Tag Archives: Institute of Higher Education

Information As Power: Digital Control of Learning in an Era of Superstudents. Or, Tale of Two Eras: Two Stories, Two Generations and Zero Change

1987:  There’s no doubt the learning game is changing, K-16. And the teaching game, in this digital age, is running ten steps behind, as usual. Even 30 years ago, Ivory towers attracted the brightest students. Unknown-1Even in that era students’ acumen threatened a well-established tradition of academia, and professors scurried to ensure their students paid a reasonable price for learning. In 1988 while teaching at a top-ranked university, I designed a scope and sequence of an introductory required Spanish Literature course. After all, I was a curriculum specialist! The course incorporated everything I had learned in my post-graduate work in Education. I wanted to motivate, prepare, teach for retention (in hopes that some students would continue on toward a minor or major). Since these students comprised the top 5% of college-age students, I thought it in their best interest to show them everything I expected of them, including the midterm, the final, the quizzes, an explanation and example of the kinds of papers I would require, rubrics for assignments and criteria for each grade they would like to achieve, the opportunity to submit any work early for my feedback, and much more. Although the course was “transparent,” according to the folder of required submissions of syllabi for every course, mine was more demanding than any other professor’s in the department:  more papers, more difficult criteria for grading, more quizzes and tests, more readings, a “literary theory” portion that is not even included in the course description itself, and more. The students struggled to understand the transparency at first, but as soon as they understood the challenge, most rose to the occasion, and some even submitted their written work to and were published by student publications across academia. As a result, I gave many A’s, and the department immediately chastised me and encouraged me to give less. UnknownSo… I raised the criteria required to complete for an A, B, C, etc., and the students met those expectations as eagerly as the year before. It happened a third year, and my students began to major and minor in Spanish. Unknown-2As they populated the Spanish National Honor Society, they began their own student publication in Spanish. The department, however, never ceased communicating to me their disapproval of my methods and how I am “inflating the grades” and not keeping students in their place by giving lower grades. It was the worst of times!


2017:  Several of my former high school clients approached me with matching issues. They spent time in high school learning to compensate for their dyslexia and dysgraphia and ADD/ADHD, relying on accommodations but learning to take full responsibility for their work. Every client had gotten into top-rated universities and they embraced the challenges they would be facing their Freshman year. They knew that, given their issues, they must orchestrate their time and resources when asked to read and write. But, all of them at their respective (and respectful? institutions) were struggling with at least one of their courses for the simple reason that the professor placed only the next class period’s readings and assignments on-line, with NO access to the reading material until their PROFESSORS released it. In short, they were finishing their classes, doing regular “college stuff,” and would not receive the next assignment to do until the next day or night before the assignment is due in class. And to make matters worse, they could not start on that assignment until they finished other classes for THAT day. 512718467-anxious-picturesThey had on the average 12-18 hours to read large passages and write large response essays. All of my former clients now lamented poor grades and frustration at not being able to budget their time and practice their compensation strategies that got them into the universities in the first place. It was the worst of times!


In the 1980’s, my colleagues believed that withholding information about how they assess their students and what content they will address keeps students guessing and “motivated” to earn that grade, with little consideration as to whether they are actually teaching well or their students are learning well. This information became the power to control every student who expressed any desire to earn a good grade. Unknown-3Almost in a childish or evil way, these colleagues seemed to throw out a vengeful assignment or pop quiz or grade papers very harshly, again withholding the proper feedback as to how the assessment was made. After all, these professors a generation ago had experienced the same hazing treatment in their own academic pursuits.

Yet, nowadays, little has changed. In my work with students who struggle with particular learning differences, I have seen the same harsh, unprofessional treatment in the digital age. I am speaking of the practice of PIECEMEAL online placement of content and assignments- such as Haiku, Bright Space, etc. Professors more and more are placing only the NEXT day’s readings and assignments online, leaving students completely unable to work ahead or work slowly and in their own time. Unknown-4While the digital tool is AMAZING, and truly streamlines many logistical solutions to academic needs, teachers use them as a “digital control” of student study habits, as a source of power over how much a student brings to each class. In my personal and professional opinion, professors who do this struggle with the insecurity that their students’ “learning something” too quickly might ruin that perfect teachable moment they had planned. Unknown-5Or, even more cynical, teachers fear being upstaged or exposed for not knowing something. In a world of Google searches, students can fact-check a professor any time. To illustrate, teachers might only post a reading passage and written response essay prompt one or two days before the class period it is due. With such shallow intentions, teachers like this at the very least deny students the opportunity to learn independently and in multiple modes. But, in addition and especially for those who need such accommodations, this “strategy” strips away the ability for students to budget their time appropriately and process things deeply. student-3176407__480And whether we like it or not, whether it is good or bad, the digital age has allowed our students to do more, have access to more information, etc. When students struggling with dyslexia and/or dysgraphia, for example, receive a 20-page article to read and a two-page response to write the day before it is due, they cannot apply the compensation strategies needed to produce quality work with such short notice. Over and over again in my work, my client says, “I’ve got to read this 25-page article for tomorrow and answer these short essay questions, but I just got the article last night. My professor just posted the questions (“prompt”) this afternoon.” And yet, for the last two years these high school clients and I have been emphasizing “working ahead” to make sure their work has depth and quality.

With such limited time and learning issues, my clients don’t know how to ask me for help now that they are in college. I try not to show my Unknown-7attitude and ask them the obvious WTF questions. Instead I focus on what each client can do and needs to do. I might read the article aloud or do a pre-reading focus session to make sure they reconstruct the meaning of the passage in a way that both facilitates retention AND answers the questions efficiently. Sometime, as painful as it is, I ask them to read the passage aloud to ME after I make myself quite familiar with the questions. Then, as they read, I stop them at each juncture that addresses a question. We brainstorm a response on a digital document, and then they keep reading. In short, I maximize the short time they are given to process large chunks of information. Except for those verbally gifted (and usually female) students who can process quickly, this treatment is academic cruelty.

What are those WTF questions?                      Unknown-8

-Why aren’t all the reading passages for the course available from the beginning? Students (busy or with learning differences) can surely budget when they will have time to read.

-Why aren’t the response questions/prompts available at the beginning of the course? That way, students can create efficient ways to reconstruct the passages they attempt and attack them with quality. If a student can (and needs to) budget her time to do work, why can’t she do it with this course?

-Do professors really believe quality reflection can come in writing that is being assigned only days before? It seems pedagogically counter-intuitive.

-Do the professors really believe that doing the work on a limited distribution timeline will make learning “better.” What about the NON-linear learners or the ones that must see the WHOLE elephant before biting off one bite at a time?

-Do the professors believe their students might sabotage the class if too many of them already know what they might be addressing in class that day merely because they have done their reading and understood it profoundly? Does this mean professors are insecure or perhaps ignorant of how to utilize student input while they teach?

-Do the professors really mistrust the students to “dig deep” and therefore make sure students do some sort of busywork to prove they have been inspired by the reading material?

Online placement of content and assignments is an efficient communication tool, and students really do benefit from doing “prep” work before coming to class.

Especially in a college environment where some of the distractions are part of the total experience and classes do not meet daily, students need the autonomy and flexibility to decide how they must study taking into account all they value:  Unknown-9social interaction, learning differences, course load, obligations and other deadlines, distractibility, interest, quality of their work, anticipated grade, and so much more. But here again, just as I have seen in many high school educators, the constant, daily work load with surprise content and even more unanticipated assignments related to that content, discourages students to gage how they should spend their time. When those students (especially those with learning challenges) underestimate the work and time assigned to them, they end up turning in poor quality work or no work at all. Teachers, then, can assess that work with poor grades and blame everything on the students. Surprising students with online assessments, reading materials and assignments strips them of any joy of learning. And, in my professional opinion, the only kinds of students who “succeed” in this scenario are those that boast superb executive functioning skills or who have been groomed to do academic work to the exclusion of everything else (nerds). I encounter so many twice exceptional students every day whoseUnknown-10 intellect shines like the sun. But, the clouds of haphazard assignments over which they have no control to organize block the rays, producing discouragement in very capable students. In addition, outwardly, professors can simply absolve Unknown-16Unknown-15themselves of any professional responsibility by merely labeling such students and their behavior “disorganized” or “lazy.”

The big picture here is that in this current era, educators are using digital information to hold students hostage instead of assessing how students learnUnknown-11 in a digital age. Just like a generation ago, the issue is control. Did controlling students by haphazard grading and assignments, along with the threat of being “graded down,” help students learn best? And, today, does releasing content and homework assignments hours before the assignment is due help students to learn best? If these control strategies continue to be “best practices” at the university and high school levels, Unknown-12they will deflect the Unknown-13professors’ responsibility and place it on the students, allowing that ever UNcollaborative chasm between the ivory tower and student learning.


The digital age, along with the elearning platforms available, hold amazing potential for all kinds of students. But, these are still the worst of times! Zero changes have occurred between 1987 and 2017. The onus of learning lies on the student only. Professors seem immune to reflection about the effectiveness of their teaching. And, to make matters worse, the current environment merely attracts a population of students more and more homogeneous in the way they learn, slowly matching the information dump, hostage-taking strategies of current age higher education models. While the academic world relishes diversity, they subversively weed out all kinds of learners by their very adherence to a pedagogy of insecurity and pressure. The hyper-organized students and the unidimensional-thinking professor will survive in the current system, but they will both miss out on the beauty and diversity of thought from other kinds of learners. These students have the ability to learn and communicate and contribute ideas to academia, ideas that have passion, compassion, insight, depth, debate, inquiry and more. The “best of times” would embrace both the diversity of student learner and the diversity of instructional strategies. Digitally efficient does not make a teaching strategy effective. Providing all students the time, opportunity and dignity to learn and communicate that learning is possible, even in a digital world.



“What works for me”: Words to live by, words to cringe by


For my very first blog post, I thought I would select a topic that might resonate with many teachers and administrators at many levels and in many different subject disciplines. I am speaking specifically of the collective wisdom I have gained in attending and presenting at professional conferences regularly since 1983. Whether at local, state or national conferences, I must first tell you that World Language educators are the most vibrant people with whom I have ever collaborated! At every teacher conference, the sponsoring professional organization schedules time slots for teachers to gather and share “What works for me!” The itinerary reads, “Learn the strategy today and take it to the classroom tomorrow!” In my 30 years of teaching and consulting with Second Language teachers, I must admit I have both presented strategies and benefitted from others’ strategies, but always with a critical eye. The ideas are numerous; the creativity is inspiring! The “packaged product” is welcomed relief for these tired but still enthusiastic teachers. Some teachers take the “lesson” straight to the classroom, and it fails miserably. Others experience moderate success. Even an untrained eye can speculate as to why “what worked” for one teacher may not work for another, but few teachers and administrators ask the more important questions. Why does the “lesson” work at all? Why does the lesson NOT work? What is the proper “adaptation” from one successful teacher another teacher that will ensure success for her/his students? Is this something I need to be doing in my class at all? Let’s examine some of the issues.


In this blog, I do not want to contrive issues within the context of “The Story,” nor do I want to elaborate on every issue contained therein. As stories unfold in this blog overall, there will be great overlap, an encouragement that many problems are solvable and related! So, what are some of the most salient issues I see in this “story?”

Eclecticism. Every, and I mean every, teacher with whom I have ever worked has told me along the way they “take a little from here and a little from there… whatever works ‘best.’” While it is quite a sophisticated skill to integrate and deliver such curriculum and instruction, it is also very dangerous for various reasons. First, most teachers and administrators do not agree with or do not know what “best” really means. The World Languages field is not the only one guilty of migrating to trends and easy instructional approaches in hopes that more students will learn more “stuff” in less time. Most fields cannot even agree on what “stuff” is necessary.

Confusing Success. Strategies and “lessons” work for a reason. The success may or may not overtly reflect the pedagogically sound, research-based effective instruction on which the entire lesson or approach is designed. So, successful teachers may naturally execute a lesson in the most effective way and not know it, but another teacher may “do the same thing” and not ground her/his instruction in a professionally appropriate manner. Even more disconcerting is that teachers and administrators may find a “technique” that “works for them,” but in accomplishing such “objectives,” students are no closer to the ultimate goals and objectives that have been professionally designed, adopted or assumed on a large-scale basis. This splinters the curriculum, making lessons piece meal- a formula for student metacognitive disaster. For example, at a professional conference “what works for me” session, a World Languages teacher finds a terrific pneumonic to help students learn the difference between preterit and imperfect. S/he gives the students a test after the lesson and “everyone succeeds.” S/he then moves on the subjunctive. “Success” in this case does not reflect the overall goals and objectives of World Language instruction: to produce (speak/write) and comprehend (listen/read) the target language. Does an “A” on the preterit/imperfect test indicate students’ ability to narrate a story in the past? This more professionally based objective is not only more difficult to teach and assess, but messier in all aspects.

Integrated Curriculum and Instruction. Finally, there are many issues related to how the approaches, techniques and lessons from these eclectic sharing sessions fit into the rest of the school and its curriculum. Are the teachers going to “What works for me” sessions learning the bigger picture curriculum and instruction items for creating a self-sustaining, synergistic program at the departmental or school level? Does the instructional approach reflect the school’s mission and purpose? Are other disciplines aiding and abetting the superficial nature of instruction by adopting similar piece meal, eclectic instructional methods? How do the methods and the content (and the goals and objectives) relate to each other within the school? These questions cannot be answered if the teaching staff continues to cling to “what works for me” without being given time and resources to explore the “why.” Sadly more often than not, administrators do not have the pedagogical expertise or jurisdiction to help their teachers professionally develop in a way that answers these questions. While the research exists to help schools, departments and teachers streamline an effective instructional program, it remains hidden in data bases and other ivory tower stores.


I am, by nature, slightly pessimistic and cynical, and my daughter, who writes a blog, herself, has challenged me to remain positive. (Her blog is wordsofhopeblog.com if you are so inclined… yes, this is an advertisement, LOL.) So, let me enumerate some of the positives here.

First, most teachers that attend a “What works for me” session” demonstrate a genuine enthusiasm for helping students learn, attempting to find ways to make it easier for students to learn and easier for the teachers to save everyone, including themselves, time and energy. They are, in short, amazingly resourceful. So, when I hear the words “What works for me,” I celebrate the teacher!

Second, while ivory tower critique of lesson plans serves the very necessary purpose of streamlining education and educators, zealous teachers are the ones doing the teaching “in the trenches,” and they really do know “what works.” In addition, in my experience, any teacher willing to inconvenience her/his already busy life by attending a professional development conference will benefit also from learning and applying sound professional methods, approaches and techniques while at the same time learning how to mold the overall instruction of the whole “department” into a cesspool of best practices! This, in the long run, helps the teacher avoid burnout and inspire others.


I reiterate my praise for World Language educators as the most enthusiastic, most resourceful group of teachers with whom I have ever worked. In my work and life, however, I have always found it easier to identify the negatives (especially when I have already studied the bigger pictures in depth) and then to create solutions (potential for hope) for those negatives. So, when I hear the words “What works for me,” I cringe! Here are a few negatives regarding this “story” and its related issues.

First, because of human and organizational nature, teachers of ANY discipline neither have the time nor the inclination to explore why something works or not. They are rarely held accountable for reflecting professionally (and accurately!) on their performance, either because the administrator/supervisor is incapable of it or because they, themselves, like all of us, think what they are doing is perfectly acceptable already! This makes it quite difficult for anyone with knowledge or expertise to intervene with professional wisdom. (And, quite frankly, it explains why teachers migrate to “what works for me” seminars.)

Second, until the teacher, department and school coordinate articulated goals and objectives, students will be collateral damage. Students and parents alike will see the curriculum as irrelevant. Large discrepancies will exist in “mastery” of the content. (“Mastery” will definitely be one large can of worms I will be opening at some time in another blog post!!)

Third, whether it is time, logistics, resources or philosophical differences, parents, teachers and administrators are ignorant of the already existing professional reserves that can turn “good” instruction into “great.” As stated above, it is quite messy, especially when change is involved- change in attitude, resource allocation, parental education, externally validated measures, supervisor roles, and much more! The resistance to change is so great! I have, for example, consulted with a school whose resources were completely in place for creating a state of the art instructional program in a certain discipline area. They brought in national experts to evaluate the program and make recommendations of changes. Seven years ago, they had everything in place to make minimal changes to curriculum offerings and minor adaptations in instructional approach and staffing to become one of the most stellar programs in this content area with which I have ever worked. Today, they have changed nothing but adding one staff person who espouses the proper instructional approach. Change is hard, but denying teachers and students the access to the professional knowledge and practice that inspires and empowers is, in my opinion, a travesty, a waste of educational effort.


One story, MY story of attending professional industry conferences since 1982, has within it the traces of everything education. I still use many of the techniques and “lessons” I presented and learned in those “What works for me” sessions. It wasn’t until I studied Education at the graduate level that I began to realize exactly why I succeeded in some lessons and failed in others. In addition, I learned that succeeding in some lessons was not an end to a means, but vice versa, a means to a much bigger and professionally appropriate end. It wasn’t until I served on national committees to evaluate university Education programs that I began to see how interconnected every issue is in Education, but, specifically in this case, how teachers graduate from their IHE (institute of higher education) lacking professional expertise, relevant and sufficient experience and ability to reflect on bigger picture issues in their own field and in Education as a whole. Their only recourse is to survive, to find “what works for them.” Dare we blame the teachers? Certainly not! Dare we blame the administrators? Certainly not! Dare we blame the parents? Certainly not! Dare we blame “the system?” Certainly not! Dare we accept that change must be systemic in and for all of us, embracing what we know to be effective and appropriate? Certainly yes!