Solving the Writing Challenge…

Let Software do what Software Can,
so Teachers do what only Teachers Can

In two preceding posts, I explored the context around evaluating student writing. Specifically, this included the time and effort expended by teachers as well as the role technology could play, and our feelings related to both. This post attempts to move past the hysteria and stagnation to gain some clarity around what we really want.

Our Real Goal

To begin with the obvious and inarguable: we want students to keep getting better at writing.  As apparent as this might seem, we should never lose focus on this goal because it seems to have been lost somewhere between what we know (both research and common sense) and what we do (school-based practices around writing). The realities of the classroom and a crowded curriculum, combined with… fear of change? protecting the status quo? honest regard for the art of writing?  Choose your preferred obstacle… but now, LET’S GET OVER IT.  We need to begin from the clear-eyed acceptance that whatever we’re doing systemically hasn’t worked. State and national results in NAPLAN support this and our own experience highlights that for most schools writing is among the most challenging academic skills to teach and learn.  Thus if we accept the premise that our goal is to improve student writing, and that new approaches are required, what do we do?

Let Software Do…

My mantra, as a devout English teacher, writer and long-time ed tech entity is simple and clear: “Let software do what software can so teachers do what only teachers can.”  Can software analyse student writing as well as a trained teacher in writing?  Of course not.  But everyday we all rely on things that software can do, such as spellcheck our work and facilitate editing. Such functionality is second nature to us. It is also about 30 years old. As quickly as technology has changed in that time, especially in regard to crunching data into profiles, noticing patterns, and comparing disparate bits of data, can’t we imagine that the science of “machine reading texts” has evolved? It has. In little steps. Little, because communicating and language are among the most complex things we humans do.

Moves by the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) to trial machine reading of students’ NAPLAN writing seems to be a main cause for the recent hysteria.  The argument against this is that no computational reading of a text can critique, let alone notice, such things as irony and poetic intent. Nor can it reward a particularly well-turned phrase. When we humans engage in our “labour of love”, scribbling detailed feedback on students’ papers, we are often looking for just such things. Unfortunately, we inevitably confront repetitious and limited word choice, poorly structured sentences and paragraphs that lack integrity.  Things that we would hope students addressed in earlier drafts of their work. Drafts?

What Software can, so…

Interestingly, it was also 30 years ago that the Writing Process captured the interests of university researchers, writers and teachers.  We noted that “expert writers” did things that “novices” did not, such as pre-writing, drafting, getting feedback, revising and editing for publication.  We recognised truth in the statement that “good writing is re-writing.”  Fast-forward to our present and this wisdom seems to have been squashed by the daily mountain of other tasks every teacher confronts.  Reading and grading the stack of required tasks in a curriculum is burdensome enough; who would ask for more? Thus, how many students at almost any level of schooling engage in regular cycles of drafting, feedback, revision, feedback and polishing?  It’s safe to say, “probably not as many as we’d like” knowing that such approaches not only develop better writing, but, in fact, can develop writers.

Teachers do what only Teachers Can

I suggest that removing some of the burden of the writing process as well as providing rich analytics and resources related to each teacher’s students is where technology can help.  The fact that software can’t help developing writers craft ironic, poetic or poignant prose, doesn’t mean that it can’t help them with word choice, the mechanics of sentences or more sophisticated paragraphing and text structures.  The way I see it, software can help students take ownership of their writing to the extent that when they submit their work to teachers, it represents their best efforts and warrants critical assessment. Again: “let software do what software can, so teachers do what only teachers can.”

In another article, we will explain in greater detail some of the analytic approaches we’re designing into our writing software at Literatu.  A fair amount of this falls into the category of “secret sauce” so we won’t divulge too much, but enough I hope to inspire your interest in joining a group of teachers try out our beta version.

 

source image from Flickr – https://flic.kr/p/5GSBaB
cc license 2.0
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Age of the Assistant – FANGST or Friend?

In the last post, I juxtaposed my past as a dedicated English teacher with the last decades’ amazing changes in technology. The reason for pairing these two is that while technologies have transformed nearly every aspect of our lives, its impact on helping develop better writers has been negligible.  This post therefore sets the scene for how these two worlds can finally sync up.

FANGST

Wall Street has an acronym for the powerhouses of the new digital era: FANG, which stands for Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google.  Interesting, isn’t it: the bite that this nomenclature suggests?  Thinking about technology’s encroachment into human experience, I tend to include Siri (with her personal assistant peers) and Tesla because of the new era of artificial intelligence they present. There’s more to think about regarding these companies and their impact on human existence, but the rapid and fundamental changes they bring to daily life understandably raise our collective level of “FANGST” (technology induced angst).

As different as they are, these FANGST technologies (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google, Siri and Tesla) have two main things in common.  First, they provide services in such powerful ways that they seem to verge on magic.  This magic comes from Big Data and the algorithmic machine learning that happens behind the scenes.  The second aspect in common is that such rapid change always stirs anxiety.  It was true for the Luddites two hundred years ago and our elders last century when electricity, the horseless carriage and flying machines redefined human life.

Besides the shared anxiety that comes with such rapid changes, our current variation has its own bitter-sweet flavour: sweet in that we all easily gain more of what we want (anywhere, anytime), but bitter when we’re reminded by the media buzz that such Artificial Intelligence, personal assistants and automations will replace lots of our jobs.  In the area of technology and student writing, the media buzz has taken a particular slant…

Fear and Grading in the age of FANGST

Because overall results in student writing have shown a flat line and backward trend, one aspect that’s getting a lot of attention in Australia is the use of computer software to evaluate student writing.  For decades, researchers and software companies have explored this area from many perspectives, including computer science, linguistics and writing theory.  The research and approaches go by many names and often become highly charged. For example, in our current debate, it’s no surprise that what researchers refer to as the science of Natural Language Processing (NLP), the media whips up hysteria suggesting it’s an invasion of “Robo-Graders” ready to undermine the value of teachers and dilute the art of writing.  Like all technologies, using software to analyse writing is neither inherently good nor bad.  It’s all about what the software is truly capable of analysing and how this approach is used. This is true about the many technologies we’ve already built into our lives…

Our Friendly Assistants

Each of us have already made peace with many of the assistants new technologies provide.  We choose when we want software to help and when we don’t.  We also choose the kind of help we want from software.  For example, we’d rather have software do the mind-numbing aspects, those that are not intrinsically motivating or are prone to our human error.  We’re also pretty happy when software suggests possibilities based on crunching data that we know is there, but can’t see or access.

Do we want to drive into a new city without GPS?  Do we want to plan a trip without the Web? Do we want to chat with friends using Morse code?  Do we want students to write essays using stone tablets and chisels?  And if we recognise that students become better writers by writing more and more often, do we want teachers to read thousands more assignments?  How is this fair when their colleagues don’t?  Of course we want some technologies to help us.  So let’s begin with a commitment to be reasonable and use what works to further the goals we have.

Which is the topic of the next post:  Letting Software Do What Software Can

 

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The Next Era of Essay Evaluation: In the Beginning….

Personal Snapshot: 1995

In 1995, I transitioned from English teacher to Web-based Educator.  At the time, I calculated that in nearly a decade of classroom teaching, I’d graded over 10,000 student essays.  A conservative estimate is that this equated to 145 eight-hour days of unpaid work – call it a labour of love – because I was dedicated to not merely giving students a grade, but providing detailed comments at the word, sentence and paragraph level.

Wiping away the misty-eyed idealism of a young teacher, I have to admit that the rushed average of seven minutes I put into each essay was probably more time than my loveable but other-focused students put into reading my comments. And probably than using my comments to improve their texts and develop as more expert writers.  It’s no wonder that I experience a visceral hair-raising akin to a horror movie when I think about grading stacks of essays…

Clearly it’s not sustainable or fair to ask some teachers to give up such unpaid time when colleagues in other subjects don’t evaluate of student writing. So is it any surprise that student performance in writing is a worry?

At the same time, in another part of the ….

Interestingly, at this same time, a new era was just dawning with a crazy thing called the World Wide Web, and in particular, a crazier upstart company was taking the marketplace by storm even as it lost money every quarter: Amazon.  We all know what’s happened with Amazon and its amazing success, but it’s important to highlight what’s powered this success.  It’s not lower prices or better advertising, the old-fashioned approaches to building a business, but algorithms.

Jeff Bezos and his team understood that understanding its customers – at a new, more granular level – was the path to their success.  Some readers might remember the early first fruits of this data profiling that, because you bought one book, the Web site offered some pretty lame suggestions based on, “others who’ve bought this book also bought…”

But the code has gotten better and we’ve become accustomed to gaining the benefit of algorithmic recommendations.  So we do look at what others did buy; we appreciate Google’s tailored search results and Facebook’s channelled news feeds; we consult TripAdvisor for hotels and restaurants; and we’ve come to rely on Apps, personalised maps, streamed music and videos to enhance our lives.  We’ve gone from the World Wide Web, social media and phone-based Internet to enter fully into The Age of the Assistants! (coming soon!)

 

images from WikiCommons:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:FileStack_retouched.jpg
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Mummy_1932_film_poster.jpg

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A Big Change for Tom

What a glorious new beginning!

Back in 2014 I wrote a similar post at a time of transition. Today opens a new chapter in the unfolding story of how a high school English teacher from California morphs into a Web-based educator and contributor to the next era of education.  To re-cap, earlier parts of the journey included a fellowship at San Diego State University where we developed the WebQuest model, then a move to Australia and time as a Web developer and Ed Tech consultant with plenty of writing, software design and keynoting…  until I “got my first real job” since teaching when I joined Hobsons in 2014.  Although I explored positions in school leadership and returning to consulting, it was clear that the exact job didn’t matter so long as I was:

  • using all my skills
  • working on a great team
  • making a difference in education

Things clicked when I met the leadership team at Hobsons Edumate:

From Edumate …

For the past 2 + years I’ve really loved working with the great team at Hobsons’ Edumate.  As much as I’ve enjoyed this shift from the sometimes lonely life of an independent consultant, that fact that the Edumate suite also includes modules for attendance, enrolment, finance, and calendaring means that my passion for improving teaching and learning must be balanced with the overall needs of Edumate’s clients. I got and fully supported this. Those times I was able to harness the development team to work on the curriculum aspects of the software, I felt as though I was contributing – yet while other development needs rightly took precedence, I sometimes felt I wasn’t having the impact I hoped for. Recently the name “Literatu” began popping up with both current and prospective schools, so we decided to meet up…

To Literatu!

What I saw so impressed me that my curiosity was piqued and before long we’d kicked around ideas and found that my obsession with richer teaching and learning matched nicely with the powerful analytical insights provided within a very slick and user-friendly platform.  However, more than the software, I was very impressed with the Literatu leadership – Mark Stanley and Lidija Loridon. They definitely understand assessment, analytics, user interface and what schools need to turn data into insights.  Because this is only the first day on the job, of course there is a lot I don’t know (yet look forward to learning — which is a big part of the excitement!).  In the coming months (and years) I will share more about the power of this technology to humanise teaching and learning as I dig into it and we evolve it.  In particular I am (delightfully) tasked with helping schools and their teachers get early wins analysing their data and then build a plan where they nurture a culture of continuous improvement informed by their own unique goals and processes coupled with powerful data analytics. Look for more posts, Webinars and professional learning and consulting to support this journey into the future.  

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Latest “Look to Learns”

One of the more popular things I do is post “Look to Learn” activities. These are a combination of Thinking Routines with rich media.  The main idea of Thinking Routines is:

… it’s not enough for students to learn “critical thinking strategies,” but research from the Visible Thinking group at Harvard’s Project Zero has found that students also need to develop the disposition to engage in such a process. One approach is to promote a culture of questioning and thinking in the daily life of the classroom.

What I like to do is apply these great Thinking Routines to rich media stimulus.  I do this using a Tumblr Web site.  Below is a screengrab of the latest posts.  Enjoy! And let me know how students like them!

L2L_April-May2017

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Thesis Builder / ElectraGuide’s New Home

Interestingly, the most hit site I’ve created is something I made in 1995.  The Thesis Builder & Online Outliner is a simple javascript tool that helps novice writers create a reasonable persuasive thesis statement and matching outline.

Unfortunately, I loaded it onto very expensive hosting years back and the overage charges generated by the Thesis Builder cost between $25-60 / month.  For a free service, this has gotten too expensive. Rather than pull the site down, I’ve relocated it to cheaper hosting and posted this message on the site.

If you are a user of The Thesis Builder, please update your links as the forwarding message will only be up till the end of February (enough to get the new school semester started).

Here’s the message:

thesis_builder_message

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Opening Presentation – Differentiation Conference

learning-differentiation-768x325

A prestigious group of educators are convening at the Intercontinental Hotel in Sydney’s CBD on the 16th and 17th of this month to share strategies for improving learning achievement through differentiation.

I have the pleasure of presenting the opening presentation on day 1.  I will begin with a personal narrative illustrated with differentiated designs I’ve been involved with and then present a case of what’s needed in education circa 2016.  This post includes links and resources that I’ll refer to during the talk captured in this blurb:

Design for the Big Win: Differentiation and Beyond

Traditional models of schooling come up short when viewed through the lenses of current technologies and pedagogies. Rather than rely on habit or following trends, leading educators can choose to design a better way based on their values and personal skillsets. This presentation highlights how we can use more effective and rewarding models to design the schools we really want.

Links, Examples and Resources

Tom’s Models

 

Readings & Pedagogies

Scaffolded Learning Software

Cool Tools

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New Article: “Before We Pull the Big Lever”

big_leverIn an earlier article, “Starting an Education Revolution,” I suggested the that tests were a good tool for breaking educational paradigms.  Education Technology Solutions magazine has just published a follow-up article, “Before We Pull the Big Lever,” in which I describe a 3-step process for making sure we get the kind of revolution we want!

Here’s how it starts:
READY, AIM, HANG ON THERE ONE MINUTE…

Instead of racing to what these tests could look like and how to get started today, this article will be used as an often-missing moment of pause, to engage readers in educational analysis to get at an understanding that must change if innovation (not the churn of new bandwagons and buzzwords) is to replace the status quo with an improved and irrevocable reality. In short, educators must confront the last great innovation – the mass production model of schooling and its codified curriculum – and dismantle the old technologies that underpin it: rigid management of time, entrenched and unquestioned routines and the disjointed and artificial dissection and delivery of learning. Read more…

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Integrating 5 Great Pedagogies

I recently did a Webinar on this topic.  Which is a bit absurd, really, because each deserves not only its own Webinar, but a full course to do justice to the ideas, models and research. But the point of the Webinar was to stimulate thinking in a couple areas:

  1. to see that a shift toward Intrinsic Motivation IS possible and robustly supported by rich pedagogies, and
  2. these pedagogies, when used in harmony, actually create synergies that maximise their benefits.

So the purpose of this post is to provide links to resources that people can pursue to learn more about each of the pedagogies.  As the graphic below suggests, there are LOTS more than 5 great pedagogies and many more than are shown here.  My goal was to choose a reasonable number and play with how they can be integrated.  You can access a recording of the Webinar if you are interested.

pedagogies

Self Determination Theory – Intrinsic Motivation

Positive Psychology – Personal Meaning, Flow & Grit

Web sites & Resources

Books

Understanding by Design™ – Deep Learning

Using backward design, does your school have a continuum of rich performance tasks that validate the vision and prompt interdisciplinary demonstrations of students’ understandings that require their transfer to new contexts?

Web sites & Resources

Books

Cultures of Thinking – Thinking Routines

Web sites & Resources

Books

SOLE – Self-Organised Learning Environments

Websites & Resources

Videos

Posted in Look to Learn, NextEraEd, Psychology, See-Think-Wonder, Tom's Work, UbD, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Horizon International Bilingual School – Vietnam

logo

I’m really looking forward to a long-term relationship with the Horizon International Bilingual School in Vietnam.  On Monday, 1 August we will work together withe staff from both the Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh campuses.

This Web page will provide links to some of the activities and resources we will be using.

Morning Session

Activity #1 – What does great learning feel like?

Lunch Break

Activity #2 – Demonstration – Curriculum Design and Mapping in Edumate

  • I will move through how the Curriculum Design Module works to support what matters most to HIBS
  • Then relate this to the Learning Alignment System and review Scope & Sequence and Curriculum Portet

Refreshment Break

Activity #3 – Presentation and Review Teams

Activity #4 – an Overview of Edumate

  • Quick Tour:
    • Dashboard & Portal
    • Attendance and Learning Observations
    • Learning Tasks and Markbook
    • Academic Reports
    • Student and Parent Portals
  • “Closing the Loop” for continuous Improvement
  • Staying focused on the journey
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