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Teacher Ananth Pai's do-it-yourself tech effort pays big dividends for students

Looking at his students’ test scores a few years back, third-grade teacher Ananth Pai had an epiphany. The kids were all approximately the same age, but scores ranging from the 10th percentile to the 90th meant they were achieving at very different grade levels.

He needed to reach each on his or her level, but there were 20 of them and one of him. Even at that relatively generous student-teacher ratio, differentiation — the practice of tailoring lessons to pupils — seemed impossible without technology.

His district, White Bear Lake Area Schools, offered him a whiteboard, but Pai had other ideas. “That’s technology for the teacher,” he explains in a new, 13-minute video produced by the St. Paul-based think-tank Education Evolving (EE). “I want technology for the students.”

When the district declined to give him the $6,000 it would have spent on the board, Pai, an Indian immigrant, and his wife came up with some and secured a matching grant from his wife’s employer. He bought seven laptops, two desktops, 11 Nintendo DSs and 21 digital voice recorders.

Then he collected the best games for math, reading, vocabulary, geography and other subjects available online and from game creators and created a digital profile for every kid in his class. Suddenly, kids were engaged — absorbed, actually, in getting to the games’ next levels. Voila! — instant differentiation.

In each of the next three years, his students’ growth doubled or even tripled. More than 200 visitors — national media, state lawmakers, functionaries from the Minnesota Department of Education -- came to watch the fun. Still others visited the class virtually; some signed a student petition calling for technology for all.   

And why wouldn’t they? Pai’s work brilliantly showcased the potential for some of the ideas currently generating the most buzz in education policy circles: Blended learning, personalized learning, data-driven instruction.   

You can guess where this is going, right? A GameBoy in every cubby! Minecraft in every geography class!

Wrong. Pai’s brave experiment is fun to hear about, but the point of the EE video is that organizations resist change. (And the nonprofit is very careful to note that the resistance in this story does not accrue to a school, district or agency; it’s a systemic issue.)

“If this was business, there would be people making deals with me,” an emotional Pai tells the camera. “As a young man who had odds of everything in life going against me, starting where I said I started. And to come to the United States from which bags of food used to come to my school when I was a child, that had the stamp USA on it, and to find this kind of bureaucratic apathy is stunning.”

The video is well worth a watch, particularly because its point is not that technology will save the day for all. Rather it advocates a “Split Screen” approach, “working simultaneously to develop new and different models of school while continuing also to do everything possible to improve the existing schools in the traditional district sector.”

The last few moments wade into truly subversive territory: The charter law is an opportunity for teachers, it posits, and their unions.

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Comments (4)

Great Article, fear of change is one of the great demotivators

Mr. Pai is clearly intellectually curious, systematic, and tech savvy, exactly what we hope for in people teaching our children.

It would be an unusual organization or supervisor that would recognize those unique skills and give him the tools he needed for his experiment. That is what is missing from most organizations be they schools or anything else and that is good supervisors, managers and leaders who can make the most of the talents of the people around them. People with a unique combination of skills and intellectual curiosity should be encouraged in any organization and you can get innovation and amazing results.

He has my admiration for his persistence and his success.

On Being a Changemaker

An animal trainer named Karen Pryor wrote a piece called "On Being a Changemaker" that has broad applicability beyond her field of work. It can be found at http://www.clickertraining.com/node/157 and it reads as follows (Warning - contains training lingo - don't get hung up on that):

Here's a biologist's look at the process of making changes:

What people do when you start to institute a change (in chronological order):

Ignore you
Pretend to agree, but actually do nothing
Resist, delay, obstruct
Openly attack you (the dangerous phase, but also a sign that change is starting)
Absorb
Utilize
Take credit
Proselytize

What people say in the process of accepting the change:

"That might work for your population but not for mine." (absorbing)
"I can use it, but not for anything important." (absorbing and utilizing)
"Some of my people can use it if they feel they need to." (utilizing)
"Oh yes, we've been doing that for years, it's quite good." (utilizing and taking credit)
"We've come up with a really incredible program; you should try it." (taking credit and proselytizing)

How the changemaker can react effectively

When they ignore you, find allies and persist.
Don't be misled by lip service. Find allies and persist.
Meet resistance with persistence. Move around the resistance; try other avenues.
The stage of open attack is a touchy time. People can get fired, for example. Keep your head down, but persist. Don't take the attack personally, even if it is a personal attack. Attack is information; it tells you:
a) You're getting somewhere: change IS happening, causing extinction-induced aggression.
b) Your attacker is frightened. Empathize.
c) Your attacker still believes in the efficacy of aversives.
Absorbing and utilizing: this stage can last a year or more. Maintain generous schedules of reinforcement.
They're taking credit for your idea? By all means let them; your goal is the change. Credit is a low-cost reinforcer and people who want it don't satiate. Give it away in buckets.
Are they pitching the change? Good. If you want to change something else, you now have new allies.

Innovation

I enjoyed Pat Berg's supplement to this interesting article. It all made me smile as I recalled an incident early in the digital era when we wrote a grant application for our small school. I believe we were applying for an "Innovation Grant." We wanted a small amount of money so as to connect our students effectively to the internet and expand our curriculum accordingly. Someone apparently thought that was not directly connected to education and curriculum and turned us down. We have come some way since then....

On bringing change

Wow.

Amen to almost everything in the video. Instruction and evaluation have to be individualized if we're serious about doing away with the infamous “achievement gap.”

The kid in the red shirt at 3:23 or so is amazingly articulate for a 3rd-grader – reinforcing my long-held belief that children are far more capable than adults generally give them credit for or permission to be.

I completely agree with Mr. Pai about “technology for the teacher,” but would like to remind the occasional reader that it sometimes works in reverse, as well. Years ago, at the high school where I spent most of my career. We had a 2nd-generation computer lab, complete with laser printers, web access, and lots of other bells and whistles of the 1990s. It was great for the kids, but most of their teachers (probably not unlike today) knew far less about computers than their students, and in a faculty of about 90, only 4 teachers had computers at home. There were NO computers available for teacher use in, for example, the faculty rooms/teacher’s lounges. Most of my academic colleagues were completely computer-illiterate, and I was self-taught, which means I wasn’t always right about what would work, either.

Whole books have been written, and will continue to be written, about the difficulties of innovation within existing institutional structures. Trying something different at a school often provokes a hostile reaction from all quarters – administrators, parents, other faculty, and frequently, students. Lots of people don’t want their physical and intellectual routines disturbed, and I couldn’t agree more, having worked in schools as well as for big, multinational corporations, that “sameness” is a formula for both success and failure. It’s often what enables an organization to succeed in the first place, and once that success is in place, the desire to maintain it, especially through the use of the “tried and true,” is very nearly overpowering, both individually and institutionally.

And before I turn this into yet another too-long commentary…

Personally, I like the “split-screen” approach, which enables individuals and institutions, at least to a degree, to ease themselves into something new rather than having to learn to swim in a new and not always well-understood environment without adequate preparation and experience. Not every kid will thrive under Mr. Pai’s approach, but individualization will allow the kid who really does do well under a more traditional system to do so. Same for teachers and administrators and parents. The key – sounding like I’m a lot more wise and knowledgeable than is actually the case – is to allow and encourage an environment where that choice between the traditional and the new is fostered, and either one is OK.

If we’re going to continue to base our judgments about the efficacy of education on high-stakes standardized tests – something I continue to believe to be a huge mistake – this certainly illustrates what appears to be a very effective way to improve those scores. That it also appears to be an effective approach to genuine education is just fine with me, even if it doesn’t fit the standard model.

I see several problems with Pai’s approach – to educational innovation in general – in the competitive environment that the privatization model brings to education, but also agree that here seems to be an opportunity for teacher organizations to get in on the ground floor, so to speak, of innovation that will make it difficult for the teacher-bashers to label teachers as obstacles to achievement. Pat Berg’s comment is more than a little relevant in this regard.