SHIFT PARADIGM | by Mark E. Weston
To understand why this is, not vice versa, requires understanding what the research literature makes clear: It is possible to get all children learning at levels beyond their respective aptitudes. The same literature, however, makes clear that such levels of learning rarely occur outside one-to-one tutoring settings. Let’s unpack these seemingly contradictory statements to shed light on why education has failed technology and what we can do about it.
Nearly three decades ago, Benjamin Bloom (author of Taxonomy of Educational Objectives) led a research effort to find methods of group instruction that were as effective as one-to-one tutoring through which students performed two standard deviations higher than their classroom educated peers. Bloom named the target of his search the 2-sigma problem. The research-based solution he found was simple, yet profound. If certain instructional practices are used and specific conditions met then one teacher, instructing a group of students in a classroom, could help the students attain 2-sigma. The practices he identified that make 2-sigma possible include reinforcement, cues and explanations, corrective feedback, and cooperative learning. The conditions include student classroom-participation, student time on task, and classroom morale.
Despite Bloom’s work and thousands of subsequent studies by other researchers (e.g., John Hattie, Robert Marzano) that demonstrate the positive effect that specific practices and conditions have on classroom learning, 2-sigma remains a rare attainment for teachers. This is largely because in the current educational paradigm individual teachers must shoulder a disproportionate share of the pedagogical load for making 2-sigma happen.
The teacher-load conundrum is exacerbated by the organizational and operational design of schools that make load-sharing nearly impossible for 2-sigma oriented teachers. In such schools, a teacher trying to take a classroom of 30 students to 2-sigma must make it happen alone. That is a lot for an already heavily-laden teacher to do; a load even heavier if that teacher lacks the emotional, intellectual, or pedagogical wherewithal for unilaterally taking on 2-sigma. That these circumstances exist at all is a failure of the field of education, not the teacher. This failure is quite ironic given the intense pressure placed on the education field to get teachers to produce ever-greater student learning and achievement, mostly in the form of improved test scores.
When viewed through a produce-greater-student learning lens, school-level support for all teachers, especially the 2-sigma seeking ones, may be the most pressing, yet least recognized educational challenge of our era. My colleague Alan Bain and I call that challenge 1:X.
Sadly, schools are not designed for 1:X.
What can be done? The answer to that question must involve technology, because without its powerful benefits teachers stay in the same predicament and the educational paradigm stays the same.
During the past two decades many technologies have entered our lives. They brought with them lofty expectations for transformation of classrooms and schools. Implicit in such expectations was a belief that teachers and students with access to and mastery of technology would transform education.
While some evidence suggests that the personal lives of teachers and students may have changed as a result of new technologies, little evidence shows that their education lives have changed much. Technology has exerted little overall effect on educational settings and the teaching and learning in them. Student achievement test scores remain flat, school completion rates have not declined, and instruction is still mostly teacher-led in classrooms with neat-rowed desks.
The minimal effect that technology has had on teaching and learning is a failure of the field of education not a failure of technology. Teachers who strive to take their classrooms of students to 2-sigma, but have no school-level supports know this well. Further, those teachers know that the technology available to them barely connects to the real work that they do every day and the extra work they must do to make 2-sigma happen. And they readily admit that in many instances the technology that they do have actually increases their load. Not surprisingly, data show teachers rarely using technology in their classroom instruction.
What most teachers do not realize is that the lack of support for their 2-sigma work and the ineffectual technology they are given are symptoms of a much more pervasive failure. Both are a result of the field of education failing to acknowledge its own research about what works. And each is compounded by the field failing to investigate and build consensus about how to take what works to scale. This failure of scale limits the field’s ability to provide direction to the technology industry. It in turn limits the industry’s ability to help schools attain 1:X and teachers attain 2-sigma.
Fortunately, these circumstances can be changed significantly. The way forward starts with you, me, and other like-minded educators embracing Bloom’s and other researchers’ findings about the practices and conditions that have the most powerful effects on teaching and learning. Then, girded with these findings, we push, pull, and prod to secure school-level commitments that those practices and conditions become the basis for organizational and operational designs and decisions. The designs and decisions will in turn support putting technologies in place that enable teachers, students, and other educational stakeholders to generate emergent feedback about the school-level support they receive and guide further refinement of their efforts.
The shifts that we must seek in educational thought, theory, and action require education to demand technologies that extend, connect, and develop the capacities of teachers, students, and other educational stakeholders to benefit from the research of Bloom and others.
Sound preposterous? Perhaps it is. Anything less, however, reinforces past failures.
Mark Weston Ph.D., a co-author of The Learning Edge: What Technology Can Do to Educate All Children resides in Dunwoody, Georgia. He can be reached at [email protected]