Don't Drop the Pencil Yet: Why Writing Longhand is Still Important

Image of pen writing across keyboard
The so-called paperless society has long been an aim of futurists and technology innovators alike. As computers and handheld devices have proliferated in recent years, we’re closer than ever to making that vision a reality. But it turns out that there are some unintended consequences to favoring electronic devices over the printed page: namely, that writing longhand is a dying skill, and students lose a number of benefits as a result.
One challenge with respect to writing and technology is that, as indicated by some studies, handwriting is better for memory. It’s also the cognitive exercise that takes place with respect to writing longhand: it helps the student learn to read more effectively and, especially, to write more effectively. Writing a long-form piece such as an essay or report is a complex endeavor where a number of skill sets come together, including language production, the ability to form logical constructs, and memory retrieval. As writing longhand has become de-emphasized, and in some cases eliminated altogether, the results haven’t necessarily been favorable.
At this stage of technology adoption in the K-12 world, it’s obvious that analog and digital tools will need to live alongside one another. This is one of the driving forces behind furniture setups like our computer desks with FlipIT technology. It allows students to swivel the monitor into place when it’s needed, and stow it out of the way when they don’t, giving them access to the full range of desk space.
Ultimately, teachers need to use whatever mix of technology, whether it’s longhand or digital, that works best for the student.
(Source: EdSurge)

Does the Teacher Know Best? He/She Sure Does in China

Asian student at chalkboardA recent article in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) about an American family’s experience in the Chinese education system has gotten a lot of attention recently. Whereas in the U.S., where teachers are frequently questioned and challenged by students and parents alike, Chinese teachers tolerate none of it: they expect strict obedience from their pupils and support from their parents. It’s basically a teaching philosophy straight out of Confucianism and, as the writer shares anecdotally, an awfully good fit with Chinese communism.
The numbers help explain why the Chinese approach has its admirers. Chinese 6-year-olds crush their American counterparts in math and logic skills, and Chinese students are exceptionally successful abroad. It’s also worth pointing out that China’s societal emphasis on deference to teachers appears to translate to a higher level of respect for the profession in general than is found in the U.S. or Great Britain.
But the approach has its downsides: the writer indicates that Chinese education tends to discourage creativity, and some Chinese schools, realizing the deficiency, are trying to adapt. Moreover, as the WSJ article states, the Chinese approach just wouldn’t fly in the U.S., which places too high a premium on individuality and the ability to question authority.
All that said, the strengths of the Chinese approach to education, particularly given the country’s rise on the world stage, will probably continue to attract attention.

How to Combat College Cheating

Preventing cheating in college classesCheating at the college and university level has been a problem from the beginning, but it has only gotten worse as technology has proliferated.  As smartphones (read: handheld computers) have become ubiquitous on college campuses, the ability for students to outsmart professors is overwhelming.  (There was even a question posted to Quora asking the best place to sit in a class to cheat.)
Colleges and universities find themselves needing to get increasingly creative in combating the problem.  Here are a few ideas.

  • Foster a social stigma against cheating.  This blog post suggests creating and reinforcing a campus-wide honor code to encourage students to walk the straight and narrow.
  • Spell out to students specific behaviors that amount to cheating and plagiarism.  Yes, it’s unfortunate that today’s students aren’t necessarily clear on what constitutes cheating, but it may be best to provide the clarification.
  • Create a centralized testing center.  Many colleges and universities have designated a separate building or wing for tests and quizzes, which allows for enforcement of rules such as confiscation of phones and other electronic devices.  Yes, this can be expensive, and yes, it can amount to an inconvenience for students; however, a separate controlled environment can make it easier to clamp down on wandering eyes and coordinated efforts among students.
  • Invest in the right class layout.  Having flexible classroom furniture can allow instructors to rearrange seating in ways that will discourage cheating.

It’s also worth pointing out that technology is something of a two-edged sword when it comes to this topic: it makes it easier for students to cheat, but it can also make it easier for teachers to catch them.

Designing the Classroom for Academic Honesty

Students are constantly faced with academic dishonesty. Unfortunately, although technology has become a powerful learning asset both inside and outside the classroom, it has also become an additional tool for cheating. According to major higher educational studies, an average of 75 percent of students admitted to at least one form of cheating over the course of their college career. But, this problem is not just found within academia. The same statistics ring true for high-school-aged children.
While we can put out a clarion call to scan student’s essays through online software that notates plagiarism and create several versions of tests for students to take, the need for combatting academic dishonesty is much more than that. It is about developing a culture of pride and personal integrity within students. Now, this is much easier said than done. Academic dishonesty has been around for decades; and will still be even in classrooms where teachers take action. But, that does not mean that it should go unnoticed.
Teachers and school districts can design their classrooms for success and honesty by:

  1. Changing the focus of learning

Cheating is increasingly prevalent during high risk assessment, like highly-weighted exams or essays. While testing can be argued to be an important aspect of learning, the focus across the United States needs to be realigned to focus more on the mastery of the skills. Teachers should consider methods other than traditional closed-book exams to test students on their ability to apply their knowledge, not simply demonstrate memorization. Students would be less likely and capable of cheating if the notion of learning focused on enrichment and mastery of skills rather than testing standards.

  1. Adding tools that decrease the possibility of cheating

How test takers are seated can affect the probability of cheating. While it is not possible in all schools, adding testing privacy shields between desks that clamp to the desk not only discourage cheating, but encourage focus. This will allow students to do their best on exams.

  1. Academic integrity code of ethics contracts

Many teachers have each student and a parent or guardian sign a code of ethics policy that clearly lays out the policy at the beginning of the year. This can help educate students on what constitutes as plagiarism or academic misconduct and lay a foundation for a no-tolerance enforcement. Students will be a lot less likely to attempt to cheat if the policy is very clearly spelled out.
4. Be an active teacher during testing
For teachers administering tests, testing day is not simply a time to catch up on reading. Teachers need to be actively looking for common cheating signs during test-taking situations. The more aware a teacher is, the more difficult it will be for a student to cheat; and the less likely they will.

  1. Consider school-wide devices over BYOD

In a 21st century school, technology is prevalent. If the school has a policy of providing students with individual iPads or laptops that they can use in the classroom, there is more of a possibility that the school can utilize computer monitoring software that bars students from browser windows and tracks where they go. Blended learning and the use of technology in the classroom is arguably extremely beneficial, as long as the teacher is knowledgeable of the technology.
How do you create a culture of academic honesty within your school?

The Common Core State Standards, widespread standardized testing, and the American education industry

Standardized testing is historically a hot-button topic in the American public education system.  From the implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002 and Race to the Top in 2009, to the more recent controversy surrounding the release of the Common Core State Standards in 2010, questions abound as to whether standardized testing can provide an accurate metric for academic success, in terms of both teacher and student performance.
According to the Common Core website, the standards “provide clear and consistent learning goals to help prepare students for college, career, and life. The standards clearly demonstrate what students are expected to learn at each grade level, so that every parent and teacher can understand and support their learning.” The ultimate goal of the standards is to produce college and career readiness from a young age — beginning in the elementary years. 
But concerns remain about how exactly to prepare students for college, especially across a diverse array of school districts and student bodies. Some who oppose the Common Core cite the limiting influence of “teaching to the test,” which according to this editorial could create a standardized test meritocracy, defining students by ratings and rankings rather than their individual intellectual and creative strengths (which are not well measured by multiple choice tests). In addition, the Common Core standards were written by 27 members of the organization Student Achievement Partners. Many of these writers are involved in the pre-existing standardized testing industry and maintain interests in its economic growth. 
On the other hand, proponents of the program argue that because the standards merely indicate what students should be capable of as they progress through the grade levels. Individual curricula are still left to the discretion of their teachers and schools. As such, they claim that teaching a standardized skill set within the flexible framework of the Common Core will, on the whole, boost students’ academic performance.
SMARTdesks and the Common Core  
SMARTdesks is a firm believer the project-based learning and collaborative work allows students to grow in ways that exclusively “teaching to the test” does not offer. Standards have the capacity to enrich education, but they also must constantly adjust to account for students and their individual learning needs. Just as rows of desks are a dated classroom layout, uniform standards can curb the opportunity to foster creativity and entrepreneurship from an early age.
This Washington Post article offers a pertinent critique of the standards and their dependence on standardized testing as a measure of success, calling this method the “test-and-punish” approach as opposed to a “support-and-improve” model. Involved diagnostic entities working to improve education – such as the California Collaborative mentioned in the article – can identify strengths and weaknesses of schools in a way that the ranking inherent in standardized testing cannot. This approach emphasizes constructive feedback rather than punitive sanctions, and enables educators to better design curricula without the looming threat of losing their jobs based on their students’ standardized test scores. 
In general, how much do Americans really know about the Common Core?
A UConn poll from earlier this month showed that the more Americans know about the initiative, the less likely they will be to support it.
Some Statistics:

  • 39% of Americans have heard of the much-debated initiative in 44  states; 95% have heard of No Child Left Behind;
  • 33% believe adopting Common Core standards will increase the quality of education in their communities, 27% say it will have no effect, 30% believe it will damage education;
  • 29% believe the Common Core will increase the number of students who attend college;
  • 33% say the initiative will mean that more of those Americans who graduate college will be ready for a career;
  • 53% of liberals favor the policy, compared to 24% of conservatives who responded to the poll.

And…38% believe Common Core is a good policy, in contrast to the 44% who believe the opposite.
This reticence perhaps stems from the consequences of No Child Left Behind, which some consider a fundamentally flawed program due to its dependence on test scores. The cost has been hefty as well; pre-NCLB annual state spending on standardized tests totaled $423 million, a figure which rose to $1.1 billion in 2008, according to this Huff Post blog entry.
For the Common Core’s response to criticism click here for the program’s elucidation of “myths vs. facts” regarding its standards.
In your opinion…Do you think the Common Core will help or harm students and teachers in the long run? What does college-and-career readiness mean to you?