A Plan to Kill High School Transcripts … and Transform College Admissions

More than 100 elite private high schools aim to replace traditional transcripts with competency-based, nonstandardized documents — with no grades. They plan to expand to public high schools, with goal of completely changing how students are evaluated.

May 10, 2017

What if traditional high school transcripts — lists of courses taken, grades earned and so forth — didn’t exist?

That’s the ambition of a new education reform movement, which wants to rebuild how high schools record the abilities of students — and in turn to change the way colleges evaluate applicants. Sounds like quite a task. But the idea is from a group with considerable clout and money: more than 100 private schools around the country, including such elite institutions as the Dalton School and the Spence School in New York City, plus such big guns as the Cranbrook Schools in Michigan, the Phillips Academy in Massachusetts and Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut.

The organizers of the effort believe all kinds of high schools and colleges are ready for change, but they argue that it will take the establishment to lead this particular revolution. Organizers believe that if more than 100 such elite private schools embrace a new transcript, they will attract supporters in higher ed who will embrace the approach for fear of losing top applicants (both in terms of their academics and ability to pay). And then the plan could spread — over perhaps a decade — to public high schools as well. Along the way, the group hopes to use the ideas of competency-based education — in which demonstration of mastery matters and seat time does not — to change the way high schoolers are taught.

The group is called the Mastery Transcript Consortium, and the product it hopes to create is the mastery transcript. It would not include courses or grades, but levels of proficiency in various areas. Instead of saying a student earned a certain grade in Spanish 2, the mastery transcript might say the student can understand and express ideas in some number of languages. And there could be different levels of mastery. Instead of a grade in algebra or geometry, the mastery transcript would indicate whether a student can understand and use various kinds of concepts. The document above is a model for what a list of credits might look like, but officials stressed this could change considerably.

Further, the model envisions that each credit earned would be backed up by examples of student work, so an admissions officer could see lab reports, essays and so forth.

In some ways, the project sounds like the “digital locker” the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success is promoting as an option for college applicants — one that could start well before someone is ready to apply to college. And the mastery project organizers have been in touch with coalition leaders. But the difference with mastery is that there is no additional digital requirement to build something — this would be the natural result of going through high school.

The Edward E. Ford Foundation on Tuesday announced a $2 million grant to support the effort, and the initial schools involved have pledged to raise money to match that grant.

Patricia Russell has taken a yearlong leave from her position as a dean at Phillips Academy to help get the effort moving toward pilots with a small group of high schools and colleges. Among the requirements to participate: no grades and no standardization. She said each high school would be required to come up with its own system for evaluating student knowledge and skills. “It has to vary from school to school,” she said, and the idea is to move away from identifying students by some number representing their achievement.

Mastery in this context is closely related to the competency idea much discussed these days in higher education. A student could earn mastery after completing a program of study with a teacher or simply by showing mastery gained independently. “What the mastery transcript does is completely disentangle seat time and course credits,” she said.

Public high schools should be part of the process, Russell said, and they are already being consulted. But she said private schools, with their ability to operate free from politicians who might interfere, are best suited to get this process off the ground. She also said the great respect of top colleges for the graduates of these schools means the process will be taken seriously.

“The distinct reason why this project is being founded by a group of independent schools is that we are more nimble and have had disproportionate access to highly selective higher education.”

But she said “absolutely this can scale” and the long-term goal is to have this approach do away with traditional high school grades and transcripts.

The original idea for the project came from Scott Looney, head of school of the Hawken School, a private institution in Cleveland. In an interview, he said that he wanted to experiment with a transcript of the sort the consortium is designing. When he spoke to contacts in the college admissions world, they said that if his school acted alone, they would hate the idea, as they would need to figure out how to read the new transcript and how to compare applicants using it with those at schools with more traditional transcripts. So he asked them how they would feel if he got 25 other schools to join in the effort, and they liked the idea. (The model above comes from the initial efforts at Hawken.)

Looney said he realized then that he couldn’t act alone.

He also said he wants all students — including those at public schools — to have the options being created. One possibility, he said, is that if public schools lag a bit in producing these new mastery transcripts, teachers at his school (and others) could review portfolios of their work and certify their masteries. “Why do you have to attend Hawken to have Hawken certify you?” he asked.

Once the new mastery transcript takes hold, he said, colleges will value it over traditional materials they currently receive.

Looney said that, initially, he expected the use of the mastery transcript might encourage colleges to pay more attention to standardized-test scores. Admissions officers “may default to measures that they know,” he said.

But once they get comfortable with the new transcript, Looney predicted, they will find it superior to any information they currently get from test scores. In some cases, state legislation would be needed to allow public universities to alter admissions standards, but he said he thought that could happen in time.

Eventually, he said, many of the elements that make up rankings methodologies could be challenged as well. The transcript is designed to avoid not only grades but class rank (part of the U.S. News & World Report methodology). If more colleges drop standardized-test requirements, something happening already, that could undercut another part of the rankings methodology.

Much work remains to be done, he said, describing the process as taking up to 10 years, and longer in states where laws would need to change to permit high schools to report student achievement in new ways. In some cases, schools might use both approaches. But Looney said that when top colleges embrace this idea, which he predicted they would in time, the current system would be replaced. Already, he said, the organization has been having discussions with college admissions leaders and presidents anxious for change.

He pledged one thing amid the pilots and work ahead: “We will design this intentionally to make it impossible to distill a student into a single number.”

Reactions and Questions

Several admissions experts, reached late Tuesday, said they were just learning about the concept and needed to study it.

Michael Reilly, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said via email that he saw both potential and challenges in the idea, about which he said he needs to learn more.

“My initial read is that this would be a good set of information to augment a traditional transcript but, by itself, could harm students seeking to attend institutions that are mandated to evaluate admissions, at least in part, on completion of a core set of courses and the performance (grades) in those courses,” he said. “It is not unlike the challenge of higher education institutions looking to develop outcome or competency transcripts. Until these are common currency, students would be negatively impacted when they seek to transfer to more traditional institutions if that is the only document they present. Promising, but I’d like to hear how it would be transitioned into the existing processes.”

How Google Took Over The Classroom

Cover Photo

Students at Newton Bateman Elementary School in Chicago use Google-powered laptops and Google education apps for classwork. More than half the nation’s primary- and secondary-school students — more than 30 million children — use Google education apps, the company says. CreditWhitten Sabbatini for The New York Times

CHICAGO — The sixth graders at Newton Bateman, a public elementary school here with a classic red brick facade, know the Google drill.

In a social-science class last year, the students each grabbed a Google-powered laptop. They opened Google Classroom, an app where teachers make assignments. Then they clicked on Google Docs, a writing program, and began composing essays.

Looking up from her laptop, Masuma Khan, then 11 years old, said her essay explored how schooling in ancient Athens differed from her own. “Back then, they had wooden tablets and they had to take all of their notes on it,” she said. “Nowadays, we can just do it in Google Docs.”

Chicago Public Schools, the third-largest school district in the United States, with about 381,000 students, is at the forefront of a profound shift in American education: the Googlification of the classroom.

In the space of just five years, Google has helped upend the sales methods companies use to place their products in classrooms. It has enlisted teachers and administrators to promote Google’s products to other schools. It has directly reached out to educators to test its products — effectively bypassing senior district officials. And it has outmaneuvered Apple and Microsoft with a powerful combination of low-cost laptops, called Chromebooks, and free classroom apps.

Today, more than half the nation’s primary- and secondary-school students — more than 30 million children — use Google education apps like Gmail and Docs, the company said. And Chromebooks, Google-powered laptops that initially struggled to find a purpose, are now a powerhouse in America’s schools. Today they account for more than half the mobile devices shipped to schools.

“Between the fall of 2012 and now, Google went from an interesting possibility to the dominant way that schools around the country” teach students to find information, create documents and turn them in, said Hal Friedlander, former chief information officer for the New York City Department of Education, the nation’s largest school district. “Google established itself as a fact in schools.”

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Chicago Public Schools, the third-largest school district in the country, decided in 2012 to adopt Google’s platform. CreditWhitten Sabbatini for The New York Times

In doing so, Google is helping to drive a philosophical change in public education — prioritizing training children in skills like teamwork and problem-solving while de-emphasizing the teaching of traditional academic knowledge, like math formulas. It puts Google, and the tech economy, at the center of one of the great debates that has raged in American education for more than a century: whether the purpose of public schools is to turn out knowledgeable citizens or skilled workers.

The director of Google’s education apps group, Jonathan Rochelle, touched on that idea in a speech at an industry conference last year. Referring to his own children, he said: “I cannot answer for them what they are going to do with the quadratic equation. I don’t know why they are learning it.” He added, “And I don’t know why they can’t ask Google for the answer if the answer is right there.”

Schools may be giving Google more than they are getting: generations of future customers.

Google makes $30 per device by selling management services for the millions of Chromebooks that ship to schools. But by habituating students to its offerings at a young age, Google obtains something much more valuable.

Every year, several million American students graduate from high school. And not only does Google make it easy for those who have school Google accounts to upload their trove of school Gmail, Docs and other files to regular Google consumer accounts — but schools encourage them to do so. This month, for instance, Chatfield Senior High School in Littleton, Colo., sent out a notice urging seniors to “make sure” they convert their school account “to a personal Gmail account.”

That doesn’t sit well with some parents. They warn that Google could profit by using personal details from their children’s school email to build more powerful marketing profiles of them as young adults.

“My concern is that they are working on developing a profile of this child that, when they hit maturity, they are able to create a better profile,” said David Barsotti, an information technology project manager in the Chicago area whose daughter uses Google tools in elementary school. “That is a problem, in my opinion.”

Mr. Rochelle of Google said that when students transfer their school emails and files to a personal Google account, that account is governed by Google’s privacy policy. “Personal Gmail accounts may serve ads,” he said, but files in Google Drive are “never scanned for the purpose of showing ads.”

Google, a unit of the $652 billion Alphabet, is the latest big contender in a decades-old battle among tech companies to hook students as future customers. “If you get someone on your operating system early, then you get that loyalty early, and potentially for life,” said Mike Fisher, an education technology analyst at Futuresource Consulting, a research company.

Google captured these next-generation users so quickly by outpacing its rivals in both educational product development and marketing.

In 2013, while other tech firms seemed largely content to sell their existing consumer and business offerings to schools, Mr. Rochelle, a co-developer of Google Docs, set up a team at Google to create apps specifically for schools.

SLIDE SHOW|10 Photos

At School With Google

At School With Google

CreditSasha Maslov for The New York Times

To spread those tools, Jaime Casap, Google’s global education evangelist, began traveling around the country with a motivational message: Rather than tout specific Google products, Mr. Casap told educators that they could improve their students’ college and career prospects by creatively using online tools.

“Teachers really helped to drive adoption of Google in the classroom, while Apple and Microsoft continued to leverage traditional sales channels,” said Phillip DiBartolo, the chief information officer of Chicago Public Schools.

But that also caused problems in Chicago and another district when Google went looking for teachers to try a new app — effectively bypassing district administrators. In both cases, Google found itself reined in.

Unlike Apple or Microsoft, which make money primarily by selling devices or software services, Google derives most of its revenue from online advertising — much of it targeted through sophisticated use of people’s data. Questions about how Google might use data gleaned from students’ online activities have dogged the company for years.

“Unless we know what is collected, why it is collected, how it is used and a review of it is possible, we can never understand with certainty how this information could be used to help or hurt a kid,” said Bill Fitzgerald of Common Sense Media, a children’s advocacy group, who vets the security and privacy of classroom apps.

Google declined to provide a breakdown of the exact details the company collects from student use of its services. Bram Bout, director of Google’s education unit, pointed to a Google privacy notice listing the categories of information that the company’s education services collect, like location data and “details of how a user used our service.”

Mr. Bout said that student data in Google’s core education services (including Gmail, Calendar and Docs) “is only used to provide the services themselves, so students can do things like communicate using email.” These services do not show ads, he said, and “do not use personal data resulting from use of these services to target ads.”

Some parents, school administrators and privacy advocates believe that’s not enough. They say Google should be more forthcoming about the details it collects about students, why it collects them and how it uses them.

“If my daughter came home and logged on to Google Docs on my computer at home, they’ll know it was now coming from this address,” said Mr. Barsotti, the Chicago-area project manager. “If this is truly for educational purposes, what is their business model and why do they need to collect that?”

A Campus Marketing Machine

Mr. Casap, the Google education evangelist, likes to recount Google’s emergence as an education powerhouse as a story of lucky coincidences. The first occurred in 2006 when the company hired him to develop new business at its office on the campus of Arizona State University in Tempe.

Mr. Casap quickly persuaded university officials to scrap their costly internal email service (an unusual move at the time) and replace it with a free version of the Gmail-and-Docs package that Google had been selling to companies. In one semester, the vast majority of the university’s approximately 65,000 students signed up.

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When Google’s education strategy proved successful at the college level, Jaime Casap, the company’s global education evangelist, decided to apply it to public schools. CreditNick Cote for The New York Times

And a new Google business was born.

Mr. Casap then invited university officials on a road show to share their success story with other schools. “It caused a firestorm,” Mr. Casap said. Northwestern University, the University of Southern California and many others followed.

This became Google’s education marketing playbook: Woo school officials with easy-to-use, money-saving services. Then enlist schools to market to other schools, holding up early adopters as forward thinkers among their peers.

The strategy proved so successful in higher education that Mr. Casap decided to try it with public schools.

As it happened, officials at the Oregon Department of Education were looking to help local schools cut their email costs, said Steve Nelson, a former department official. In 2010, the state officially made Google’s education apps available to its school districts.

“That caused the same kind of cascade,” Mr. Casap said. School districts around the country began contacting him, and he referred them to Mr. Nelson, who related Oregon’s experience with Google’s apps.

By then, Google was developing a growth strategy aimed at teachers — the gatekeepers to the classroom — who could influence the administrators who make technology decisions. “The driving force tends to be the pedagogical side,” Mr. Bout, the Google education executive, said. “That is something we really embraced.”

Google set up dozens of online communities, called Google Educator Groups, where teachers could swap ideas for using its tech. It started training programs with names like Certified Innovator to credential teachers who wanted to establish their expertise in Google’s tools or teach their peers to use them.

Soon, teachers began to talk up Google on social media and in sessions at education technology conferences. And Google became a more visible exhibitor and sponsor at such events. Google also encouraged school districts that had adopted its tools to hold “leadership symposiums” where administrators could share their experiences with neighboring districts.

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Jonathan Rochelle (with glasses), director of Google’s education-apps group, at a party the company gave for teachers attending an education technology conference last summer.CreditNick Cote for The New York Times

Although business practices like encouraging educators to spread the word to their peers have become commonplace among education technology firms, Google has successfully deployed these techniques on a such a large scale that some critics say the company has co-opted public school employees to gain market dominance.

“Companies are exploiting the education space for sales and public good will,” said Douglas A. Levin, the president of EdTech Strategies, a consulting firm. Parents and educators should be questioning Google’s pervasiveness in schools, he added, and examining “how those in the public sector are carrying the message of Google branding and marketing.”

Mr. Bout of Google disagreed, saying that the company’s outreach to educators was not a marketing exercise. Rather, he said, it was an effort to improve education by helping teachers learn directly from their peers how to most effectively use Google’s tools.

“We help to amplify the stories and voices of educators who have lessons learned,” he said, “because it can be challenging for educators to find ways to share with each other.”

Dethroning Microsoft

At Chicago Public Schools, the teacher-centric strategy played out almost perfectly.

In 2012, Jennie Magiera, then a fourth-grade teacher in Chicago, wanted her students to use Google Docs, which enables multiple people to work simultaneously in the same document. Because the district wasn’t yet using Google’s apps, she said, she independently set up six consumer accounts for her class.

“We were bootlegging using Google apps,” Ms. Magiera recalled in a phone interview. “I just knew I needed my kids to collaborate,” she said, touching on one of Google’s own main arguments for its products.

Chicago administrators like Lachlan Tidmarsh, then the school district’s chief information officer, visited Ms. Magiera’s classroom to observe. Mr. Tidmarsh said he concluded that if individual teachers were already using Google’s services, the district should officially adopt the platform — to make sure, for instance, that younger children couldn’t email with strangers.

Ms. Magiera’s advocacy came at an ideal moment. Chicago Public Schools was looking to trim the $2 million a year it was spending on Microsoft Exchange and another email service; it had opened bidding for a less expensive program.

A committee that included administrators familiar with Microsoft, as well as Ms. Magiera, reviewed presentations from several companies. In March 2012, the district chose Google.

Microsoft executives were disappointed, said Edward Wagner, the district’s director of infrastructure services. But at that time, Mr. Wagner said, Microsoft had neither a free array of web-based products for schools on par with Google’s nor Google’s level of grass-roots classroom support. “They didn’t have the teachers and the principals,” he said.

Quickly, though, a data privacy and security issue emerged, exposing a culture clash between Google’s business practices and the values of a major school district.

In interviews, Chicago administrators said they asked Google to sign a contract agreeing, among other things, to comply with the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. That law permits federally funded educational institutions to share students’ personally identifiable information with certain school vendors, provided those companies use that information only for school purposes.

Instead, Google initially proposed abiding by its own company policies, Mr. Wagner said, and followed up by emailing links to those policies — terms that the company could change at any time. “Our lawyers were a little bit apoplectic when they were given links to security things,” Mr. Wagner said. “I don’t want a link that can change.”

Mr. Nelson, the former education official in Oregon, reported similar frustrations over student privacy when his state negotiated a contract with Google. “That’s why it took 16 months,” he said.

Mr. Bout of Google said that the tech company had “always taken the compliance needs of our education users seriously.” He added that “even early versions” of the company’s agreements for its education apps had “addressed” the federal education privacy law.

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Bram Bout, the director of Google’s education unit. CreditNick Cote for The New York Times

Today, Google’s standard agreements with schools for its education apps include a commitment to comply with that law.

Since adopting Google apps, Chicago schools have saved about $1.6 million annually on email and related costs, a district spokesman said.

Google then enlisted Mr. Tidmarsh, who now works in technology at a health care company, to share his enthusiasm by contributing to a Google blog. In the post, Mr. Tidmarsh described creating 270,000 school Google accounts. “It was easily the fastest and smoothest migration of this scale I have ever seen,” he wrote. (He did not earn a fee for the blog post, he said.)

“We were always enthusiastic to tell the Google story,” Mr. Tidmarsh said. “I would like to think dozens of school districts switched, based on our success.”

Ms. Magiera, now the chief innovation officer for another district, also helped Google’s cause. In 2012, as part of her effort to become a Google Certified Innovator in education, she said, she came up with the idea of having Chicago Public Schools hold a free conference — called Googlepalooza — to train teachers on Google’s tools. The annual event, co-sponsored by Google, now draws several thousand educators from the Chicago area, as well as a few from neighboring states.

(Ms. Magiera has since occasionally worked as a paid speaker for education technology organizations that train teachers on Google’s tools.)

“You can see it radiate out from certain geographic hubs, and that is very deliberate,” Mr. Bout said of Google’s growth strategy for education. “We are taking a very geographic approach because we know it works.”

Chromebooks Find an Audience

By then, Google had developed a simplified, low-cost laptop called the Chromebook. It ran on Google’s Chrome operating system and revolved largely around web apps, making it cheaper and often faster to boot up than traditional laptops loaded with locally stored software.

Although Google had a business audience in mind for Chromebooks, reviewers complained that the devices were of limited use without internet access.

But there was one interested audience: public schools. In the fall of 2011, Google invited school administrators to its Chicago office to meet Mr. Casap, hoping to interest them in Chromebooks.

Mr. Casap didn’t talk tech specs. Instead, he held the audience spellbound as he described the challenges he had faced as a Latino student growing up on welfare in a tough Manhattan neighborhood.

His message: Education is the great equalizer, and technology breaks down barriers between rich and poor students.

In the audience, Jason Markey, principal of East Leyden High School in Franklin Park, Ill., was converted. Students in his blue-collar district near O’Hare International Airport faced similar struggles. On the spot, Mr. Markey said, he abandoned his previous plans to buy Microsoft Windows laptops for 3,500 high school students. Now he wanted Chromebooks for them instead.

“I went up to Jaime immediately after the presentation and said, ‘Are you guys ready to ship these?’” Mr. Markey said.

Then Mr. Markey went back to his district to inform administrators and teachers that he wanted to order an unproven device that most of them had never heard of. “It was a tough announcement to make,” he conceded.

It was an opportune moment for Google to pitch lower-cost laptops to schools. Districts administering new online standardized tests needed laptops for students to take them on. And Google offered a robust way for school districts to manage thousands of computers online: They could lock Chromebooks remotely so that students could not search the web during tests, or disable missing ones.

Another attraction: The Chromebook’s cloud-storage approach made sharing among students easier. They could gain access to their documents no matter which Chromebook they used.

“That is one of the big reasons we took off in education,” said Rajen Sheth, who oversees Google’s Chromebook business. “In less than 10 seconds, a student can grab a Chromebook and be off and running.”

The Chromebook’s price and usability fit neatly into Mr. Casap’s argument that, for students, access to technology was an issue of fairness. “I didn’t want us to be vendors in the space,” he said of Google’s education philosophy in an interview last year at the SXSWedu conference in Austin, Tex. “I wanted us to be thought leaders, to have a point of view.”

As he spoke, a group of students trooped past wearing purple superhero capes emblazoned with the logo for Microsoft OneNote, a rival classroom service. Spotting the capes, Mr. Casap said, “We don’t do things like that.” He added dryly, “I love gimmicks.”

Some critics, though, contend that the equity argument for technology is itself a gimmick that promotes a self-serving Silicon Valley agenda: playing on educators’ altruism to get schools to buy into laptops and apps.

“It centers learning on technology, not students,” said Mr. Fitzgerald, the learning app analyst. “It is a very narrow lens on equity that leaves out things like student-teacher ratios.”

(Mr. Casap said he would not advise school districts with deficiencies in areas like teaching or student support services to invest first in classroom technology.)

Mr. Markey, the East Leyden High School principal, had another equity concern. About 20 percent of his students lacked home internet access, he said. How would they do their homework on a Chromebook, which required a connection?

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A student at Newton Bateman Elementary in Chicago. Chicago Public Schools has spent about $33.5 million on 134,000 Chromebooks. CreditWhitten Sabbatini for The New York Times

Google was already working on offline capabilities, Mr. Casap said, and ultimately modified its education apps so that students could take their work home on Chromebooks, then upload homework the next day using school Wi-Fi.

Soon, so many educators were visiting Leyden to see its technology setup that the school district started an annual conference to host them. Last summer, Mr. Casap gave the keynote address. And Mr. Markey now occasionally works as a paid speaker for EdTechTeam, a company that holds Google boot camps for teachers.

In 2016, Chromebooks accounted for 58 percent of mobile devices shipped to primary and secondary schools in the United States, up from less than 1 percent in 2012, according to Futuresource Consulting, the research firm. Google does not make money directly from Chromebooks — which are manufactured by Samsung, Acer and other companies — but it does charge school districts a management service fee of $30 per device. Chicago Public Schools has spent about $33.5 million on 134,000 Chromebooks.

“I don’t think I can ever remember when a specific device and platform has taken off so quickly across different kinds of schools,” said David Andrade, a K-12 education strategist at CDW-G, a leading Chromebook dealer.

A ‘Mission Control’ App

In 2014, Google’s education juggernaut hit a speed bump in Chicago Public Schools. The culture clash illuminated profound differences between Google, a build-it-first-and-tweak-it-later Silicon Valley company, and a large, bureaucratic school district with student-protection rules to uphold.

Google had hoped that Chicago would become an early adopter of Google Classroom, its new app to help teachers take attendance, assign homework and do other tasks. In August 2014, a Google team flew to Chicago to demo Classroom at Googlepalooza, the school district’s annual teacher conference.

But Google had not anticipated Margaret Hahn.

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Margaret Hahn, former director of technology change management for Chicago Public Schools, oversaw the district’s yearlong pilot test of Google’s Classroom app.CreditWhitten Sabbatini for The New York Times

At the time, she was the school system’s director of technology change management. Early on, she said, Google had invited teachers to try an initial version of Classroom, without first contacting the school district’s technology administrators — effectively making a district policy decision from the outside. Now Google wanted Chicago Public Schools to switch on the app districtwide, she said, before determining whether it complied with local student-protection policies.

“You can’t just hand out product and hope it will work in the classroom,” Ms. Hahn said. “You have to work with the districts to make sure that you are keeping the kids and the teachers safe.”

Jim Siegl, technology architect for Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, the nation’s 10th-largest school district, reported a similar experience.

He said that Google had directly contacted certain Fairfax teachers who had volunteered to beta-test Classroom, giving them early access to the app. In so doing, he said, the company ignored the Google settings he had selected that were supposed to give his district control over which new Google services to switch on in its schools.

Mr. Siegl added that Google did not tell him which, or even how many, Fairfax teachers the company had enlisted to try out the Classroom app. And by the time he was able to shut off the app, Mr. Siegl said, teachers had already set up virtual classrooms on the service and started using it with their students.

He said he complained to Google.

“Because of who they are and how sprawling the ecosystem is,” Mr. Siegl said, “they are held up and need to meet a higher standard than any other vendor schools deal with.”

In an emailed statement, Mr. Bout said of the company’s core education services, “In all cases, the use of these services is tied to the approval of an administrator who is responsible for overseeing a school’s domain.”

Classroom was the brainchild of Mr. Rochelle, who started Google’s education apps group, and Zach Yeskel, a Google product manager and former high school math teacher. They said they envisioned the app as a kind of “mission control” dashboard where teachers could more efficiently manage tasks like assigning and correcting homework, freeing teachers to spend more time with students. To create the app, they collaborated closely with teachers.

In May 2014, Google posted an announcement online, asking for volunteers to beta-test Classroom. More than 100,000 teachers worldwide responded, the company said, illustrating Google’s power to rapidly stoke demand among educators. That August, Google made Classroom available to schools.

“They developed a real momentum with teachers,” said Mr. Fisher of Futuresource Consulting. “Google Classroom was key to that.”

That was too fast for Chicago Public Schools.

Administrators there wanted to test Classroom first to make sure it complied with district policies and fit their teachers’ needs. So they set up a pilot program, involving about 275 teachers and several thousand students, to run for the entire school year. Every month, Ms. Hahn said, she collected teachers’ feedback and sent it to Google.

“We wanted to help them do it right,” Ms. Hahn said.

One immediate problem administrators identified: School board policy required employees to keep records of cyberbullying and other problematic comments. But Classroom initially did not do that. If a student wrote something offensive and a teacher deleted it, there was no archive.

“It took us a long time to get them to do it,” Ms. Hahn said. She added, “Unfortunately, there were things that a district of our size needed that Google did not understand.”

Google eventually added an archiving feature. The next fall, the Chicago district switched on Classroom. Teachers there later vetted other Google products, effectively becoming a test lab for the company. “We have said to Google many times, ‘If it works in Chicago, it will work anywhere,’” Ms. Hahn said.

Mr. Bout of Google agreed, saying that Chicago Public Schools often made more stringent demands on Google than other school districts did.

“If you can get it in Chicago, it’s sort of like you have passed a lot of tests,” Mr. Bout said, “and then you can probably get it into any school in the country.”

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At an education technology conference last summer, a student tried out Google’s virtual-reality field-trip app — software that Chicago Public Schools helped to test. CreditNick Cote for The New York Times

The relationship has benefited Chicago Public Schools, too.

In 2015, the district was reeling from a scandal: The Justice Department charged the Chicago Public Schools former chief executive Barbara Byrd-Bennett with steering more than $23 million in no-bid contracts to two school vendors in exchange for kickbacks. Ms. Byrd-Bennett later pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud and was sentenced in April to four and a half years in prison.

The fact that Chicago schools were vetting Google products, like the Classroom app, gave administrators a welcome counternarrative of the district’s altruistically helping Google debug its products for schools across the country. And it remains a good story even as the district now faces a financial crisis.

Today, about 15 million primary- and secondary-school students in the United States use Classroom, Google said.

Google’s ability to test its products on such a monumental scale has stoked concerns about whether the tech giant is exploiting public-school teachers and students for free labor. “It’s a private company very creatively using public resources — in this instance, teachers’ time and expertise — to build new markets at low cost,” said Patricia Burch, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California.

Mr. Rochelle, the Google executive, said that it was important for the company to have large, diverse sets of educational users giving feedback — otherwise it might develop products that worked for only a few of them.

“Our goal is to build products that help educators and students,” Mr. Rochelle said. “Teachers tell us they appreciate the opportunity to get involved early and help shape our products to meet their needs.”

Ms. Hahn, who now works for the same health care company as Mr. Tidmarsh, agrees. She said that schools were getting something substantive in return from Google, something they had rarely received from other tech companies: quick product improvements that responded to teachers’ feedback.

After the Chicago schools tested Classroom, she said, members of Google’s education team started directly contacting her when they were seeking educators to try out the company’s innovations. “They no longer just turn stuff on,” she said. “They come to us first.”

How to Prepare for an Automated Future

Photo

Sebastian Thrun, left, the co-founder of Udacity, which provides online courses, recording for a programming class with Andy Brown, a course manager. Experts say online courses will be essential for workers to remain qualified as more tasks become automated. CreditMax Whittaker for The New York Times

We don’t know how quickly machines will displace people’s jobs, or how many they’ll take, but we know it’s happening — not just to factory workers but also to money managers, dermatologists and retail workers.

The logical response seems to be to educate people differently, so they’re prepared to work alongside the robots or do the jobs that machines can’t. But how to do that, and whether training can outpace automation, are open questions.

Pew Research Center and Elon University surveyed 1,408 people who work in technology and education to find out if they think new schooling will emerge in the next decade to successfully train workers for the future. Two-thirds said yes; the rest said no. Following are questions about what’s next for workers, and answers based on the survey responses.

How do we educate people for an automated world?

People still need to learn skills, the respondents said, but they will do that continuously over their careers. In school, the most important thing they can learn is how to learn.

At universities, “people learn how to approach new things, ask questions and find answers, deal with new situations,” wrote Uta Russmann, a professor of communications at the FHWien University of Applied Sciences in Vienna. “All this is needed to adjust to ongoing changes in work life. Special skills for a particular job will be learned on the job.”

Schools will also need to teach traits that machines can’t yet easily replicate, like creativity, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, adaptability and collaboration. The problem, many respondents said, is that these are not necessarily easy to teach.

“Many of the ‘skills’ that will be needed are more like personality characteristics, like curiosity, or social skills that require enculturation to take hold,” wrote Stowe Boyd, managing director of Another Voice, which provides research on the new economy.

Can we change education fast enough to outpace the machines?

About two-thirds of the respondents thought it could be done in the next decade; the rest thought that education reform takes too much time, money and political will, and that automation is moving too quickly.

“I have complete faith in the ability to identify job gaps and develop educational tools to address those gaps,” wrote Danah Boyd, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research and founder of Data and Society, a research institute. “I have zero confidence in us having the political will to address the socioeconomic factors that are underpinning skill training.”

Andrew Walls, managing vice president at Gartner, wrote, “Barring a neuroscience advance that enables us to embed knowledge and skills directly into brain tissue and muscle formation, there will be no quantum leap in our ability to ‘up-skill’ people.”

Will college degrees still be important?

College is more valuable than ever, research shows. The jobs that are still relatively safe from automation require higher education, as well as interpersonal skills fostered by living with other students.

“Human bodies in close proximity to other human bodies stimulate real compassion, empathy, vulnerability and social-emotional intelligence,” said Frank Elavsky, data and policy analyst at Acumen, a policy research firm.

But many survey respondents said a degree was not enough — or not always the best choice, especially given its price tag. Many of them expect more emphasis on certificates or badges, earned from online courses or workshops, even for college graduates.

One potential future, said David Karger, a professor of computer science at M.I.T., would be for faculty at top universities to teach online and for mid-tier universities to “consist entirely of a cadre of teaching assistants who provide support for the students.”

Employers will also place more value on on-the-job learning, many respondents said, such as apprenticeships or on-demand trainings at workplaces. Portfolios of work are becoming more important than résumés.

“Résumés simply are too two-dimensional to properly communicate someone’s skill set,” wrote Meryl Krieger, a career specialist at Indiana University. “Three-dimensional materials — in essence, job reels that demonstrate expertise — will be the ultimate demonstration of an individual worker’s skills.”

What can workers do now to prepare?

Consider it part of your job description to keep learning, many respondents said — learn new skills on the job, take classes, teach yourself new things.

Focus on learning how to do tasks that still need humans, said Judith Donath of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society: teaching and caregiving; building and repairing; and researching and evaluating.

The problem is that not everyone is cut out for independent learning, which takes a lot of drive and discipline. People who are suited for it tend to come from privileged backgrounds, with a good education and supportive parents, said Beth Corzo-Duchardt, a media historian at Muhlenberg College. “The fact that a high degree of self-direction may be required in the new work force means that existing structures of inequality will be replicated in the future,” she said.

Even if we do all these things, will there be enough jobs?

Jonathan Grudin, a principal researcher at Microsoft, said he was optimistic about the future of work as long as people learned technological skills: “People will create the jobs of the future, not simply train for them, and technology is already central.”

But the third of respondents who were pessimistic about the future of education reform said it won’t matter if there are no jobs to train for.

“The ‘jobs of the future’ are likely to be performed by robots,” said Nathaniel Borenstein, chief scientist at Mimecast, an email company. “The question isn’t how to train people for nonexistent jobs. It’s how to share the wealth in a world where we don’t need most people to work.”

Our kids will face a workplace that is completely different from today’s — here’s how to prepare them

Business Insider

kids hairdoOur kids will face a much different world than we live in now.Mike Blake/Reuters

Our education system was designed for the 20th century. It is largely focused on teaching kids how to retain information and manipulate numbers.

It regularly tests these abilities and, if you do well, you are promised to get into a good college, have a successful career and live a happy, prosperous life.

Unfortunately, those promises have become empty. Today, when we all carry around supercomputers in our pocket, tasks like remembering facts and doing long division have largely been automated.

The truth is, there is little taught in school that today can’t be handled with a quick Google search and an Excel spreadsheet.

Working in a team

Traditionally, schoolwork has been based on individual accomplishment. You’re supposed to study at home, come in prepared and take your test without help. If you look at your friend’s paper, it’s called cheating and you get in a lot of trouble for it. We’re taught to be accountable for achievements on our own merits.

Yet consider how the nature of work has changed, even in highly technical fields. In 1920, most scientific papers were written by sole authors, but by 1950 that had changed and co-authorship became the norm. Today, the average paper has four times as many authors as it did then and the work being done is far more interdisciplinary and done at greater distances than in the past.

Make no mistake. The high-value work today is being done in teams and that will only increase as more jobs become automated. The jobs of the future will not depend on specific expertise or crunching numbers, but will involve humans collaborating with other humans to design work for machines.

Clearly, value has shifted from cognitive skills to social skills, which is one reason why educators see increasing value in recess. Unfortunately, very few schools have adapted. Many are so unaware of the value of social interaction and play that they still take recess away as a punishment for bad behavior. We desperately need to shift the focus of our schools to collaboration, play and interpersonal skills.

Communicating effectively

In recent years a lot of emphasis has been put on the need for stronger STEM education to compete in an ever more technological world. However, there is increasing evidence that the STEM shortage is a myth and, as Fareed Zakaria points out in his book, “In Defense of a Liberal Education,” what we most need to improve is communication skills.

To understand why, think about an advanced technology like IBM’s Watson, which is being applied to fields as diverse as medicine, finance and even music. That takes more than just technical skill, but requires computer scientists to work effectively with experts in a wide variety of fields.

In fact, Taso Du Val, CEO of Toptal, an outsourcing firm that focuses on the world’s most elite technology talent told me that when his company evaluates programmers, they not only look at technical skills, but put just as much emphasis on communication skills, initiative and teamwork. You simply can’t write great code for a problem you don’t fully understand.

Clear and cogent writing, critical thinking and learning how to learn — to take in disparate facts, put them in context and express them clearly — these are all skills that will be even more crucial for professionals in the future than they are today.

Learning patterns rather than numbers

Of the “three R’s” that we learned in school, arithmetic was generally the most dreaded. Multiplication tables, long division and deceptively constructed word problems have been the bane of every young student’s existence. In my day, at least, the utility was clear, but now children can rightly ask “why can’t I use the calculator on my phone?

Clearly, in our increasingly data driven age, mathematical skills are more important than ever. Yet they are not the same ones we learned in school. It’s not so important to be able to count and multiply things — those tasks are largely automated today — but it’s imperative to be able to ascribe meaning from data.

Valdis Krebs of Orgnet explains that, “Schools are still stuck on teaching 20th century math for building things rather than 21st century math for understanding things” and suggests that curricula focus less on the mathematics of engineering (e.g. algebra and calculus) and more on the mathematics of patterns (e.g. set theory, graph theory, etc.).

This may seem like a newfangled idea, but in actuality it is a shift to higher level math. As the great mathematician G.H. Hardy put it, “A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas.”

Focus on exploring things rather than knowing things

Take a look at any basic curriculum and there are lists of things that kids are supposed to know by the end of the course. Dates of historical events, mathematical formulas, the name of specific biological structures or whatever. Yet today, knowledge is truly a moving target. Much of the information in textbooks today will be obsolete by the time our kids start their careers.

Clearly, the notion that education will give you knowledge that will prepare you for an entire career is vastly outdated. Today we need to prepare our kids for a world that we don’t really understand yet. How can we possibly make good judgments about what information they need to know?

So instead of cramming their heads full of disparate facts, we need to give them the ability to explore things for themselves, take in new information, make sense of it and communicate what they’ve learned to others. In a world where technology is steadily taking over tasks that were once thought of distinctly human, those are the skills that will be most crucial.

In an age of disruption, the most crucial ability is to adapt. That is what we need to prepare our kids to do.

Read the original article on Inc.. Copyright 2017. Follow Inc. on Twitter.

Why I Use Skype to Teach World Geography and Cross-Cultural Competency

Why I Use Skype to Teach World Geography and Cross-Cultural Competency

My computer rings and I feel the excitement bubbling up in my suburban Maryland classroom. My first-graders know a Mystery Skype game is about to start. They grab their supplies: large, laminated world maps, dry erase markers, and magnifying glasses — and join their team on the rug.

Aloud they wonder how many hints they will need to determine where the other children are and what clues they will share. In teams of four, my students formulate several questions to help them solve the mystery:

  • Are you in the northern or southern hemisphere?
  • Are you near an ocean?
  • Is it morning or afternoon for you?
  • Are you in a big continent?
  • What is your main language?

I turn on the Smart Board to begin the adventure. One by one, my students come to the webcam, introduce themselves, and ask questions in the order they’ve agreed to. Soon, my room is alive with the children’s chatter. Huddled over their maps, they eliminate continents and countries. Magnifying glasses come out. When the whole class thinks that they’ve figured out the other children’s location, they shout out: “Are you in Chile?”
They’re not correct, so they return to study their maps and ask more questions. Finally, my class solves the mystery, and the students in the other class take their turn.

This session, my class is meeting with a group of second-graders in a bilingual school in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Their native tongue is Spanish, but their English is wonderful. My students learn that even though their partners have strong accents, they can understand them if they concentrate. The children in Argentina squeal with delight when they discover we’re in North America, especially because they’ve never met children in the United States before. The two groups then chat about their areas, cultures, and schools. My students are shocked to discover that children in Argentina also trade Pokemon cards and play similar recess games. The two groups also discern differences in time zone, season, and continent during the conversation.

As a teacher at McDonogh School in Owings Mills, MD, I continually find that Mystery Skype gives students valuable hands-on experience with world geography and helps them develop cross-cultural competency.


Mary-Catherine Irving’s first-graders participate in a Mystery Skype lesson. Credit: McDonogh School

A Window to the World

While many teachers view their Smart Board as a piece of technology to facilitate students’ computer and Internet use, I see it as a window to the world. As we meet children and adults on every continent this year, my students learn to collaborate, hone their communication skills, develop empathy, and enrich their problem-solving ability.

I started using Skype in my teaching in 2005, two years after the platform debuted. At the time my school was holding fundraisers to help a school in New Orleans affected by Hurricane Katrina. I reached out to a teacher, and our classes began to meet. We discussed local food, holidays, and our school communities. The video was often very pixilated, but the children’s idea exchanges revealed the power of these sessions. Our students became friends, and soon my class wanted to use Skype to share school events with their peers in New Orleans.

Skype’s potential as a teaching tool increased after Microsoft purchased the platform in 2011. Microsoft aims for teachers to learn and participate in a global community through activities such as Mystery Skype and virtual field trips. In addition, Microsoft educational consultants select guest speakers, ranging from engineers to authors to marine biologists, whom teachers vet to ensure productive learning for students. Today, more than 500,000 teachers and experts on all seven continents use Skype in the Classroom. More than 10 million students, speaking 64 languages, have seen other parts of the world in their classes through this technology.

Virtual Field Trips

I use Skype in the Classroom a great deal now. Typically, I’ll hold two or three sessions a month at various times in the day, during social studies, morning meeting, or lunch.

My first-graders have taken part in several virtual field trips, guided by guest speakers. Every two months, we take a gander through the platform and my students choose which experts to meet. As part of a unit on penguins, we met a penguin researcher outdoors in the middle of a rookery in Antarctica in December. Although my students know it’s cold in Antarctica, it was not until they met with Ms. Pennycook that they began to understand just how cold it is. They saw she had to wrap her laptop up in hand-warmers so it would not crash. She also showed them how desolate her home was while she conducted her research over several months.


Ms. Irving takes her students on a virtual field trip to Antarctica to learn about penguins. Credit: McDonogh School

In October, we met with a great white shark expert 30 feet underwater in a shark cage. Seeing sharks swimming around made my first-graders truly grasp their enormity.


First-graders learn about sharks in a virtual field trip in Ms. Irving’s class. Credit: McDonogh School

In November, we met with a paleontologist as he scaled a wall filled with dinosaur fossils in Utah. In each case, we never left the classroom.

Before each of these 45-minute sessions, I email with the experts to plan the lesson. I also show a video or read nonfiction to my students so they have sufficient background knowledge to ask meaningful questions. During Q&As, I am impressed with how seriously these experts treat my young students. When we were chatting with Ms. Pennycook in Antarctica, one student asked how the penguins know when to make the journey back to the rookery where they were born. She responded that scientists have not yet answered that question. She suggested my students read, learn math, and problem-solve with groups. Perhaps they would join her one day to answer that question.

My first-graders and I have virtually met some tougher circumstances this year as well. After Hurricane Matthew hit the Bahamas last fall, we connected with a teacher whose town in Nassau had been devastated. Initially we were only able to talk with the teacher by phone because the school was closed due to the conditions after the storm. My students raised money to help the class buy cleaning supplies by completing chores at home. When the school’s power was restored, her students met mine and described how they prepare for a storm of that magnitude and what it was like to live through it. We listened in awe.

Cross-Cultural Relationships

Skype in the Classroom helps my students cultivate virtual pen pal relationships.  For the past few years, my classes have had a relationship with students in Buenos Aires. We frequently hold morning meetings together, or meet to play games. Bilingual Simon Says and Rock, Paper, Scissors are favorites. During these sessions, the two groups teach one another poems, songs, and games from their countries. My students are now most avid Spanish students. Our Spanish teacher remarked that they are the only first-graders she has ever had who take notes, because they have a reason to learn the language.

My students are not the only ones building relationships abroad. I have tapped into a worldwide network of educators who are as passionate about bringing the world into their classrooms as I am. We frequently collaborate about teaching methods and content via Skype.

Over the years, I have developed some deep friendships. When my partner teacher in New Orleans had breast cancer, I supported her throughout her recovery. When my colleague in Argentina was contemplating changing schools, we Skyped at night to discuss her options. In fact, I have traveled to New Orleans, Mexico, and Argentina to visit teachers I had only met online, and hosted them when they came to visit. My colleague in Argentina stayed in my home for a month last winter, teaching with me and visiting other schools in Baltimore. I never could have imagined that I would make friends around the world with whom I would talk about my students, family, and life!

Far-Reaching Benefits

Many teachers wonder whether these virtual visits benefit them and their students. Looking back over my own experience, I realize that my students and I are more passionate about learning and our place in the world after connecting with others via Skype. During this school year, my students traveled more than 50,000 miles through Skype and my Smart Board.

My former student, Andrew, perfectly captured the significance of what he was learning this way: “Through Skype, I have talked with people all around the world. It makes me wonder if we all really do have a lot in common.”

 

Mary-Catherine Irving

Mary-Catherine Irving has taught first grade for 27 years. In 2016, she was selected as a Microsoft Innovative Educator as well as a Skype Master Teacher. NAIS selected her as an Innovative Educator in 2011. In addition, she is a certified National Geographic Educator. She can be reached at Mirving@McDonogh.org to provide guidance if you wish to try bringing the world into your room.

Try Monotasking

Stop what you’re doing.

Well, keep reading. Just stop everything else that you’re doing.

Mute your music. Turn off your television. Put down your sandwich and ignore that text message. While you’re at it, put your phone away entirely. (Unless you’re reading this on your phone. In which case, don’t. But the other rules still apply.)

Just read.

You are now monotasking.

Maybe this doesn’t feel like a big deal. Doing one thing at a time isn’t a new idea.

Indeed, multitasking, that bulwark of anemic résumés everywhere, has come under fire in recent years. A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that interruptions as brief as two to three seconds — which is to say, less than the amount of time it would take you to toggle from this article to your email and back again — were enough to double the number of errors participants made in an assigned task.

Earlier research out of Stanford revealed that self-identified “high media multitaskers” are actually more easily distracted than those who limit their time toggling.

So, in layman’s terms, by doing more you’re getting less done.

But monotasking, also referred to as single-tasking or unitasking, isn’t just about getting things done.

Not the same as mindfulness, which focuses on emotional awareness, monotasking is a 21st-century term for what your high school English teacher probably just called “paying attention.”

“It’s a digital literacy skill,” said Manoush Zomorodi, the host and managing editor of WNYC Studios’ “Note to Self” podcast, which recently offered a weeklong interactive series called Infomagical, addressing the effects of information overload. “Our gadgets and all the things we look at on them are designed to not let us single-task. We weren’t talking about this before because we simply weren’t as distracted.”

Ms. Zomorodi prefers the term “single-tasking”: “ ‘Monotasking’ seemed boring to me. It sounds like ‘monotonous.’ ”

Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist, lecturer at Stanford and the author of “The Willpower Instinct,” believes that monotasking is “something that needs to be practiced.” She said: “It’s an important ability and a form of self-awareness as opposed to a cognitive limitation.”

This is great news for the self-identified monotaskers out there.

Jon Pack, a 42-year-old photographer in Brooklyn, was happy to hear that his single-minded manner might be undergoing a rebrand. “When I was looking for jobs and interviewing, they’d always want me to say, ‘I’m a great multitasker,’ ” he said. “And I wouldn’t. My inability to multitask was seen as a negative. Now I can just say, ‘I am a monotasker. I am someone who works best when I focus on one thing at a time.’ ”

And the way we work can have effects that kick in long after we clock out.

As much as people would like to believe otherwise, humans have finite neural resources that are depleted every time we switch between tasks, which, especially for those who work online, Ms. Zomorodi said, can happen upward of 400 times a day, according to a 2016 University of California, Irvine study. “That’s why you feel tired at the end of the day,” she said. “You’ve used them all up.”

The term “brain dead” suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.

A good sign you’ve task-switched yourself into a stupor: mindlessly scrolling Facebook at the end of the night or, as in Ms. Zomorodi’s case, looking at couches on Pinterest. “I just stuff my brain full of them because I can’t manage to do anything else,” she said. “The sad thing is that I don’t get any closer to deciding which one I like.”

But monotasking can also make work itself more enjoyable.

“I can multitask — and do, of course; it’s kind of essential — but I prefer to do one thing at a time,” Hayley Phelan, a 28-year-old writer, wrote in an email. “If I keep looking at my phone or my inbox or various websites, working feels a lot more tortuous. When I’m focused and making progress, work is actually pleasurable.”

Ms. Phelan isn’t imagining things. “Almost any experience is improved by paying full attention to it,” Ms. McGonigal said. “Attention is one way your brain decides, ‘Is this interesting? Is this worthwhile? Is this fun?’ ”

It’s the reason television shows we tweet through feel tiresome and books we pick up and put down and pick up again never seem to end. The more we allow ourselves to be distracted from a particular activity, the more we feel the need to be distracted. Paying attention pays dividends.

This is why, according to Ms. McGonigal, the ability to monotask might be most valuable in social situations. “Research shows that just having a phone on the table is sufficiently distracting to reduce empathy and rapport between two people who are in conversation,” she said.

Twenty-five thousand people participated in Ms. Zomorodi’s Infomagical project, which started the week with a single-tasking challenge. Upon completion, respondents agreed overwhelmingly that single-tasking was the No. 1 thing they wanted to carry into their post-Infomagical lives. “But they also said it was really, really hard,” Ms. Zomorodi said.

Parents of young children found it difficult for obvious reasons, as did people with jobs that permit them less control over their time. In those cases, try monotasking in areas where you can: conversations with your children, reading a book in bed before they go to sleep, dinner or drinks with friends. After all, monotasking is a good skill to incorporate into all aspects of your life, not just work.

Even those with more flexibility can find themselves going to great lengths for a little bit of focus. Nick Pandolfi, who works in partnerships at Google, once traveled to northern Sweden in what he described as an “extreme” effort to monotask.

“I had to write my business school application essays, and I was having no luck spending an hour here and there after work and on the weekends,” Mr. Pandolfi said. “I just wasn’t inspired. After spending a few days hiking in the Arctic by myself, I was able to get all of them done in just a few days.”

Transcontinental trips aside, Ms. Zomorodi stressed that it was important to find ways to practice. “Start by giving yourself just one morning a week to check in, and remind yourself what it feels like to do one thing at a time,” she said.

Mr. Pandolfi and Ms. Phelan use exercise to aid them, albeit in different ways. “If I need to get through a big project and don’t want to get distracted by my inbox and the minutiae of the web, I hop on the treadmill desk,” Mr. Pandolfi said. Ms. Phelan makes a point of running outside, weekly, “without listening to music or anything else.”

Monotasking can also be as simple as having a conversation.

“Practice how you listen to people,” Ms. McGonigal said. “Put down anything that’s in your hands and turn all of your attentional channels to the person who is talking. You should be looking at them, listening to them, and your body should be turned to them. If you want to see a benefit from monotasking, if you want to have any kind of social rapport or influence on someone, that’s the place to start. That’s where you’ll see the biggest payoff.”

So is monotasking a movement? “It’s not there yet,” Ms. Zomorodi said. “But I think it will be.”

If enough people pay attention to it, that is.

An Inside Look at an Award-Winning Maker Program

Edutopia

Making turned New Jersey middle school students into teachers for a weekend—and sent some of them to the White House.

School ended in June 2016 with a crescendo of activity we had worked all year to orchestrate, bringing bigger accomplishments than we’d dreamed of. Our year-end adventure began in Washington, D.C., where my students’ work with design earned us an invitation to the White House for the kickoff of the 2016 National Week of Making. As one of two representatives from New Jersey, I represented not only my students but effectively all K-12 educators in the state for whom making is a way of teaching and learning. Though making is not new—creative individuals in communities and schools everywhere have been doing this work for years—its increasingly high profile certainly is. Making matters. And design thinking matters to makers.

jarrett-inset1-designthinking-author
Students work in the author’s digital shop class.

At the beginning of the National Week of Making, I set up our exhibit at the National Maker Faire. Eleven students, including four who had just graduated eighth grade, would spend the weekend explaining how design thinking drove our program’s work and their learning. Kids used student-built prototypes to explain how they employed design thinking to solve problems and make the world a better place.

We set up stations where Faire attendees got to experience prototyping for themselves, tackling design challenges based on the Extraordinaires Design Studio and expertly explained by our kids. The kids’ efforts garnered not one but two awards: Best in Class and Editor’s Choice.

The next day, three teams of seventh-grade students traveled to Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia to present their ideas for making hospitals less scary for child patients.

A group of nearly 70 people, including relatives, friends, hospital professionals, fellow educators, and members of the press, watched the student teams present their ideas and recommendations. It was a very good day. And it was just the beginning, as these students would work with JeffDESIGN over the summer to learn valuable lessons about what it takes to get an idea from concept to production in the real world.

In the span of four days, our kids met and conversed with hundreds of people about their accomplishments as designers, experiencing a level of personal and professional validation that many adults rarely get to enjoy. It was a fantastic end to a fantastic year.

So how is our program growing, changing, and adapting this year?

Initiative One: The EPICS Curriculum and Processes

We have adopted the free and fabulous EPICS—Engineering Projects In Community Service—as the heart and soul of our program this year. I attended a summer training at Purdue University; it was exhaustive and a great investment. EPICS is all about documenting design thinking processes. To that end, they have assembled a massive library of resources, including fully editable and customizable documents teachers can use to plan projects.

I love that the EPICS framework is just that—a framework. It provides a flexible structure I can modify as necessary to suit our processes and needs. As of this writing, we are still deep in that customization process; I expect that it will take most of this year to finalize. When we are done, we’ll have a powerful, document-driven, human-centered methodology to guide our work in design.

Initiative Two: Bringing the Outside In

jarrett-inset2-designthinking-author

Students use the laser engraver.

Last year, students connected with professional designer Meghan Holliday, who spoke about her life and work as a designer. This year, we’ve got Andrew Coy, senior advisor for making in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, sharing why making is critical in schools today; Alixandra Klein, a Vermont-based entrepreneur who makes jewelry using a laser cutter and upcycled materials, talking about the importance of art and creativity; and Dr. Jorge Valdes of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office(and also a high school science teacher here in New Jersey) discussing intellectual property, patents, and the inventor’s mindset. And all of this is just for Design Experience One.

Initiative Three: Changes to the Instructional Environment

We were fortunate to acquire an Epilog laser engraver last summer. It has quickly proven to be a game-changer for our program, capturing imaginations and literally igniting creativity like no other tool previously. Our new “soft seating” area includes a SMART Board 6000 interactive display, an Ikea coffee table (donated), an Xbox 360 (also donated), and a leather couch I found for sale on Facebook for $75. The combination of these items has made a terrific small group instructional area, while providing kids who have lunch in my room a chance to enjoy some gaming.

Final Thoughts

The new school year has gotten off to a good start. We’re creating an entirely new understanding of design thinking in Digital Shop, an amalgam of our shared past experiences and the practices of some of the world’s best design thinking practitioners. It’s ridiculously hard work, alternatively frustrating and exhilarating, but totally worth it.