The Pioneer Spirit

(Full disclosure: The longer I work as an education reporter, the more skeptical and more bandwagon-adverse I am. And I am in my 38th year on the beat….so read on at your peril.)

A clever ad for Xerox a few years ago showed an executive at his desk listening to a succession of pitches from unseen salesmen, all of whom ended their pitch by saying “It’s almost as good as a Xerox.” As the last salesman began his windup, the (by now exasperated) executive interrupted, “I know, I know, ‘it’s almost as good as a Xerox,’” to which the salesman responded, “No, sir, it IS a Xerox.”

That old ad popped into my head the other day as I was listening to folks extolling the virtues of ‘blended learning’ and ‘the Common Core,’ two hot-button issues in education these days. Everybody in education seems to be on board for one or the other, often both, but I can’t help likening them to those earnest, well-meaning men pushing a product that is ‘almost as good as…..’

Recently I visited a school that was supposedly practicing ‘blended learning,’ but what I mostly saw was 6th graders tethered to their computers. They weren’t being lectured to by a teacher in the front of the room; instead they were reacting to the prompts of whoever designed the software they were using. There was nothing ‘self-directed’ about what they were doing, as far as I could tell. Instead, their ‘teacher’ was some team of software engineers somewhere, and the kids were — paradoxically — passively reacting. It may have looked like active learning, but there was nothing remotely creative about it.

Later the principal and chief academic officer explained how the school was using ‘blended learning’ as its path to achieving ‘the Common Core’ standards.

Is Common Core the answer? Well, that all depends on asking the right questions.

Let me unpack that. “Blended learning” is defined as schooling that is both brick and click, some combination of school-based education and online education, with the implication that the two are interrelated in significant ways so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Note, however, that there is absolutely nothing in that definition that is evaluative in any way, and so ‘blended learning’ could be what I saw that day: half the day on the computer, half the day in teacher-directed activity.

For an analogy, think about the term ‘restaurant.’ What does that tell you about the food served there? Nothing. Even ‘French restaurant’ says nothing about the quality of the (French) food on the menu.

So let’s not get all gooey-eyed when educators tell you they are practicing blended learning in their schools. Before you jump on that bandwagon, ask how the brick and clicks are integrated. Ask how much time students are spending on computers. Ask what they do on those computers. Ask, ask, ask….and ask some more.

Now to the “Common Core’ bandwagon. The highly-touted ‘Common Core’ standards spell out, often in great detail, what children are expected to be able to do at various points in their schooling. These standards — adopted by nearly every state — are very specific and purportedly ‘higher’ than what now exists. We can agree that standards are good, and that higher standards better than low ones, but let’s take a second look.

What I fear is that these specific standards, intended to be the floor, will somehow become the ceiling. These benchmarks have the potential to calcify our already rigid, age-segregated system, at a time when flexibility is essential. In his brilliant book, The One World Schoolhouse, Sal Khan writes, “At a time when unprecedented change demands unprecedented flexibility, conventional education continues to be brittle.” He adds that the educational establishment seems “oddly blind (or tragically resistant) to readily available technology-based solutions.”

As I have argued elsewhere, age segregation has harmful effects on children, although it is of course convenient for the adults. The now-conventional wisdom of the Common Core will, I fear, harden the attitudes and practices of our ‘brittle’ system and keep kids segregated by age.

Too much of education is about consumption and regurgitation when it ought to be about production. Kids need to be encouraged to ask more and more questions. They need to learn how to sort through the flood of information that engulfs them, to separate wheat from chaff. If students can meet Common Core standards by spitting back answers, we’re making matters worse, not better.

On the flip side: Well-designed blended learning invites and allows kids to soar. But when a 6th grader soars past 6th, 7th and 8th grade math Common Core standards, she must be celebrated, not held back, ostracized or shamed in any way.

Despite the crowded bandwagon for blended learning and the Common Core, these men and women are often called ‘pioneers.’ But are they really pioneers? According to dictionary definitions, pioneers are “men and women who venture into unknown territory to settle, or who open up new areas of thought, research or development.”

It seems to me that rather than being true pioneers, many of these educators are simply looking for faster and more efficient ways to get to the same old destination.

Folks who care ought to be knee-deep in the struggle over measurements. We need to measure what matters, which to me means opposing those support our current ‘One Size Fits All’ approach to schooling, even when they have wrapped themselves in the glowing robes of blended learning and the Common Core.

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9 thoughts on “The Pioneer Spirit

  1. “Everybody in education seems to be on board for one or the other”

    Not true. Most of us see that both are vapid. Where do you get your information? Ted Bauer?


  2. John, I’m old enough that in my first weeks in the professional workforce, I was tasked to help with one of the first attempts to create a “paperless cockpit”. While planes have flown and even landed themselves for years now, the paper remains. Word has it pilots, civilian and military now bring personal iPads to help cope with the work. So, yes, I’m more skeptic than bandwagon material.

    That said, I’m going to cheer almost any school which enters upon a blended learning path. The reason is simple. 40% of teens claim to have iPhones. Even if that number is highly inflated, the fact remains that they know what interactive experience can be like and they are not for many more years going to accept lectures, worksheets, and class exercises far beneath them. If schools don’t start now, they’ll never get to where they need to be.

    Is there plenty of crappy software to choose from? Sure. And the Model T was not a Corvette. Yet someone–lots of someones!–had to buy it and drive it for the industry to move forward.

    I actually work daily on ‘unbundling’ digital learning, which means increasing the options for teens far beyond the core, and far beyond what comes packaged from the big software and textbook companies. (A handful of states have laws supporting this). I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about common core because I hope it will soon be superseded.

    Yet I’m also not willing to so quickly write off the old problem set, quiz, etc. model. It managed to produce the international space station, iPhones, Avatar the movie, a 100 hour occupation of a nation defended by the worlds 5th largest army,, Youtube, and an upward spiraling average lifespan.


  3. the entire cohort approach to education is flawed and ought to be replaced. Set benchmarks for what you expect a student to be able to do when s/he gets out of high school and stop micromanaging. Also require not merely the ability to regurgitate but also the ability to apply bu requiring some kind of culminating or capstone project demonstrating the applicability of knowledge or skill learned.

    It is not merely the issue of what is learned in what grade, although we have been fighting that battle too many times, for example, with E. D. Hirsch and list of what students should know in each grade.

    Each student should have a functional individual educational program that allows her to advance when she can and provides support when he needs more time.

    The Common Core Standards are redolent of the approach the culminates in an insistence that every teacher in a subject be on the same page at the same time, whether or not that makes educational sense for the students in the classroom.

    Our students are not widgets. We should not be standardizing them. If our old data processing cards could warn us not to fold, spindle or mutilate, surely the young people entrusted to our care in our schools deserve at least that much respect for their individual talents and interests.


  4. I spent a day in a classroom in Oakland CA using the “practice” features in Khan Academy to work on Algebra. These were kids who came to this school with significant deficits in math. What I saw was a teacher who began the hour introducing an algebra concept then setting them loose in Khan Academy to practice, reinforce, and move on at their own pace when they mastered a particular set of problems. The teacher walked around from student to student or group to group (most were paired up and working together), giving individual attention as needed. It really seemed to be working with these kids – they were generally focused, determined, and cooperative with each other. The teacher had established the right “blend” of enabling self-pacing and giving individual attention.

    The problem I have with evaluating “blending learning” as a solution in an of itself, is that when it’s done well, it’s not viewed as a “solution” at all; rather it’s a highly nuanced shift in practice that takes the best of direct instruction and the best of technology-based tools, and deploys both to meet very specific needs of individual students. I completely agreed with John that bandwagon jumping is usually done at one’s peril, but that’s the problem with any sort of institutional solution that proposes to fix something that is terribly broken.


  5. How does the saying (truism) go? “A little bit of knowledge is dangerous.” Some well-meaning individual seeks an opportunity to improve the effective learning of students. Determining quickly the buzz words (your common core and blended learning plus others – e.g., flipped classroom), the mandate or action item is proclaimed. Rather than learning and discussing experience, requirements, assessment outcomes, …, it’s “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” The scene is repeated time after time.

    What’s known is that motivated student-controlled or -centered learning in groups works – ideally with mastery / competency being the standards. There is everything right about standards in terms of competency expectations; the thought that these standards can be aligned with each student’s age is preposterous at any level of consideration.

    There are very solid reasons why homeschooling and unschooling are gaining in popularity with their demonstrated success. With an eye to food co-ops, community gardens, and farmers’ markets, maybe the time has come for community education co-ops that broaden the opportunities of homeschooling by the (small) increases in scale?


  6. Any methodology (in education or elsewhere) can be misapplied, not matter how good the original ideas or how detailed the instructions. Picking on blended learning as the villain misses the point that plenty of people fail to use lots of good ideas in the ways they were intended.

    I think you should go back to a different point you sometimes make — if we stop picking on teachers as the source of the problems and we offer competitive career conditions, we might get more people into the profession who will carry out the many good ideas in successful ways, including mixing active and inductive learning into classes K-16. These methods are only the medium in which highly skilled or less skilled people do their work.


  7. One of my favorite memories of Larry Cremin, later President of Columbia Teachers College, was his observation about the Quincy School, the first graded school in America (1847). The coincidence of age segregation with the Irish famine in Boston, the first choice among the emigrating Irish at the time, seemed an appropriate Yankee response: to break up those messy large Irish families and control the Catholics from overwhelming what was left of the Puritans.

    And one of my favorite memories of blended learning was the discovery, by a student I was mentoring through a Boston “recovery” course delivered online, that copying the questions in the quiz into Google would deliver the exact word-for-word answer on He and I would then discuss how that answer worked, but the fact that it DID work was enough to move on to the next lesson.

    Not a lot changing from the 1840’s, it would seem: set the barriers and work through the ways around ’em. Too bad that learning had – and has – so little to do with it.


  8. John, you are raising important issues about both blended learning and the common core. My hope is that the consortia charged with creating assessments for the CCSS will set a high bar, and one that will require students to demonstrate deep and critical thinking. That will then allow teachers to do what they do best, modify their practices to help each student succeed against these high standards.
    This, not slavish attention to a screen, is what blended learning means to me… teachers ought to be in charge of deciding what “blend” of computer assisted learning and teacher coaching will help their students. I appreciate Stephen’s comments about the Khan implementation in Oakland. This, to me, is the right idea of a teacher using all the tools at his or her disposal to make the classroom work.


  9. John, I think you are right to be a skeptic on blended. It is difficult to do well and the folks like Rocketship and New Classrooms have been working on it for 6+ years to start to get it right. Being blended these days means about as much as being a charter school, there is no correlation to quality. So i think shining a light on both good and bad practices within blended is exactly the reality check needed..


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