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There are four types of problems: Simple, Complicated, Complex, Chaotic. And there are four recommended approaches to solving them. In this posting, we will borrow from David Snowden’s Cynefin Framework, and map the application of the principles both to the problems confronting education reform and also to the practice of problem based learning in schools. Simple problems Simple problems are those with known solutions, where there are predictable and repeatable cause-and-effect relations. These problems lend themselves to algorithms and best practice analysis, “whenever this happens, do this.” You sense the situation that exists, you categorize what type of problem it is, and then you respond according to the best practice. The shorthand for this type of problem solving sense, categorize, respond. Bureaucracies handle these types of problems very well. Complicated problems Complicated problems generally require more analysis, but the results can still be predictable. It is more likely that there is no single solution to the problem, there may be many solutions that could work depending on the skills and disposition of those involved. Often, no two situations are exactly the same, so one is dependent on extrapolating from past experience and devising custom solutions. Because there is no one “best practice” experts determine “good practice”, solutions that should work based on the skill sets of those involved. In these problems, you sense or get data about the situation, you apply your expertise to analyzing the information to determine a likely course of action, and then you respond based on a plan that came out of your analysis. Professionals, rather than bureaucracies, are needed for these situations because they can devise customized plans based on their knowledge and experience. Complex problems Complex problems have no clear solution(s) except in hindsight; they are unpredictable. The value of extensive planning is diminished, because it will not yield a “good practice”. Algorithms are not useful, because there are no clear cause and effect rules. No one can predict which course of action will work, so one would want to try many different actions, with relatively little vested in any one (safe-to-fail actions or probes), and then reinforce those that are working and diminish those that are not. The approach to these problems would be to try different actions or probe, figure out which ones are and are not working, and then respond accordingly to amplify what’s working and curtail what is not. From these probes or actions, a practice will emerge that, in hindsight, will seem the one that would obviously work. The shorthand for this approach is probe, sense, respond. Chaotic problems In a chaotic problem, things are seemingly spinning out...

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If your parents are in the top quartile (wealth) in the US, there is an 80% chance you will go on to college. If your parents are in the bottom quartile, there’s an 8% chance. But what if we found ways to change that? What if we found that a certain way of teaching could give kids born to the lowest quartile a 95% chance of graduating high school and an 87% chance to go on to college? This is the record of KIPP, and as Richard Barth, CEO of the KIPP Foundation, told a group of us on May 22, it’s a record shared by some pockets of public schools and the best charter schools in the country. We had assembled because Westchester Community College offers a series of salons, where they bring the community into people’s homes to discuss literature, media, politics, sports, and arts with national figures. How does KIPP achieve its results with at-risk students? Barth revealed that KIPP is predominantly middle schools, and the program features Curriculum that includes both character and academics High expectations for each child, that he or she will graduate and go on to college Schools days lasting from 7:30 AM to 5:00 PM Homework practically every night Individual support for  any student struggling to learn High degree of autonomy for each school Training, coaching, and supervised teaching for new teachers Variety of assessments of teaching used to inform ongoing teacher professional development Compacts with parents that children will come to school every day with their homework completed Other high performing schools outside of the KIPP system may have found other effective systems, but this is what has worked for KIPP. KIPP has 125 schools, reaching 40,000 students. KIPP’s growth goal is to double the number of students it serves, but that’s just a tiny fraction of the 55 million students in K12 across the US, or 31 million students in poverty (receiving free or reduced price lunch). Barth asked the audience a question, “How many of the kids in this country woke up today and went to a school that gave them a shot to compete in today’s global economy?” After a pause, he answered, “1 in 11.” He then pointed out, that while we would all like to change this immediately, no one knows how to do it; there is no magic pill. And even if someone did know what to do, we don’t have the systems or the resources to effectuate this type of change overnight. Barth proposed a more realistic goal: suppose we wanted to change this ratio to 1 in 3 students over the next...

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Picture this. There is a group of scientists discussing a concept. One of the scientists has a new idea. What do you think he or she does to explain it to the others? Most likely, she grabs a pencil and paper and makes a drawing to illustrate the concept. And what happens? The process of drawing clarifies various issues in her mind. Discussing the drawing with the other scientists allows them to question her assumptions and address any misunderstandings. Imagine if we used this technique to teach science in schools. Imagine that students drew their understandings of complex concepts to explain their insights to each other and to their teachers. This is actually the Picturing to Learn methodology pioneered by Felice Frankel. Ms. Frankel is a science photographer who teaches at MIT. Ms Frankel elaborates: This whole notion of visually representing an idea, in order to communicate or teach, makes the students clarify in their own mind the essential pieces of the idea, creating a visual metaphor. Making a drawing in order to explain is a means of clarifying in your own mind what you want to say, it forces the students to think deeper. In the process, students reveal any misconceptions in scientific understanding, even with very smart students. This is non-threating and double feedback for the teacher: it shows her what the students are misunderstanding, and if the same misunderstandings continually crop up, it shows the teacher that she needs to adjust her teaching. Kids are unbelievably visual; it’s the world they are growing up in today. This technique not only matches how scientists themselves communicate, it syncs with how students think. Visual thinking is how we understand science, it’s how Einstein was able to first grasp the concept of relativity. Through NSF grants, Frankel has introduced this technique in universities, high schools, and middle schools. In one example, a college student received an A in chemistry, and was able to answer a question about which liquid would boil at a lower temperature because she had memorized the formulas and knew when to apply them. When asked to draw the process, she (and others in the class) completely missed the actual reason some liquids boil at different temperatures, the effect of molecular bonding. The teachers were astounded that their students could parrot back the right answers on tests, yet have such large gaps in their conceptual understanding. At a Middle School in Harlem, Frankel conducted a summer boot camp for teachers. The teachers worked in groups to create pictures explaining the water cycle, which is often taught in 7th and 8th grade science. This not only provided a...

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This is a summary of Aprendizaje Invisible (Invisible Learning, in English), an ebook by Cristóbal Cobo and John W. Moravec on transforming educational systems around the world. Why is education important? For one, in today’s competitive international labor marketplace, superior education is the oxygen that all potential employees want to acquire. Image by IK's World Trip via Flickr   Modern technologies, like social networking, texting, and digital storytelling, are viewed as inimical to the tried and true techniques of the formal classroom. Outside of the classroom, it’s a different story. Compared to watching television when it was a young technology, kids today are spending more time on the Internet with less supervision. Whatever they are doing, they are learning, but what and how they are learning is invisible to the formal education system. There is thus a whole new environment of learning outside of formal education, including through social networks, games, and searching, with students playing, discussing, finding, and sharing information. The question is not, “Are they learning on the Internet?” It’s “what are they learning?” Can educators leverage this time and energy to help students learn? Only if we understand that the most significant potential lies outside of the classroom, where students are now spending so much of their time, and if we start understanding the dynamics of Internet usage. But we need to consider models different from that of a sage lecturing to students who avidly or passively absorb the materials. There may not be one winning idea, there is probably not one learning theory that is correct in all instances, maybe we will need to follow several different possible paths to arrive at superior means of teaching more to more. The goal of this book is to try to unify different learning theories, teaching practices, change management techniques, and technologies to make education more effective, efficient, informative, and adaptive to the needs of our rapidly changing world.   Image by RBerteig via Flickr While you can’t deny that schools are adopting software tools, many times those tools are primarily reinforcing the traditional ways of teaching and assessing. The software that students are using outside of school, and are informally, non-formally, or serendipitously learning from, are more attuned to what most of us regard as 21st century skills. Additionally, what is often considered new technology by adult teachers and educators is regarded as the norm (at best) and outdated (at worst) by many students. For example, using PowerPoint slides may or may not be effective, but it certainly would not be considered as technologically savvy by high school or college students.   It’s ironic that now, when...

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McKinsey & Company has cataloged 525 different types of actions that school systems attempt, and most of them work, but in different situations. Many of the interventions are different depending on the stage of the schools. McKinsey breaks school systems into 4 different categories, dependent on student achievement: poor, fair, good, and great.   Image via Wikipedia Poor systems routinely turn out students who do not read and write, and who cannot do rudimentary math. Their teachers are generally low skilled as well. Poor systems that are progressing to fair ones generally make progress with a top down approach, establishing relatively rigid class and lesson structures so that lower skilled educators can still achieve a minimum but uniform level of student achievement. Their goal is students achieving basic literacy and numeracy.   Fair systems have students who understand the rudiments of reading and math. They progress by providing more student performance information, setting pedagogy models and organizational structure, securing appropriate financing, and increasing accountability. Their goal is to get the foundations in place. Good systems have students who are reasonably proficient and meet academic standards. These systems progress to great by establishing and reinforcing the professionalism of their educators with occupational structures and procedures similar to those of medicine or law. Their goal is to inculcate professionalism. Great systems uniformly produce highly functioning graduates. They continue to improve by increasing local and individual responsibility, with more peer based learning for professionals and students, and encouraging innovation and experimentation.  Their theme is to  improve through peers and innovation. The interventions for the first two levels tend to be top down, while the higher levels look to empower educators and students. As the report points out, you can prescribe adequacy, but you unleash greatness. Six types of interventions tend to span all levels: Revising the curriculum Ensuring an appropriate reward and remuneration structure Building technical skills for educators Assessing students Establishing data systems Creating policy documents and laws While many school systems attempt to implement these interventions, successful implementations (those that move a system from one level to a higher one) have six attributes: Leaders have selected, and members of the school system follow, a critical mass of interventions that together will move the district forward. There is not just one quick fix, and it's not trying to do everything at once. Assessing the situation and then selecting a cluster of interventions that can be done well that will move the school system to the next level. Leaders contextualize the interventions to the school system, generally through interactions with other stakeholders, to get the critical buy-in. Leaders have to obtain the...

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The PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) released a draft of their assessment frameworks for ELA and Math, and asked for feedback: http://www.parcconline.org/parcc-content-frameworks. Here are my three major objections. The Industrial Age Paradigm The assessment framework reinforces the current model of schools as factories and children as raw material to be forged into a uniform product. The assessment framework is still based on a cohort of students starting in Kindergarten and learning a prescribed dose of skills and knowledge each year through 12th grade. For example, while the ELA standards allow teachers or schools to select the specific reading passages, passage specifications are bounded by grade: Use of grade band-level complex text: Leveled texts that are below grade band level in complexity are not a substitute; the standards indicate students should be reading grade band-level complex text. Flexibility is built in for educators to build progressions of more complex text within grade band levels (e.g., grades 4–5, 6–8, 9–12) that overlap to a limited degree with earlier bands, but reading text from the appropriate band level lies at the core of the Model Content Frameworks. Students are children and children are individuals as are teachers. Why can't we bust out of the early 20th century mentality that everyone should be learning the same things in the same years? The flawed concept of effective valid standardized tests of cognitive behaviors There are basically four types or results one can assess: feelings, knowledge, behaviors, and results. Feeling assessments involve questions like, "how confident do you feel that you learned how to do X?" Feelings are the least reliable and least expensive way to assess. Knowledge assessments are more objective. Multiple choice questions "Which is the main idea in the following paragraph?" are one way of testing knowledge, as are short answer questions, and, in some cases essays can also test knowledge (or skills). Knowledge assessments test whether the learners can recall facts or procedures, they are fairly straightforward to develop and score, although more expensive than feelings assessments. One reason knowledge assessments are flawed is that they can only test a subset of what a student has learned over a period of time. For example if a teacher happens to have spent time on the specific areas tested (from, say, tailoring classes to what was tested in previous years), while neglecting areas that aren't being tested, the test will give a false result on total knowledge. Most current high stakes assessments test basic knowledge. Behavior assessment tests whether the learner applies knowledge or skills when placed in a situation that calls for them. These assessments are...

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