Why Educational Technology Isn’t Working

The OECD has just released a report that concludes

There is little solid evidence that greater computer use among students leads to better scores in mathematics and reading.

Researchers tracked students in 31 OECD countries (including the U.S.) and measured their educational outcomes, as well as their use of technology at home and at school (including computers, Internet connections, and educational software).

I’ve been arguing for years that most Ed Tech is useless, and it’s because the companies that develop the apps don’t know anything about the learning sciences. The problem isn’t computers, or the Internet; the problem is with the pedagogical techniques and theories that are embedded in the new software. The OECD report supports my argument:

We have not yet become good enough at the kind of pedagogies that make the most of technology; adding 21st century technologies to 20th century teaching practices will just dilute the effectiveness of teaching.

The report doesn’t say much about how to align new educational software with the new science of learning, and with the reformed pedagogical approaches that work best to provide students with the deeper learning and thinking skills that graduates need. That’s why I’ve created a new master’s degree to teach how to combine learning sciences research, innovation, and software development (applications are open right now!) This study shows that we have to change the way we develop educational software, and ground technology in the science of learning.

Why are there states of matter?

We all learned in school that there are three states (or phases) of matter: solid, liquid, and gas. Later, you may have learned of a fourth state, plasma; and, physicists say there various other states that emerge in extreme conditions (e.g. Bose-Einstein condensate). But let’s keep it simple, and go with three for now.

While helping my 12-year-old son with his homework, this question came up, and I haven’t been able to find the answer:

Why are there states of matter at all?

In other words, it’s easy to imagine a physical world where there are no phase transitions. In this alternate world, all matter would change continuously with temperature change. The molecules of the substance would continuously increase in space from one another, with no sudden changes in properties or structure. At the coldest temperatures, everything would be extremely solid. As the temperature warmed up, the solid would become progressively and continuously less solid, and more “mushy,” let’s say. More “liquid like” but continuously, not in a sudden phase transition. And as this liquid-ish form of matter warmed up into what we know as the “gas” state of matter, it would gradually and continuously become more fog-like–but again, with no sudden phase transition.

I have searched all over the Internet, and I haven’t found this question asked or answered. (I ended up reading some advanced stuff about energy states, and curves crossing, but that doesn’t answer the question.) Does anyone know the answer, and if you do, can it be explained in a way that regular people can understand it?

Leonardo da Vinci Artist Statement

This is hilarious, even if it’s a bit over the top. It’s from “The Artist Statements of the Old Masters” by John Seed:

If the great European artists of the past were alive today, what kinds of statements would they need to write to explain and justify their work?


I originally proposed “La Giaconda” as a non-specific vehicle to map coded and opposed systems of selfhood and gender that could be substantiated via an intertextual nexus. Through a personal discursive process, it then evolved towards a self-referential “otherness” that overlays Neo-Platonic androgyny re-defined as an ontology of the unsaid.
–Leonardo da Vinci

The Secret of Good Writing

Perfect advice by William Zinsser:

The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure who is doing what–these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.”

I agree completely. I have one quibble: Zinsser should have taken his own advice and replaced “adulterants” with a shorter word. But Zinsser saved me just now: In that previous sentence, I was going to say “I have one minor quibble.” But a quibble is minor, by definition. So let’s add a rule to his list: never use an adjective whose meaning is already embedded in the definition of the noun.

Zinsser follows the above quotation by writing:

And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank.

He’s taking a dig at pompous over-educated intellectuals. But this hasn’t been my experience; I’ve edited early drafts of my senior colleagues, and I’ve read countless undergraduate class papers. Everyone makes the same mistakes; I don’t think they increase with stature.

*From “On Writing Well” (1976) by William Zinsser, who died May 12 at age 92. Excerpted in today’s Wall Street Journal here.

Another View of the “Mad Men” Era

I just found these old photographs from 1965, in the Newport News Shipyard Bulletin. The Newport News Shipyard is now the largest shipbuilding company in the United States (it was really big back then, too). This is my sister Cindy (left) and me (right) sitting in front of our father, an electrical engineer who worked on the Esso New Orleans, the ship pictured at the bottom on the cover of the issue. Bob Keith and Cindy Sawyer 1965 at Esso christening1965 Shipyard Bulleting Cover Esso New Orleans

A Clever Back-Handed Compliment

Ending his WSJ review of Richard Zoglin’s new book about Bob Hope, titled Hope: Entertainer of the Century, Henry Allen makes the cleverest back-handed compliment I’ve ever read:

Mr. Zoglin’s excellence as a biographer is as mysterious as Hope’s excellence as an entertainer, but here it is, an entertaining and important book. You end up feeling that (1) you’ve learned everything there is to know about Bob Hope; (2) there isn’t that much to know; (3) you’ve had a good time learning it.

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.