school, many of my friends lacked this same love. I guess schools have been failing for a while. I'm looking now for a model school system which takes 13 year-olds, demands rigorous study in secular fields, and complements it with the demand of adherence to (before, during and after the education about) religious dogma, ideas and ideals. I need to pattern myself after another school system that tries to teach students about their world as a whole and also gets them to love their pervasive religious obligations. Remember, this has to be the job of the school. We are the ones responsible to teach a love of religious practice, right? So if you know of a system I can study, please let me know. I do so hate being a failure.


  1. I didn't have you as a teacher and yet you were able to have an incredible influence on me. The insight and advise you gave me in high school is still prevalent in my life today and will most probably continue to guide me. I am thankful to have had you as an advisor. By no means is this failure in my eyes.

  2. Thank you Dan. I tried to comment on the last post, but somehow couldn't. I think I will cease and desist trying to say everything that I want and just let you do it instead. You do it so well--so passionately, intelligently, articulately and snarkily. Thank you thank you.
    If all schools had teachers like you, we wouldn't all be failures.


Feel free to comment and understand that no matter what you type, I still think you are a robot.