20 March 2013


I visited the Hayward campus of Leadership Public Schools today to learn about a classroom formative assessment application they've been developing for a couple of years, called ExitTicket. The superintendent of Leadership Public Schools, Louise Bay Waters, describes the LPS system as an R&D network, focused on bringing teachers directly into the development process. The idea for ExitTicket grew out of one teacher's experience using a clicker system in his classroom. Taylor Garland realized that having (and giving his students) instant access to data about learning had a powerful impact on his class's success. Dr. Waters provided support for Taylor to work at developing a scalable system that could extend to other classrooms in the school. They hired a developer and began iterating. For a couple of years they've been refining the application and providing support for an expanding number of teachers and classrooms. 

I met Taylor several weeks ago at a tech oriented PD. At that time he showed me a version of ExitTicket running on his iPad and mentioned that they were going to roll out a public version this spring. Today, being the first day of spring, seemed the perfect day to visit and learn more about their invention.

I joined a group of other visitors, including teachers from nearby schools and a representative from the New Schools Venture Fund. We observed two classrooms and saw teachers using the tools in very different, but equally effective ways.

In Micheal Fauteaux's 10th grade geometry class, students entered, grabbed an iPod touch from a box near the door, picked up a packet of materials for the day's class and got started on their "Launch" activity. Each student needed to work a problem based on the previous day's lesson. Once they'd worked the problem, students logged into the ExitTicket web app on the ipod touch and entered their answer to the launch activity. On the board in the front of the room a live display showed students logging in, and answering the question. The display immediately tallied the classroom results while the teacher circulated and checked on students who were lagging behind their peers. He was carrying an iPad with a display similar to the one on the board. (His display showed student's names where the display on the board just showed anonymous students.)

Once all students had posted their answers, Mr. Fauteaux toggled to a view of the board which showed how many students had chosen each of the available incorrect answers to the problem. (He could have made a free response question, which would have produced a larger array of wrong answers, but his multiple choice answers were designed to expose specific errors that he anticipated students might make, based on the previous day's activity.) He asked students in class to explain why they thought someone might have chosen one of the wrong answers. Hands shot up and the students provided suggestions for why each incorrect answer was incorrect. After introducing some new material, along with the content he had taught the previous day, the teacher, using the information on his iPad, quietly pulled together a group of 5 students who had chosen one specific incorrect answer on the launch problem to reteach the missing concept that had caused their error. When he was finished working with that group, he called on a couple of students who had chosen a different incorrect answer, exposing a different skill or knowledge gap. While he worked with these two groups at his "Genius Bar," other students were working on a set of problems related to the new material introduced after the launch. There room was relatively quiet but students were working together to solve the problems in the set.

Because of how the ExitTicket software recognizes streaks and reinforces student engagement through instant feedback on their work, the students wanted to make sure they had the right answer before entering it into the application. Students who had already mastered the underlying concepts were helping the students who were struggling. After he finshed with students at the Genius Bar, the teacher again began to circulate and pulled kids aside who needed a little extra support. As they wrapped up this section of the class, the teacher posted some survey questions on the board. In the polls he asked students to predict which types of errors they might expect on the problems they had been working on. The polling results displayed instantly as students entered their responses. Class discussion focused on students defending the logic behind their choices. The teacher asked the students to turn to their neighbors and discuss the poll. Then he asked them to take the poll again and the class reflected on the changes. None of this activity was focused on simply getting the right answer. It was all about helping students grapple with the idea of productive struggle, and building skill around how to understand and break down problems. 

As we moved to the other classroom Dr. Waters described ExitTicket as an onramp to a blended learning environment, and in Rose Zapata's 9th grade algebra class we saw a different method for using the application which hinted at a blended learning environment. As we entered, students were working on learning playlists that the teacher had developed using the previous day's results from ExitTicket. During the independent work time, some students were using Khan Academy, others were working in groups on a set of problems, others were working in a small group with the teacher. In our conversation with that teacher after class, she noted that se was able to keep tabs on the whole class on her iPad, even as she was working closely with the small group. (Her dashboard shows students names on tiles that indicate whether they're logged into ExitTicket, so she can tell whether they're still on task.) After students completed their activities, she asked them to reflect on what they had accomplished that day using a Google form on which she captures their meta-cognition about their learning. This class was using chromebooks, so they had a more robust text entry tool than the students in the 10th grade geometry class. While this teacher did not display the live data on the board, students were getting immediate feedback on their chromebooks, and on the board was a big display of the previous day's data showing how many students had mastered the current concept. 

After visiting these two classrooms, I hopped onto a Google Hangout with Taylor and Lewis Leiboh and Kate Madden. Taylor ran through the teacher interface for the application. There's an authoring environment for creating the assessment questions. The UX and UI are clean and well thought out (probably the result of the two years they spent developing the application). Teachers can easily share assessment questions, and create their own exit tickets using a combination of shared questions or their own questions. Polling questions are similar to regular assessment questions but may not necessarily have a right answer. 

Future plans include connecting every teaching objective to a common core standard. (The authoring environment shows placeholders for the interface for choosing connected standards.) When I asked about creating a method within ExitTicket for allowing students to add metacognitive tags to items they master they said they would consider such an addition. (No timeline discussed.) Taylor said they were planning an API to connect to other teacher tools. (gradebooks, SISs, etc.)  They showed an interface for configuring teacher specific mastery ranges. The tool looks pretty mature for an initial launch. 

Their current pricing model is to provide a Free tool for teachers with a minimum feature set, a Pro version for individual teachers with a few additional features, and a school/district/CMO version of the tool with a full feature set and data integration. Specific prices are still unspecified. 

According to their research, students in classrooms using ExitTicket are making an average of 2.5 years of gain, while other students in the LPS system are making an average of 1.6 years gain. 

A major drawback is the necessity of having a wifi enabled device with a browser for each student. The students in Mr. Fauteaux's class were using old iPod Touch devices, many of which appeared to be quite old, so the device needn't be a flashy new device. And they did point out that students may share a device, (One student logs in, enters an answer, logs out and passes the device to another student.) While it might work to share between 2 or 3 kids, there's still a need for the school to invest in technology. BYOD is an option, but the school might still need to purchase some devices. On the other hand, classrooms that already have 1:1 devices could adopt this tool right away. 

10 March 2013


I visited Austin for the first time last week. The SXSWedu festival is in its second year and in my new role as an edTech business analyst I appreciated having an opportunity to attend. Austin is an interesting town. There's an emerging metropolitan feel, balanced against the remnant aesthetic of a wild west college town. I like it. The bars along 6th Street reminded me of the midwestern bars of Rock Island, IL, where I lived for a few years. Indeed there is an almost spiritual connection between Rock Island and Austin, made tangible in my experience at Daytrotter. In the early days of creating that site, we sent a crew to record Daytrotter Sessions in Austin during the bigger and older SXSW Interactive festival. I digress.

I was intending to write a summary of the sessions I attended, but when I started thinking back about the experience, I really want to shape what I learned around the people I met. The sessions themselves were a reminder of how difficult it is to convey ideas in a presentational format, and for me the big takeaway from the conference is that the best educational environment we can create for children in this country will not built on top of a better method for presenting information. Instead, we are going to get better at creating an environment where children will begin to take charge of their own learning, nurtured by expert teachers. 

The best sessions at the conference were those that were interactive and shaped by the conversation between presenter and audience. One person I met was Shawn Rubin of the Rhode Island Highlander Institute. We were chatting in a group during a session in which he was a presenter. One of the best things I heard all week was something Shawn said: "You don't teach creativity, you create environments where creativity erupts." This applies to education generally. The best way to educate students is to create an environment where there is an opportunity to explore, engage their curiousity, and discover. Learning happens. Great teachers light the fire. 

Yancy Unger, a teacher, shared the folktale of John Henry and reflected on how teachers may feel that they're at risk of being replaced by a faster machine. He talked about John Dewey, reminding us that Dewey said: "Learning is social." Learning is a function of engaged interaction. It was Yancy who also made the connection between Martin Luther and our current system of compulsory education that I had been mulling over recently. His talk was passionate. He noted (as have many others) that the digital age is as disruptive to society as Gutenburg's press was at the time of the Reformation. But he also points out that we haven't yet begun to respond to that disruption in ways that take meaningful advantage of the new informational paradigm. Teachers need to be on the leading edge in this reform, but many have been bridled by outdated policies that don't acknowledge this tec(h)tonic shift.

Richard Culatta, our friend in the US Department of Education, talked about the fact that our interest in data driven education has forced teachers to add "data analyst" to their skill set, although little has been done to help teachers acquire the skill. He observed that our interest in data is putting pressure on all parties involved in education to struggle to both understand the meaning of the data (big data analysis) but also to deal with the ethical issues surrounding the ownership of that data. (Does data belong to the school, the data collector, the student, the family?) And as we struggle to find meaning in the data we are collecting, we are also struggling to determine what data is relevant for collection. How, for instance, do we collect data about non-cognitive skills like resilience, persistence, curiousity, and grit? In conversations after his panel discussion we got into the realm of educational resource sharing, and the challenges of organizing, cataloging, and curating that content into searchable and useful collections. He shared a new proof-of-concept tool they've created at the DOE and offered to share their codebase with us so that we can iterate the design and functionality of the tool to apply it to other collections (like our own resource exchange). 

Stephen Coller from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sat on the panel with Richard and provided additional perspective on the question of data collection. He noted that there might be some value in creating a nationally normed online student report card. He also raised questions about issues around data privacy. As did several other speakers at the conference, Stephen noted the similar challenges that faced the health care industry in relation to their data management issues, and suggested we look there for inspiration for innovative solutions around EDU data strategies. Stephen also provided us with an interesting and entertaining parlor game during the week. Each day he wore a brightly colored outfit, featuring a floral print shirt, bright colored slacks and matching shoes. We took bets on the color scheme for the last day of the conference, and I am pleased to report that my guess (purple) was the winning guess. Lewis Leiboh contacted Stephen after the conference to find out the rationale for the colors, and I believe Stephen's response was essentially, "That's the way I always dress."

Speaking of Lewis, he and I decided that a trip to Austin required a 40 minute drive into the desert south of Austin for barbecue at the Salt Lick. (Thanks, Faizan, for the recommendation.) It was a long ride, but the restaurant was satisfyingly quaint and tasty. The huge indoor barbecue pit was sizzling and smoking as we entered and the aroma was intoxicating. A tall glass of unsweetened iced tea went well with the brisket sandwich, pickles and onions, and a generous serving of beans and coleslaw. 

I met several other interesting folks at the conference. Sebu Bjorklund from Finland remarked on the fact that many schools are not keeping up with their digitally fluent students when it comes to the adoption of technology. Many students are better prepared and capable of using network technology to do research and discovery, and schools have yet to adapt their curriculum to acknowledge this skill. 

Jessie Wooley Wilson of Dreambox talked about adaptive and personalized technology tools that allow for real-time analysis assessment and engagement. She noted that typical "adaptive" strategy only varies pace, but that we're now capable of deploying Intelligent adaptive strategies that reorganize what is taught to each student. These intelligent strategies "learn the learner,"  collecting 50,000 data points per student per hour and learning about how students solve problems. Using these techologies, a sequencing engine directs students to their proximal zone of development. Students persist through challenges because they feel it's like a game. Fascinating stuff. 

My overall favorite presentation of the week was a session titled "The Problem Finders: Design Thinking Across Schools." The two presenters were Ewan McIntosh and Tom Barrett of NoTosh Ltd., a creative consultancy and design thinking team. Their talk was funny, interactive (Twitter driven) and compelling. They shared some interesting video of students engaged in the design thinking process in their classroom. As they articulated it, design thinking follows this trajectory: immersion, synthesis, ideation, prototyping, and feedback. This helps teachers and students create authentic and compelling learning, and doesn't rely on fake problems. Start with students asking lots of questions. Students determine which questions are worth answering and determine whether the questions are googleable (not as valuable) or non-googleable (very valuable). As the learning process unfolds, the students determine the direction of what to do next, what learning pathways to follow. While data is collected and evidence observed, the value of this process is that the skills students are mastering are as much non-cognitive as cognitive. They become persistent, curious, and engaged in the process of discovery. Many of the basic cognitive skills they'll need later in life are mastered as a byproduct of this kind of learning. One of the features of their program is the idea of "tagging" learning -- intentionally applying meta knowledge to the learning process. Even as they acknowledge their unconventional approach, they are able to quantify the significant academic gains children experience in these types of classrooms (think Maria Montessori or Reggio Emelia, but for older students). Very compelling.

There were a couple of keynote addresses. The best of the three was Asenath Andrew's talk about her experiences at the Catherine Fergeson Academy in Detriot was both illuminating and entertaining. Some of the most tweetable lines of the conference were pronounced in her speech. 

"Everything kids love and everything they do is marketed to them. Except education." Asenath Andrews  #SXSWEdu [twitter]


"We were trying to fit the kids to the school instead of fitting the school to the kids." Asenath Andrews  #SXSWEdu [twitter]


"You don't need shoes, you need wings." Asenath Andrews  #SXSWEdu [twitter]

The final keynote of the conference was presented by Bill Gates. He proved what Edward Tufte said. "Power corrupts, PowerPoint corrupts absolutely." 

Finally, I want to name a few key edTech entrepreneurs who we spent time with over the week. It was great to see alums Jen Medbery (Kickboard) and Robbie Earle (Common Curriculum) and spend time with them learning about plans for developing their applications. I also enjoyed meeting Robbie's partner, Scott Messinger, who was enthusiastic about their new application design. I also spent some time chatting with Daniel Yoo of Goalbook, an app that's designed to help Special Education teachers track their students's IEP goals and achievement. The time spent talking, philosophizing, and mingling in a crowd that was focused on the challenges of education (and how best to bring technology to bear on designing solutions for those challenges) was as valuable as the time spent in sessions at the confererence. 

9 March 2013

Education and the Reformation

At SXSWedu last week I encountered a presenter who drew a connection between our compulsory education system and the protestant reformation, the invention of moveable type, and the Gutenberg press. This is something that I've been thinking about frequently, especially in the context of education reform.

Martin Luther proposed the idea of universal education, recognizing the need to reform the public through education, which would lead to the transformation of the church. It wasn't enough to simply call for reform of the Roman church. In Luther's view reforming the church necessarily depended on educating the members of the body. He created the reforming church by fostering an education reform movement.

This is how I think of education reform today. It's not simply some sort of bold initiative to be applied to the institutions of education, but a way of understanding how education is a reforming influence in in each of our lives. And because I think of education as "reforming," I understand that institutional reform is a continuous process -- there's no Big Bang moment. It's like water over stones in a stream. The process is never ending.

8 March 2013

A Modest Proposal for the Improvement of Public Education

Reblogged from Back To Oakland:

I was sitting with a few other teachers a couple of weeks ago. We were discussing the difficulties of finding common ground in the conversation about how to best educate the children of our country. A big part of the problem, we agreed, is the vilification of anyone who has a different idea than yours ... Read the whole story »

8 March 2013

Bloom's Taxonomy

Reblogged from my Back To Oakland Site: 

I was looking at a collection of images of Bloom's taxonomy today and realized that I wanted a simple but more apt drawing that would capture my beliefs about how the taxonomy relates to learning. I had recently read some interesting thoughts about the fact that the taxonomy was not strictly conceived as a hierarchy ... Read the whole story »