Wednesday, February 1, 2012

If You Don’t Have a Web Presence, Are You Doing Your Job?

“The times they are a-changing.” - Bob Dylan

“Professor, when did you last post a blog or publish a webcast aimed at teachers?” - Me

Last month I promised I would say a bit more about my collaboration with the choral group Zambra to provide musical interpretations of mathematical equations. I will definitely come back to that in a future column, but right now I want to pick up a theme that emerged in a Finnish-American education summit at Stanford last month, for which I led the home-team organization. 

In particular, take a look at this brief video clip of math-teacher/blogger Dan Meyer making a point in a panel discussion at the conference. (Sorry about the low sound level. The recording was from Dan’s flip-video camera.)

For a broad overview of the summit, see the report in The Huffington Post. To see Dan’s complete blog post on the panel, which includes the full, hour-long video recording, see I’ll come back to that panel in just a moment. (And in a future column, I’ll tell you about the other person on the panel, Karim Ani, the founder of that wonderful, innovative, math-educational resource Mathalicious.) First, the summit itself.

As you might imagine, given all the attention paid to the Finnish K-12 education system in recent years, in particular their multi-year success in the OECD’s international education outcomes comparison PISA tests, there was considerable outside interest in our event, both beforehand and afterwards. Finnish education is big news, and everyone wants to know how to replicate their success. The Finns themselves, meanwhile, continue to be bemused by all the attention. For success in PISA, or any international ranking, was never on their agenda.

In fact, they will tell anyone who is prepared to listen (few policy makers in the US are, it seems) that one of the worst things you can do in education is focus on “outcomes metrics” and test performance. The Finns themselves do not. Instead, they concentrate on education. (Though Americans typically understand the word “education” in a way that would be alien to any Finn under 40 years of age, who would have been educated after Finland abandoned the “fill up the brain with facts and techniques” model we still cling to, and embarked on a complete revamp of their school system that eventually put them at the top of the international league tables that were never in their sights.)

How do I know? Together with my colleagues at Stanford’s H-STAR institute, I have collaborated for many years with Finnish education researchers, I make frequent visits to Finland, I have spent time in a Finnish school, I regularly host Finnish education scholars when they visit Stanford, and I am on the Advisory Board of their nationwide interdisciplinary education research network, CICERO Learning. (The name stands for Cross-disciplinary Initiative for Collaborative Efforts of Research on Learning. Education researchers love these acronyms.)

But, as usual, I digress. Though there was a lot to learn from the summit, I want to focus here on one particular theme. What can education researchers do to ensure that the important observations, conclusions, and discoveries that result from their research find their way to the teachers who are in the classroom every day?

The degree to which what should be a major knowledge transfer pipeline is totally fractured (or maybe it never got built) was made clear to me by the huge blog-debate that ensued a few years ago when I alluded (in passing, I should add) to scholarship stretching back over fifty years about multiplication not being repeated addition and it not being educationally wise to perpetuate such a falsity. Just Google “Devlin repeated addition” to get to the story, and then Google “repeated addition” to appreciate the enormity of the knowledge-transfer failure. (I’m never sure whether to capitalize proper names that become verbs.)

For me, the fact that there are millions of people who, rather than examine the evidence and change their position, prefer to cling to what they were taught as children, is simply a fact of life (at least in the US). I can’t do anything about it. Evolution by natural selection and global warming suffer the same fate, and we Americans seem particularly prone to this head-in-the-sands behavior.

What I will try to do, however, is encourage my fellow academics to become much more proactive in disseminating what we have learned in mathematics education over the past, oh, fifty years. There is today no shortage of ways to do this. Particularly easy are blogs and webcasts for substantive content, Twitter and Facebook for shorter alerts to the former. Sure, it takes time to build those networks. But there is an audience out there of committed teachers who are eager for all the help they can get.

Dan Meyer’s blog dy/dan, for instance, has 10,000 followers, mostly practicing teachers (I assume).  Okay, that number is tiny compared to Kim Kardashian’s 12 million Twitter followers, but Dan’s 10,000 blog subscribers are all individuals who want to learn good math teaching techniques. Kim may entertain the world, but Dan and his followers want to change it. Those of us in the academy should help them. (Help Dan and the teachers, that is, not Kim, who seems to be doing just fine on her own.)

The fact is, thousands of teachers are already using social media as an extended staff common room, to learn and to exchange ideas about teaching. (In so doing, they are making up for the fact that the US does not structure teachers’ workloads to include lots of face-to-face discussion time the way the Finns do.) The result of all that internet traffic is that current best practices quickly proliferate across the Social Web.

The problem is, for the most part, what is circulating are the knowledge and the ideas already in the system, a lot of it dating from your grandparents’ day, some going back to medieval times. Much of what has been discovered in university schools of education over the past half century has not yet found its way to the people who really need it.

We academics have at our disposal the tools to change all that. And we can do it in the comfort of our homes, by going online for half an hour last thing at night, before we go to bed. It’s not just a matter of getting the information across. Credentialed academics bring to the discussion something that is sorely missing in most of the traffic on the edu blogs. Scientific evidence and validation. As the Kim Kardashian example demonstrates, number of followers is not a reliable measure of anything other than popularity.

Dan Meyer is a case in point. He clearly has a lot of influence in current US K-12 mathematics education. He reaches in excess of 10,000 teachers on a regular basis, and they in turn will interact with their own network. Much of his success comes from teachers recognizing that he has things of value to say, and that is why Google appointed him as a Teaching Fellow two years ago, why Stanford accepted him as a doctoral student in education, and why he was on that summit panel. In short, dy/dan is a GOOD THING. But on its own, 10,000 subscribers is not validation. There are a lot of other math-edu bogs out there that are not as good, and perpetuate education myths that the academic education community put to rest decades ago.

For all the ease of use, the polished look, and the reach of blogs, tweets, and webcasts, without scientific validation their content is just opinion. It may be good opinion, but it’s still opinion. What we need in education is a lot less opinion and a whole heap more empirically grounded facts. Those facts are there, but they are closeted away in university schools of education, and put on highly limited display only in articles published in scholarly journals, in books written for other academics, and discussed at academic research conferences.

Typical teachers do not have the time to even begin to sift through all of that valuable stuff. But they do have a half hour or so most evenings to skim through a few blogs and to occasionally tune in to a webcast. We academics need to be in that space, and we need to be there with a loud (but respectful and collegial) e-voice.

To my mind, it comes down to what our obligations as academics are to the society that pays our salaries and provides us with the resources to do our work. Research is clearly one of those obligations. Teaching is another. The latter is where we need to change. In today’s world, when we can reach 10,000 as easily as 25, directing that teaching purely to the small number of students who are in our university lecture halls is no longer defensible.

For sure, there are mathematics researchers and mathematics-education researchers out there whose work is so good, it would be insane to ask them to do anything that takes them away from that work. But they are a minority in our profession. The rest of us should be evaluated differently.

Lest I leave you with the impression that I am trying to diminish the integrity or the prestige of the Academy, I’ll finish by noting that Stanford’s famed School of Engineering requires more than a strong record of publications and conference presentations in order to hire, tenure, and promote its faculty. They demand what they call impact. What that means is that every professor has to demonstrate an impact on society, say by their engineering research leading to a patent or finding its way into a product, or by their serving on a government panel and influencing policy.

Those of us in the academic world of education research should be held to a similar standard. Writing papers for one another and giving conference talks to our peers is an important part of what we do, but on its own it is not enough. If no teacher has learned of, or been influenced by, our work, why should we expect society to continue to support us? To my fellow academics, I ask: When did you last post a blog or publish a webcast aimed at teachers?


Voltaire said...

Well said. Can it be applied to teaching in the academy itself?

Keith Devlin said...

Probably, though I don't think it is so critical. We write papers for one another, give seminars, and go to conferences together all the time! :-)