The Absurdity of One-to-One Initiatives


As comes up every year, someone in our department suggested we go one-to-one. Of course, this sparked lively debate. So much so that do to the frequency of these debates and the cycle of outrage I invariably go through after each one, I’m motivated to write out the multitude of reasons that going one-to-one with textbooks is an absurd idea.

First, let’s talk about costs. A good textbook costs close to $100. Sometimes less, sometimes more, depending on how many you buy. If a kid has five classes, that means it’s going to cost roughly $500 dollars per student to go one-to-one textbooks. And it’s not just $500 one time. Of course not, because in a few years much of what’s inside the books will be dated. They will need to be updated and some of them will be so obsolete they’ll need to be replaced entirely. Do we want to go through the up front costs and then the future costs to update and replace them?

Second, let’s talk about letting teenagers carry around several hundred dollars in textbooks. Have you seen the average teenager’s bedroom? Of course not! There’s too much stuff on the horizontal surfaces (and maybe even the vertical surfaces) to actually see any substantial part of the room. Are we going to let kids, who can hardly get a dirty tissue to the trash can across the room, be responsible for hundreds of dollars worth of school property? I think this is a nightmare that no administrator or teacher wants to deal with.

Third, I’d ask you if the cost is worth the benefit. Sure, textbooks have lot’s of knowledge in them. Give students books corresponding to the subjects they’re learning allows them to easily and quickly look up information, helpful diagrams, maps, and other media, but don’t we have teachers for that? Teachers have much of this knowledge, and if they don’t, then they can look it up in their book and deliver it to the students. What’s the point of a teacher if all the information is easily available to the students? Sure, the best teachers might use the books in coordination with their teaching ability to create near sublime learning experiences, but this would surely only be the most motivated of teachers, not the norm.

Fourth, it would be a logistical nightmare. Suppose your high school has 1000 students. Then we are talking about THOUSANDS of textbooks to keep track of. Not just keep track of, but record those that go missing and those that are damaged. Then schools have to make determinations about how much the damages cost. Then who pays for it? The students? What if it’s an accident? What if the student can’t afford it? What if they get lost in a house fire? Who’s on the hook for the bill then? And who does this burden of tracking fall upon? The library? The administrators? The teachers? There’s no good options. And then, who fixes them? Do we offload this responsibility on the already short staffed library personnel? We’d probably have to hire somebody to spend part of their day repairing textbooks, so tack that on to the bottom line.

It seems clear that the costs of trying to put the these resources into the hands of each student almost certainly outweigh the benefits. But this fight will never die. Year after year we’ll continue to hear how we should “give students access to the tools they’ll be using when they leave us”. Given what I’ve outlined above, I can’t see the logic that results in this being a good idea.

Update: I should make something clear. This is purely satire. I am simply trying to make the argument that when it comes to discussions of 1 to 1 technology I think the problems that are brought up are often ones that we have solved in other contexts. This situation never came up in my department. And even if it had, I would never throw them under the bus like this publicly. Once again, this is purely satire.

“Everything Springs from That”

I don’t listen to many political podcasts. In fact, only one. Dan Carlin’s show, Common Sense. In his latest podcast he interviews James Burke, a science historian, documentary creator, broadcaster and all around smart dude.

This episode flirted with politics, but was more focused on how technology affects society and how the rate of change often has unforeseen ripples. It’s a fascinating interview, but the best part for me comes at the end of the interview. Dan presents Mr. Burke with a hypothetical (which I’m paraphrasing).

Suppose the leaders of the country call you up and ask for your advice. What would you tell them in regards to the absolute most important thing to focus on in the future?

“I’d say put a massive amount of effort into the educational system. Everything springs from giving people the kind of education that allows them to think more clearly and express themselves more clearly. Everything springs from that.”

I’ve been thinking about education a lot lately. I recognize that might be like pointing out that a historian has been thinking about history a lot lately. But I’m talking about the big picture of how we educate our society. With the appointment of charter school evangelist Betsy Devos to the head of the Department of Education and recent moves by the Michigan congress to weaken the teaching profession and cut funding, I worry greatly about where we are headed.

The election of Donald Trump, the proliferation of fake news, the gravitation towards soundbites, the lack of empathy, and constant decrease in social capital mean that having a society that can’t think critically could be (already is?) disastrous. If there was any time in our history that we should be focused on education, it should be now.

We can’t have a society of mindless drones that will believe the headline and first two lines of any article that comes across their news feed. We can’t have a society that can’t take another person’s perspective. We can’t have a society that fears change. We can’t have a society that doesn’t understand the value of civil discourse.

An education system that’s working on all cylinders can help prevent this.

We should be focused on how to graduate great teachers. We should be focused on how to help teachers become great. We should be looking to other education models and schools that we want to emulate. We should be focused on making teaching a profession that our best and brightest want to pursue. We should be working to get away from standardized test scores as the sole measurement of a quality education.

As Mr. Burke mentions in the podcast, if we put as much energy and money into education as we did into the Apollo project it could have countless dividends for our society.

Educating in a world of Robots

The problem with the way we educate and the things we value in education is that it isn’t preparing students to work in a world of robots. I don’t mean C3PO and R2D2. I’m talking specifically about a world in which most people have access to and actively utilize artificial intelligence.

What’s artificial intelligence?

This is important to understand before moving forward. When I talk about artificial intelligence (AI) I’m talking about machine learning. The idea is that a computer (or several computers) can take a large amount of data, run algorithms and software on that data, and use it to make decisions and predictions. AI already exists in many of our lives.

  • Have you ever asked SIRI, Google Now, Cortana, or Amazon Echo anything? – AI

  • You know how Google photos (and other software) looks for faces in photos and groups them together accordingly? – AI

  • Remember when that IBM computer, Watson, beat those guys in Jeopardy? You guessed it – AI

  • Cars that drive themselves? – AI

Here’s a few other ways AI probably also impacts our life right now.

Before I get into how this should change the way we educate, you need to listen to this four minute segment of The Tim Ferris Show podcast in which Tim interviews Kevin Kelly, the co-creator of Wired Magazine.

Go directly to the part of the interview where Kevin talks about how artificial intelligence will be as disruptive as the industrial revolution (by clicking the link), come back to this post, and read on.

If what Kevin says is right, and it probably is, then we need to drastically rethink how we educate and what we value in education. Here’s a few skills we need everyone in society to have in a world that’s drastically different from anything we’ve ever known.


Answers are easy and will only get easier.

You may be thinking, “not all answers are easy.”

You’re right. But many of the answers that are difficult to answer are generated by quality questions first. These questions are often deeper than most realize. In fact, the question is often the most important part of the process. If you’re answering a worthwhile question then it’s likely that you’ve spent some time framing and developing it. Take this example Warren Berger cites in his book A More Beautiful Question.

The developing world has a shortage of incubators. For years, health organizations and philanthropic groups asked the logical question: How can we get more incubators to the places that need them? A relatively straight-forward answer to that question was – donate them. But that was the right answer to the wrong question. This led to thousands of incubators being donated to poor nations, “only to end up in ‘incubator graveyards,'” as the New York Times reported. … The better question, which was eventually asked by health officials working on the problem, was Why aren’t people in the developing world using the incubators they have?

As it turned out, the problem was that people in the developing world didn’t have parts to fix the incubators (and other donated medical equipment) when they broke. The solution became to build incubators out of mostly car parts, as these were much more abundant.

Had the question not been reframed people would’ve continued with the easy answer to the wrong question. The technologies that will develop over the next decade will require a society that can ask the right questions.

And if you still don’t believe me, here’s an Einstein quote, and here are a few more if you still don’t buy it.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution I would spend 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes?” – Albert Einstein


Consider what computers can do now. They can drive cars, analyze photographs, win chess games, and predict the song you want to listen to next, among other things.

Consider what computers can’t do now. They can’t design a more fuel efficient car. They can’t take a photograph of your child that’s worth hanging in your living room. They can’t develop new games. They can’t write a song.

They can’t create. At least not yet.

This leaves the creation to people. Everybody says this and it’s because they’re right and it’s true.

Assembly line work is dead or dying.

We can’t educate for that world. We need to educate for a world that we don’t even understand and can’t predict. But given the information we have now it certainly seems that people that can create, or work on teams that create, will be the ones that are least likely to be replaced by robots.


Technology will bring with it many solutions but also many problems. More and more society will be at the mercy of algorithms.

Consider how Facebook tweaked news feeds to determine how it affected people’s moods. Are we, as a society, okay with that?

Kevin Kelly brought up an interesting point in regards to self-driving cars.

Should the car favor the driver or the passenger in an imminent accident?

How far do we take our knowledge of genetics and human genome modification?

To what extent do we sacrifice our privacy in the name of safety?

What are the ethics of making physical attacks through computers?

There are a plethora of other questions that will arise. With great change comes difficult questions that society will have to answer. Members of society will need the ability to reason logically. They need to be able to reason in contexts where there is no simple answer. Students that think most problems are simple and straightforward often become adults that think the same, failing to realize the complexities in problems. A healthy democracy thrives on a society’s ability to have healthy, rational discourse. Anybody that’s seen social media or cable news can see this slipping away quickly, and I fear a society that can’t think beyond the soundbites will fall to those that know how to control them.

We can teach these skills in classrooms. We can develop our classrooms in ways that foster questioning, creation, and reasoning. But this means that many of us need to shift how we teach what we teach. We can’t simply continue to value only answers, giving students the illusion that the world they’ll live in will be simple. A world in which the important questions don’t have four choices and a bubble to fill in.

I’m not arguing that knowing is dead. But “knowing stuff” will certainly become less and less valuable as knowing what to do with the stuff you know becomes more valuable. The skills that we need to know (questioning, creating, learning, reasoning, etc.) help us connect the knowledge “dots” in the world. It will be more important to know how to attain certain knowledge than to have/store it. A person needs to be able to find information, skeptically analyze it, then integrate it and apply it to the information they already have.

If we can’t help students develop these skills then we’ll fail as educators. Our job is to prepare our students for the world they’ll live most of their lives in. In many ways that world is shrouded in unknowns. But the skills I’ve outlined above will almost certainly always be needed to thrive.

I am not going to be the one that buries my head in the sand and in 20 years says, “I didn’t know it was coming.”

And I get that t’s scary. Assembly line education makes sense and is straightforward. It’s what most of grew up with. It makes sense.

Teach vocab word. Practice vocab word. Test vocab word. Know vocab word. Learn next vocab word. And so on.

See nail. Grab hammer. Strike nail.

The problem is that computers are good at that. Better than people and only going to get better.

The scary part is that teaching the skills outlined above is fuzzier. It’s difficult to isolate it down to a data point. It requires teachers with knowledge of how to teach the skills and trust in the teachers to teach them. This is scary for teachers and administrators and probably most people in education. But it’s the skill set that the average member of society will need in the near future and it’s our prerogative to teach it.

Weekly Recap

What I Read

What I Wrote

Nah, you could do something great – In this post I reflect on a comment a student made that I would argue is indicative of a broader perception of the teaching perception.

Tweets I’m Thinking about

Laurie Richards tweeted this about grit and Freakonomics did a podcast on it and since according to my Twitter bio I’m a grit skeptic naturally both things occupied some space in my brain.

Sam Shah tweeted this awesomeness (you’ll have to send him a follow request to see the tweet) that one of his students is working on. I’ve read bout his final projects before and they are typically awesome. Check out last year’s and the previous year’s.

Last, but the first of the week, a former colleague of mine won his 1000th softball game as a head coach! So there’s a bit of local awesome for you. Read about it here.

Tech Tools I Recommend

If you’re an iOS user then I highly recommend checking out Google’s new keyboard for the iPhone. Features such as Glide Typing, emoji search, and speed (as fast as the stock keyboard). Oh, did I mention it’s free and that Google search is integrated into it? Read about it here and download it here. Also of note, part of Google’s motivation here, as described in the article, is to gather data that it’s missing out on by tracking your searches. You can however not let Google get this data by not allowing full access. The downside is you can’t use the search feature, but it’s still an awesome keyboard without it.

What My Students Are Working On

My calc students starting working on their final projects in which they can learn anything they want over the course of the last couple weeks of school (once they’ve taken the AP test). Here’s some of their projects.

Final Project Topics

That’s it for this week. I’ve never done this before so if you enjoy it (or if you think it’s stupid) let me know. Have a great weekend!

Music as Identity – How Apple Music is Trying to Steal my Soul

Consider the world 30 years ago. Now, I admit that all I have to go on is what I’ve read or seen, as I wasn’t born 30 years ago. However, I don’t think anyone would disagree that music consumption and ownership was fundamentally different today than it was a few decades ago. In fact, I think we only need to go back 10 or 15 years to find a time that music consumption was fundamentally different. In the last ten years we’ve seen the rise and fall of the iPod classic, the massive popularity of internet radio like Pandora, and more specialized services like Spotify and Apple Music. I find this transition more interesting than any other change in music consumption in the last 50ish years and more fundamental in an crucial way.

When Apple launched Apple Music I almost immediately signed up for the three month free trial. I had toyed with Spotify but I didn’t like the interface. Also, I had a fairly significant collection of music in my iTunes library and no way to move to Spotify. In fact, in March of this year I signed up for iTunes Match. Since so much of my music was already in the Apple ecosystem I was eager to see if Apple Music could be my one stop shop for music. I had used bitorrent a bit but always felt that the artist deserved something for the work they created. At the same time I didn’t want to shell out ten dollars for an album that I’d end up hating. My hope was that Apple Music would provide a middle ground. I’d be able to try music and the artist would get a small payment for each stream. Then if I liked the album I could add it to my music. Everything sounded wonderful and it generally was until about 3 weeks ago when I had a realization.

My music library is part of my identity and Apple Music could destroy it.

Screenshot 2015-12-18 09.51.17

Since my junior year of high school, when a couple of my friends got me into “good” music, my music library has been evolving. It’s part of who I am. I made an effort to download complete albums and I hesitate to delete any album as I never know what I might enjoy several years in the future. My music library has become almost a chronology of my life.

“Hey right here is where I first got into James McMurtry. He’s now one of my favorite artists.”

“Over here, that’s the Metallica album that everyone said was good and I tried and hated.”

“Oh that, yeah that’s Nirvana. I gotta dump that but too many people say it’s awesome so I think that the fact that I don’t like it is more my fault than Nirvana’s fault.”

“Those? Every Springsteen album or song ever written. I got many of those the day after I was in the sixth row at a concert on his Magic tour.”

Each piece of my library has a story and fits into my story. Since I’m now essentially leasing music, everything I’ve added to my library wasn’t really mine. It’s like if I had to pay ten dollars a month to lease an unlimited number of photos of my daughter. Sure, being able to take as many photos and videos as I wanted would be great, but that I wouldn’t actually own the photos would be a deal breaker. If I wanted to keep my albums I’ve added to my music library, I’d have to pay $10 a month until I died. And if anybody wanted to see what music I was into in October of 2015 they had better keep paying that $10 a month. As soon as the payment stops, to some degree, a part of me would be gone.

Let me get back to how this is a fundamental change from the past. Track back to when people could first record and compile music collections. I have no doubt countless hours of discussion have taken place around people’s record collections, cassette collections, CD collections, and all the music you loaded onto that 64gb iPod classic. There’s just something less authentic about leasing music and I hate it. Since my revelation, each day I think about how I can get out of Apple Music and go back to simpler time. I admit this isn’t that hard to do practically speaking, but Apple Music is incredibly convenient and with those conveniences comes a pull to stay.

I stand at a fork in the trail. If I go too much longer on the Apple Music train I won’t be able to get off. I’ll have enough music to make switching out akin to losing a piece of my hard drive. If I leave, then I go back to either paying for every piece of music I want or I take the bit torrent route. At this moment I think the latter option, although certainly more difficult and almost certainly more expensive, is the path I must choose.

You know, so that I have an identity.

Reflecting on our Digital Literacy Webinar

In my current grad class we were given the opportunity to host a webinar. Our group chose to focus on digital literacy as our topic and we were fortunate to have a few experts (Jenna Snow, Tom Driscoll, Teresa Diaz, and Allison Cicinelli) contribute to a fascinating discussion. Our conversation took us from what we mean when we say “digital citizen”, to whether our students’ typical technology interactions are hurting their critical thinking and attention span, to how digital literacy can help students in their future, and  advice for teachers starting out in educational technology.

I would encourage you take some time and check out our webinar as well as other MAET Bridge webinars.

Outlining my Ideas for my “Deeper Learning through Technology” Grant Proposal

My grant request entails getting tablets for each one of my students. I understand that 1-1 device programs seem like “the thing” right now and it may make some wonder if my pursuit of this is just me jumping on a bandwagon. Rest assured this request is driven by sound philosophies of learning and designed closely to develop the Six Facets of Understanding (Wiggins and McTighe) in my students.

I started this proposal with an eye towards what I wanted to accomplish with my students. I want them to gain and demonstrate a deep understanding of mathematics. As outlined in my introduction students frequently leave school with only a surface level of mathematics and this can hurt them in their future. To enhance overall understanding I want to focus on a few facets of understanding that will be especially developed with this technology.

The writing (and increased frequency in which it happens) will help explain their understanding of mathematics. This process forces students to put their understanding into words and sentences rather than simply going through the procedures of solving the problems. The prompts help with developing self-knowledge, but also are designed to help students interpret the mathematics beyond abstract concepts. Writing forces students to put concepts into a form that is understandable for other readers. In addition to having students write, these devices make visualizing higher level mathematics orders of magnitude easier than any other technology. The real power in this is that it gives students perspective and allows them to put concepts in context. They also provide a tool for applying mathematics to more difficult problems. Without these technologies students can get lost in mathematical concepts that the technology can handle easily. Lastly, these devices are ideal for giving frequent, formative feedback. This helps students understand what they don’t understand quickly, one of the most important factors in pushing understanding further.

(This is a project for my current grad class in the Master’s of Educational Technology program at Michigan State University. You can view my other projects here.)

Intro to “Deeper Learning through Technology” Grant Proposal

The problem I’m trying to address is the lack of deep understanding of mathematics in many of my students. Students that leave high school with a surface understanding of it often view mathematics as a mysterious list of algorithms and formulas (ask somebody to name something from high school math and many will say “the Pythagorean theorem”). They also (I believe) struggle with college mathematics because their high school understanding of mathematics is weak and disjointed. They don’t leave high school as mathematical thinkers and then struggle when the difficulty is increased. I think carefully implemented technology can help students understand mathematics more deeply.

I’d like to put a tablet in each one of my student’s hands in order to increase three things that help students learn more effectively: writing, exploration and play, and feedback. If each student has a device they can write frequently and authentically (via blogging) and this helps students solidify concepts in their mind as they’re learning. Also, exploration and play are necessary to help students get a “feel” for mathematics as well as help them engage their preconceptions about ideas. With a tablet, today’s powerful graphing and demonstration utilities are in the hands of students. Last, technology is especially adept in providing frequent feedback via formative assessments. My aim is that students will leave me with not only a deeper understanding of math, but also a grasp of the methods and tools that led to that understanding. If I succeed they’ll not only leave me as better mathematicians, but also more effective learners.

(This is a project for my current grad class in the Master’s of Educational Technology program at Michigan State University. You can view my other projects here.)