The Future of Educational Technology

It’s my job to stay on top of educational technology. In the last two months alone, I’ve attended huge ed tech conferences like and ASU+GSV, each with hundreds of well-funded new ed tech ventures. But I’ve been constantly disappointed, because almost none of this ed tech innovation is grounded in the science of how people learn. Of the 2,500 people at ASU+GSV, less than ten of them were learning scientists, and only two of the speakers on the program had any claim to such expertise. (Less than 50 people showed up to hear what they had to say.)

Just a few days ago, Bror Saxberg, the Chief Learning Officer at Kaplan, published an important article noting this same problem, and making a strong claim: technology will not help people learn, until ed tech developers start to work closely with learning scientists.

This is a key problem: Almost no one who is involved in creating learning materials or large-scale educational experiences relies on the evidence from learning science.

Saxberg says what we need are learning engineers–professionals who can apply learning sciences research. And ed tech companies don’t have them; instead, ed tech developers “are essentially using their intuition and personal experience with learning rather than apply existing science.”

I agree with Saxberg, and that’s why I’m creating a new master’s degree program, at the University of North Carolina, in educational innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship–to create this new generation of “learning engineers”.

This morning, Daphne Koller, the President of Coursera, published an article in the Wall Street Journal that makes an important point:

The “sage on the stage” at a university will no longer be a common mode of delivery. In the classroom–whether physical or virtual–we will see more attention given to group projects, conversations and applied learning, with lecture content going the way of textbooks as something experienced in preparing for class. At the same time, universities will devote considerably more effort to activities that occur outside the classroom, be it research, individual mentoring by faculty or senior students, team activities, volunteering, internships, study abroad…

I predict that in two decades, lecture halls will no longer be used. Not because of cost, or technology, or student preference, or high professor salaries, or because “they don’t scale”–but because the science of learning shows that lecture is an ineffective pedagogical technique. But this doesn’t mean the future of college is online, because the same learning sciences research shows that MOOCs are ineffective. Let’s hope that ed tech innovators increasingly work with learning sciences researchers: that’s the future of educational technology.

Montessori, Collaboration, and Creativity

WP_20150214_003I had a great time giving this morning’s keynote at the annual Montessori teacher’s conference (NAMTA). They invited me to talk about how to foster creativity and collaboration in high school classrooms.

In my keynote, I gave an overview of the core lessons from my creativity research, combined with my learning sciences research:

  • Creative learning is active
  • Creative learning is collaborative
  • Creative learning engages with projects in real-world contexts
  • Creative learning is artfully guided and structured by the teacher and the designed learning environment

Then, I gave some practical advice for how to make this happen by overcoming challenges faced when you try to do this in any school environment. I provided a few case studies of learning environments that are doing creative education very well (like the San Francisco Exploratorium).

One of the things I always associate with Montessori is the distinctive custom-designed manipulatives, most of them created by Dr. Maria Montessori herself. So I had fun browsing the vendor displays, where you can buy famous things like the pink tower (it’s at the left).WP_20150214_002





My message resonated loud and clear with the audience of Montessori educators. Many of them came up to my afterwards and said “You really helped me understand better what we need to do when we use Montessori methods to teach adolescents.” My latest book, Zig Zag, sold well at the book signing after my talk. I hope the creativity techniques in the book will give teachers ideas for how to help their students be more creative!WP_20150214_004

The Problem With School Testing

In a recent post, I argued:

Tests are horrible measures of whether students are mastering valuable 21st century skills, the skills that really matter.

Just published is a new book by education writer Anya Kamenetz that attacks the standardized tests that are used today in the United States. The TIME Magazine review quotes from it:

The research against these tests is fairly damning. “MIT neuroscientists found that improving the math scores of a group of eight grade students in Boston has little influence on their…ability to apply reasoning,” the author writes. Most standardized tests aren’t objective, don’t measure a student’s ability to think, and don’t reliably predict how well a kid will do in the workplace. So what’s good about them? They’re relatively cheap to create, easy to administer, and they yield data.

By coincidence, this week I also attended a compelling keynote talk by Harvard’s Tony Wagner, education researcher and author of five books on educational change and reform. He emphasized the same points, noting that we actually DO have tests today that in fact CAN measure valuable 21st century skills. So why aren’t they used? They’re expensive and time-consuming to administer–too expensive for every student to take. So we keep using tests that everyone knows are lousy, just because politically, we need SOMETHING and we can’t afford anything that’s actually based in research. (Well, not without increasing school funding…)

We know how to improve schools. And it’s NOT by doing the same thing we’re doing now, just incrementally better. (Which is the only possible outcome of today’s tests.) To learn more, read this new article, available for free: “The future of learning.”

Ten Educational Innovations To Watch For In The Next Ten Years

A team of education experts at the Open University (UK), led by Professor Mike Sharples, have identified “ten innovations that are already in currency but have not yet had a profound influence on education” in this new report. Of course, you can find similar lists in just about every business magazine and newspaper, but what’s different about this report is that it’s been generated by researchers working at the cutting edge of both technology and learning sciences research. It’s a must read for teachers, academics, and policy makers–anyone who cares about how schools and learning will change over the next ten years. Here are quick summaries of their ten predictions:

  1. Massive open social learning. Imagine MOOCs but with their power multiplied by social network effects.
  2. Learning design informed by analytics. Design and analytics work together to support the development of successful learning and teaching. (If you find this interesting, you have to read the new chapter on learning analytics in the just-published Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, Second Edition, by the leading experts on this topic: Ryan Baker and George Siemens.)
  3. Flipped classrooms. At home, or in individual study time, students watch video lectures that offer them opportunities to work at their own pace, pausing to make notes where necessary. This allows time in class to be spent on activities that exercise critical thinking, with the teacher guiding students in creative exploration of the topics they are studying.
  4. Bring your own devices. Teachers become managers of technology-enabled networked learners, rather than providers of resources and knowledge. This shift opens opportunities for connecting learning inside and outside the classroom. (Mike Sharples is the co-author, along with Professor Roy Pea of Stanford, in a chapter on Mobile Learning in the newly published Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, Second Edition).
  5. Learning to learn. Web tools and activities such as reflective journals and concept mapping have been designed to support learning to learn, but these are rarely well integrated into a learner’s social world. There may be more value in adapting for wider use social research environments such as ResearchGate, or question-answering communities such as StackExchange and Quora.
  6. Dynamic assessment. The assessor interacts with students during the testing phase of the process, identifying ways to overcome each person’s current learning difficulties. In the dynamic assessment process, assessment and intervention are inseparable.
  7. Event based learning. Examples are the ‘maker fairs’ that gather together enthusiasts who are keen on do-it-yourself science, engineering and crafts projects, and the ‘Raspberry jams’ where fans of the Raspberry Pi computer meet up and share ideas. Local events spark national gatherings and these build into international festivals.
  8. Learning through storytelling. Developing a narrative is part of a process of meaning making in which the narrator structures a series of events from a particular point of view in order to create a meaningful whole. Writing up an experiment, reporting on an inquiry, analyzing a period of history – these are all examples of narrative supporting learning.
  9. Threshold concepts. A threshold concept is something that, when learnt, opens up a new way of thinking about a problem, a subject or the world. A challenging aspect of threshold concepts is that they often seem strange and unintuitive.
  10. Bricolage. Bricolage is a practical process of learning through tinkering with materials. It is a fundamental process of children’s learning through play. It also forms a basis for creative innovation.

If you like this report, you might also be interested in my conclusion chapter in the new learning sciences handbook, “The Future of Learning: Grounding Educational Innovation in the Learning Sciences”.

U.S. Schools are Better than China’s (So Stop With the Testing Already)

In the latest New York Review of Books, Diane Ravitch reviews the new book Who’s afraid of the big bad dragon? Why China has the best (and worst) education system in the world, by Professor Yong Zhao, who was born and educated in China, and now has a senior professorship at the University of Oregon. The central argument is: Yes, students in Shanghai schools led the world in the last PISA international assessment; and yes, in general, Chinese students are some of the best at getting high test scores. But in spite of high test scores–maybe even because of it–those same students don’t learn the skills necessary to be successful in today’s knowledge economy:

those test scores are purchased by sacrificing creativity, originality, and individualism….standardized tests are a victory for authoritarianism….they reflect a Confucian tradition of rote learning that is thousands of years old.

So in fact these high test scores are holding China back:

The more that China retreats from central planning, the more its economy thrives. To maintain economic growth, China needs technological innovation, which it will never develop unless it abandons its test-based education system, especially the gaokao, the all-important college entrance exams.

Professor Zhao is not the only Chinese education expert making such claims; he’s joined by a chorus of Chinese experts. Here’s Professor Zheng Yefu, from Peking University, in his popular 2013 Chinese book The Pathology of Chinese Education:

No one, after 12 years of Chinese education, has any chance to receive a Nobel prize, even if he or she went to Harvard, Yale, Oxford or Cambridge for college….Out of the billion people who have been educated in Mainland China since 1949, there has been no Nobel prize winner….This forcefully testifies to the power of education in destroying creativity in China.

Ravitch draws on these books to argue against a current move in the United States: toward additional standardized testing and accountability. The argument for assessment and accountability can sound quite reasonable: How can we know if teachers are effective unless we can measure how much their students have learned? How can we decide which educational innovations are worth adopting if we don’t know how much learning results from them? How can we decide between different policy choices, like more charter schools versus more funding for public schools, unless we know which types of schools graduate smarter students?

Ultimately, the push for more assessment is driven by market-based theories. (You generally won’t hear this in the media, only in academic papers, but it’s the only coherent intellectual argument for additional student assessment.) In capitalism, markets work on a national scale only when everyone shares the same measure of value: the national currency. We buy and sell by trading goods for money, and these exchanges create value. Conservative critics of public schools argue that public monopolies, because they’re not subject to competition and market mechanisms, don’t generate value. However, markets can’t work without a common currency of exchange, and in the case of education, that has to be a common national measure of effectiveness, based in student learning outcomes.

From the conservative perspective, this seems so logical that only a union-loving liberal, one with a weak mind and an absence of critical thinking ability, would oppose it. But Ravitch’s review shows us the dark side of additional accountability: We could turn our schools into China, and kill the high level of innovation that’s driven the U.S. economy to be the most successful in the world in the past fifty years. Her counterargument is powerful, and is grounded in historical facts: The U.S. national government first began its push for additional testing and accountability in 1983 (the Reagan era A Nation at Risk), concerned that our supposedly poor schools would lead us to economic decline; and yet, during the last 30 years, the U.S. has kicked ass in the world’s economic competition. She notes that on an international test of math in 1964, U.S. seniors scored last among twelve nations; and yet in the following 50 years, the US outperformed all the other eleven countries “by every measure, whether economic productivity, military might, technological innovation, or democratic institutions.”

This could mean that education isn’t really that important to a country’s success, but neither liberals nor conservatives believe that; and the only other possible explanation is that it means that tests are horrible measures of whether students are mastering valuable 21st century skills, the skills that really matter. Ravitch can barely hold back her contempt for arguments that schools are to blame for the 1970s oil crisis, or for the Japanese success in the auto industry in the 1980s: “When the US economy improved, would any of the politicians thank the schools? Of course not.”

Ravitch concludes her review by quoting from Zhao’s new book:

Zhao dreams of schools where the highest value is creativity, where students are encouraged to be confident, curious, and creative. Until we break free of standardized testing, this ideal will remain out of reach.

Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences: Second Edition Just Published!

WP_20141105_002Look at what arrived in the mail today! The newly published second edition of The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. Here I am, holding the first copy, in front of my creativity toy bookshelf. Available from now!

Here are the early reviews:

“The first edition of this handbook was outstanding. The second edition is even more inclusive and up to date, with a choice of chapters that nicely complement one another and are written with unusual clarity. This is a must-read for everyone who cares about education and learning.” John Bransford, Professor of the Learning Sciences, University of Washington

“The learning sciences is well exemplified in this very well-put-together book. There are excellent articles here about learning by argumentation, by collaboration, through projects, through cognitive apprenticeship, and in virtual worlds. This book demonstrates that learning scientists continue to make great progress on how learning works.” Roger Schank, Northwestern University

“Too often, we educators teach in the ways that we have been taught, without regard to the research about how learning actually happens. This anthology is an invaluable contribution to a long overdue discussion about how best to ‘reinvent’ education for the 21st century.”  Tony Wagner, Harvard University; Author of The Global Achievement Gap and Creating Innovators

“In an academic landscape characterized by increasing specialization, the learning sciences stands out for its broad and interdisciplinary approach. In this highly readable and useful overview of the field, this outstanding group of authors demonstrates the power and promise of a field motivated not by the advance of a particular theory or paradigm but by a desire to understand and solve some of the most significant issues of our day – issues of education and learning in a socially and technologically complex world.” James W. Stigler, UCLA, co-author of The Teaching Gap

 “This is a deeply rich, comprehensive handbook of the learning sciences. The volume covers an impressive array of topics—from theoretical approaches to methodologies to concrete, implementable instructional techniques. I found it to be extremely informative and accessible. Without a doubt this handbook will be an indispensable and satisfying resource for students, researchers, teachers, and experts.” Mark McDaniel, Washington University in St. Louis, co-author of Make It Stick

Learning How To Do Architectural Design

The research field I work in, the learning sciences, has been heavily influenced by studies of learning both inside and outside of schools. Outside of schools, learning environments are structured very differently from traditional classrooms. Many learning scientists have studied what have come to be called apprenticeship learning environments; this is how people learn on the job, for example. Here are the central steps in apprenticeship learning:

  1. The apprentice watches the master execute a skill.
  2. The apprentice attempts to replicate that skill.
  3. The apprentice reflects on her performance, and examines how it is similar and different to what she saw the master do.
  4. The apprentice “internalizes the performance” and “makes it her own” by repeating the cycle.

These four steps were first studied and documented by a lost hero of the learning sciences, MIT Professor Donald Schon, on pages 74 and 75 of his long out-of-print 1985 book The Design Studio. He called these four steps “the ladder of reflection” and he first observed them in an architecture studio class, as a researcher in the definitive and influential 1981 Architecture Education Study (two volumes, and also long out of print).

I’ve been teaching Schon’s book as part of an advanced research seminar this Fall, titled “Learning How to Create,” and the more closely I read his writings, the more I wish that learning scientists would study his analyses of apprenticeship learning. Instead, we’re more likely to cite Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger’s 1991 book Situated Learning, or Barbara Rogoff’s 1990 book Apprenticeship in Thinking (both of which are very impressive, in extending our understanding of how people learn, but neither of them cite Schon’s writings). Through informal conversations, I know that many of the early founders of the learning sciences were influenced by Dr. Schon’s work. In the cognitive sciences, his research was an early salvo in the now-completed attack on 1970s-era cognitive psychology, with its now-rejected assumption that learning, performance, and expertise are best thought of as internal mental structures and processes, that can be captured and represented in a disembodied computer program. Instead, today we realize that expertise is better conceived of a repertoire of situated social practices.

Here are some of my favorite quotations from Schon’s 1985 book:

Initially, the student does not and cannot understand what designing means. He finds the artistry…to be elusive, obscure, alien and mysterious. Conversely, the studio master realizes that the students do not initially understand the essential things and cannot be told those things at the outset, because the fundamental concepts of designing can be grasped only in the context of the doing….The student does not yet know what he needs to know, yet knows that he needs to look for it. His instructor cannot tell him what he needs to know, even if he has words for it, because the student would not understand him. (pp. 54-56)

Schön imagines what the teacher might say to the student:

I can tell you there is something you need to know, and I can tell you that with my help you can probably learn it. But I cannot tell you what it is in a way that you can now understand. You must be willing, therefore, to undergo certain experiences as I direct you to undergo them so that you can learn what it is you need to know and what I mean by the words I use. Then and only then can you make an informed choice about whether you wish to learn this new competence. If you are unwilling to step into this new experience without knowing ahead of time what it will be like, then I cannot help you. You must trust me. (p. 57)

I agree with Schon that studio practice has many important lessons for educators in other fields, including science, engineering, and math. Schon was influenced by the improvisationality of jazz, and he argued that learning was an essentially improvisational process.

Schon’s research was published almost 30 years ago; today, learning scientists continue down the path that he first mapped out.

Lemelson Foundation Invention Education Workshop

I’ve just spent two days in Washington, DC, with a group of 50 thought leaders working on ways to help our students learn to be more creative, inventive, and innovative. The event is hosted by the Lemelson Foundation, and here’s their mission:

The Lemelson Foundation uses the power of invention to improve lives, by inspiring and enabling the next generation of inventors and invention-based enterprises to promote economic growth in the US, and social and economic progress for the poor in developing countries.

The 50 people gathered here include:

  • nonprofit foundations who are funding creativity education (Paul Allen foundation, Henry Ford foundation, Lemelson Foundation)
  • Educators doing invention education, like the Lemelson-MIT “InvenTeams” high school program
  • Successful inventors
  • Scholars who study creativity and innovation (that’s me)

As I head off to the airport, here are my initial impressions.

  • Most of the participants want to do invention education through schools. But the most successful invention education programs are after school programs, summer enrichment programs, and science center programs. What makes it so difficult to implement invention education in a traditional school environment?
  • Most of the participants associate invention education with science and engineering. But we need creativity and invention in all disciplines, including policy, arts, social innovation, international affairs, economics, business processes…I wish there had been more discussion of this broader conception of invention.
  • I worry that “invention education” overly focuses on an outdated myth of the solitary lone genius. But research shows that creativity and innovation today always emerge from group dynamics, conversation, social networks, and collaboration. How can we re-envision invention education to avoid the traditional connotations of the solitary lone genius?

I’m really happy that the Lemelson Foundation has dedicated their substantial resources to this important national issue: enhancing the creative potential of everyone. I’ve been inspired by these two days, surrounded by smart people who care about creativity and education.

Lemelson Invention Education Workshop May 2014

Today I’m flying to Washington DC to participate in a fascinating two-day event, focused on helping our K-12 students learn how to be creative and innovative. This is a national priority in today’s global innovation economy. Here’s what my invitation letter, from the Lemelson Foundation, said:

Substantial challenges exist that, in part, can only be effectively addressed if creative minds invent the products that will meet those challenges….To create the inventions that will improve lives requires new generations who are inspired to be agents of change through invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Cultivating this ability is at the core of invention education.

The Lemelson Foundation’s approach to invention education is to support students to become inventors and to launch invention-based enterprises that create jobs and strengthen the economy.

I love it, and I said “yes” to this invitation right away.

The Lemelson Foundation is developing education programs that provide students with what they call an “invention toolkit” of the following skills:

  • The capacity to think critically, and identify real-world problems and possible solutions (I would call this “design thinking”)
  • Providing a strong base of skills in STEM disciplines (you can’t invent the new unless you know what already exists)
  • Nurturing the ability to turn ideas into solutions through creating designs, fabricating prototypes, and incorporating entrepreneurial thinking (this is very much aligned with maker culture and entrepreneurship education)

This workshop is positioned right at the center of several important movements: design education, entrepreneurship education, and creativity and learning. My own research is most closely associated with the last, educating for creativity, but in my new professorship at the University of North Carolina, I am also developing entrepreneurship education programs.

Stay posted for another post when the event ends Tuesday afternoon!

Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and the Evolving Education Marketplace

I’ve just spent the past four days at one of the biggest annual conferences in any field, the American Educational Research Association annual meeting, with over 13,000 researchers gathered in Philadelphia. The high point, for me, was an invited Presidential session called “innovation, entrepreneurship, and the evolving education marketplace.” A high-profile group of connected education leaders engaged in a wide-ranging discussion up on stage, and I’ve quoted below their comments that leaped out at me.

First, the participants were:

  • Christopher Swanson, Education Week
  • Shilpi Niyogi, Pearson
  • Bobbi Kershaw, University of Pennsylvania (formerly of Big Chalk, now working to commercialize faculty education research and develop an entrepreneurship ecosystem)
  • Kevin Bushweller, Education Week
  • Matt Pittinsky, Parchment (and formerly, was the founder of Blackboard)

Their discussion was spot-on with today’s cutting edge; listen in:

Niyogi: “The lines are blurring between entrepreneurs, educators, and service providers with respect to research and development.”

Kershaw: “Faculty research needs to impact practice… we very rarely see it have a significant impact… lots of programs that are being used in schools now do not have proven efficacy from research”

Bushweller: “Policy makers are looking for quick nimble research. A research project that takes three years, the market and environment will have changed by then.”

Pittinsky: “For profit ed tech has tended to stay out of the instructional core of the classroom. This is beginning to change. Faculty are used to the traditional model (of NSF funding). They are afraid of business coming into their research sphere. They are evaluated on publishing, not on demonstrated impact on schools and students.”

Bushweller: “Most organizations in the education space have an advocacy agenda. We really want truly independent research (of the sort that university researchers can provide).”

Kershan: “There are very few examples of companies commercializing university research. Reading 180, from Vanderbilt, is one of the few. My role at Penn is to help faculty do this.”

Niyogi: “We need to work toward social, collaborative learning. Opportunities in this space are untapped, because we are stuck on individual learning.”

Pittinsky: “We face a paradox. Because innovations are measured by learning outcomes, providers need to be even more top down and controlling, school leaders need to be top down, to ensure uniform positive outcomes. The problem is that this means you can’t just release enabling technologies, like I did with Blackboard, because some people will use them in good ways and some in bad ways. And yet, enabling technologies are what enable bottom-up innovation to flourish.”

This last statement is the crux of the matter, and this is always the paradox of innovation: How to balance top down structure with the need for bottom-up innovation to emerge?

Niyogi extended this line of thought, arguing for more bottom up innovation: “Teachers will become free agents, and that will cause dramatic cultural and organization change in schools.”

And finally, here are the BIG IDEAS that the panelists think will drive educational innovation:

  • Big data visualization
  • Open education resources
  • Aggregating content, evaluating it, and sharing it
  • Formative assessment
  • Interactive multimedia online learning
  • Simulations and games

These panelists are on the front lines, and it was a pleasure to watch them discuss the future of learning and schooling.