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the hiatus…

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the hiatus…

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2 days ago
Pittsburgh, PA
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The Quest for a Much Higher Bar

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Why Canadian Exceptionalism Isn’t Helping

[Content Warning: sexual harassment at work]

Johnathan‘s post is worth reading first as it provides context for what I’ve written here.

Last week, Jane Doe wrote a Medium post that described a truly awful experience at a local startup. I was pretty sure I didn’t know any of the people named in the post. But I recognized the company’s name because the CEO is a regular poster on LinkedIn. His specific flavour of broetry gets shared in many of the private, women in tech slack groups I’m in.

I remember when the Justin Caldbeck stuff hit. Several friends in VC reached out. They wanted to know, “Do these things happen in Canada?” It was a statement phrased as a question. “Surely they do not or we would have heard about them” tucked just beneath the surface.

Of course they do. There’s been a marked lack of investment in having it be any other way. Why would it be better here?

A love of maple syrup and deep passion for hockey do not together form some sort of magical harassment prevention shield.

Canadians like to talk about American exceptionalism. And they aren’t wrong. But there’s Canadian exceptionalism too. The idea that living in Canada somehow makes you less likely to be racist or sexist than your neighbours to the south. It doesn’t. But the belief that it does makes you less likely to hear it when people tell you they are experiencing racism or sexism. It makes you more likely to assume they misunderstood or are over-representing. Because that kind of thing is stuff that happens in Silicon Valley. It’s stuff that happens on Wall Street. Not here.

But this isn’t a single blemish on an otherwise flawless startup community. Shortly after the anonymous post came out, many women in Toronto tech shared their own stories. Times they, too, had been harassed, abused, or exploited.

Many people were quick to say that they believed Jane Doe.

Believing survivors is a powerful and important first step. But it’s insufficient. We need to see our community as a place where this can and does happen.

Only then can we start the real work.

Raise the Bar

In the months following #MeToo, I found myself replaying Every Bad Thing that happened. Across my entire career. Every unwanted sexual advance. Every stretch of office harassment. Every boss who said I was aggressive. Every client who told me to smile more.

I’d list them out.

Goffrey. The Hound. That creep in Mountain View. Cersei. The reporter who tried to kiss me. The Mountain.

The thing about working in an industry where everyone knows each other is that most of the perpetrators on my Every Bad Thing list still work in tech. They have progressed in their careers. Whatever power they had when we worked together, has only amplified over time.

Power begets power.
Privilege begets privilege.
Creeps in charge beget creeps in charge.

I keep thinking about this mystery bar. The idea, repeated time and again, that hiring a diverse team means lowering the bar. That hiring from marginalized groups means changing the standards for a role. That somehow you’d end up with surgeon who never went to med school or a CFO who doesn’t understand finance.

Somehow, our fretting about low bars goes silent when it’s about sexual predators. The abstract hand-wringing, somehow absent. Why is that? What would happen if we asked men for references from the women they used to manage? Or interviewed not only for technical skill and management acumen, but also the ability to adhere to local labour laws?

And if you’re wondering what that might look like in an interview, don’t worry. I’ve brought some examples.

  • Name a situation where it would be inappropriate for colleagues to develop a relationship at work, even if both parties consent.
  • Give me three examples of when, in the course of leading and managing people, one might need to pull in internal or external HR support.
  • How did becoming a manager change how you socialize with your team? If at all? How has this evolved since you first began managing teams?

It’s time to swap out the whiteboard coding and brainteasers and actually raise the bar. These are the people who have massive power and a direct impact on the employment experience in your company. It’s worth getting it right.

This Shit is Learnable

A few weeks ago, I was on a call with a woman who was prepping an event around inclusion. The idea is that women and people from marginalized groups talk to (mostly) white, senior members of the tech community to teach them about diversity.

I take a deep breath.

How are we still on the 101 stuff? It’s 2019. And there’s an abundance of material on the internet about how to build more inclusive companies. The people attending this event are smart and esteemed for their technical prowess. They collectively have raised billions of dollars.

And the thesis here is that they managed to miss the whole conversation around workplace equity because… What? Because they are incapable of entering search terms into Google? Because they can’t read any of the plentiful 101-level shit available for free on their own time?

I’m having a hard time buying it. If it were about agile or scrum, they would have consumed entire subreddits already. Maybe it’s because they haven’t received a handwritten invitation. But more likely it’s because they don’t see how it impacts them.

This isn’t a set of people who are incapable of learning. This is wilful ignorance.

The question for the CEO in Jane’s post is not how did harassment happen on your watch. Though that’s worth some time and soul searching. It’s how the hell did you not know what to do when it was reported to you? That’s your job. You’re the chief executive. The buck stops with you, bud.

One of the things I love most about technology is that we work at the edges. That many of us are building into the unknown everyday. We’re tasked with creating things that don’t exist. And in the course of doing this work, we bump up against things we don’t know. And that’s OK.

The sin here isn’t in the not knowing. The unforgivable bit is in not getting real curious in a hurry to go figure it out. You’re a tech CEO — your whole job is untangling complex problems. And if it were anything else. If it were raising a new round. Or optimizing your homepage. Or building partnerships with major financial institutions. If it were anything else, you’d have pulled in experts when you were out over your skis.

In their response, Planswell shared that they did eventually pull in experts. And that they made changes following a third party investigation. It would be great to see the company share those learnings publicly. Other organizations who want to proactively address harassment could then build on the foundation Planswell put in place. And ideally they would release it under an open license so others can add to it or fork it.

No startup CEO in Ontario could ever again claim they didn’t know where to turn, what to do, or how to get started. Imagine that.

Yes Strings Attached

When I started managing people in California, I got mandatory harassment prevention training. It was delivered via a Flash app and it was precisely as dull and basic as state mandated harassment prevention training would be.

I like the idea of everyone getting some baseline, mandatory training. I do. But if I’m being honest, I don’t know how effective it was. I worked with managers who went through the training and still harassed people. I, myself, took the training and was woefully ill-equipped to report harassment when I saw it at work.

What I do know is that right now the provincial and federal governments are throwing money at the knowledge economy. They are building centres of excellence. They are funding incubators and accelerators.

I know that the Canadian venture climate is more active than it’s ever been. I know that the global business community has taken notice. I know the world is paying attention to what happens here. And I know that most young tech companies run on those sweet, sweet pre-revenue dollars.

You could move the entire market and alter the experience of women and marginalized groups in tech if you put strings on the money.

Strings that:

  • Require CEOs to report all harassment complaints to the board, regardless of the outcome of those complaints.
  • Require harassment prevention training for the founders. And all the people managers. And all the people.*
  • Eliminate the worst wage gap offences for people at the same company, doing the same job.

I get how scary this is.

Most venture capitalists will adamantly defend a founder friendly model. As a founder (albeit one with no outside funding), I do understand the mentality here. You don’t want to mess with the magic. Founders are a strange breed. Money is cheap. Investing in hot companies is a competitive space.

I can enumerate all the reasons why it’s a bad idea to put strings on money. But all of them boil down to the prioritization of dollars or ego over the lived experience of women and marginalized people in tech. All of them net out at complacency.

When asked, the money people will talk all day about the hoops their portfolios jumped through to get the investment. Either the growth trajectory. Or the early revenue experiments. Or the market opportunity assessments. Or the pitch process itself. It’s not that we have no working models for putting up barriers to capital. It’s that we are choosing not to apply them here. Around this issue. Around this set of risks.

I know of no Canadian VC who does this today. I know of no government funded innovation programs that do this today. I know of no Canadian incubator who does this today. I know of no Canadian accelerator who does this today. And not because we, as an ecosystem, don’t need it.

*I shared an early draft of this post with Jane. One where I called out bosses and founders, but not employees. She pointed out that all people should get harassment prevention training. Regardless of seniority. Bosses and founders have more power, and different legal and moral obligations. But she’s right. If we want things to change, we’re gonna need everyone.

Headline image: Interactive Sports

If you’re reading this, you should know that we don’t write here much any more. We’re still writing, though. You can find us here, instead.

The Quest for a Much Higher Bar was originally published in the co-pour on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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7 days ago
Pittsburgh, PA
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These magical books help kids learn other languages


Many parents want their kids to be bilingual but don’t have the tools to teach them. Enter Habbi Habbi, a platform that makes learning new languages fun.

My 3-year-old has been playing in her room by herself for an hour. I’m beginning to worry she is up to no good: Is she “decorating” her walls with a Sharpie or perhaps systematically pulling out tufts of wool from her rug? But I take a peek, and there she is, right where I left her, flipping through a bilingual picture book full of Spanish and English words created by a new startup called Habbi Habbi.

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7 days ago
Pittsburgh, PA
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The pain of tracking down changes in U.S. law

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Last month when I was researching my article about the free coffee provision in U.S. federal highway law, I spent a great deal of time writing this fragment:

under the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1978

I knew that the provision was in 23 USC §131, but I should explain what this means.

The body of U.S. statutory law can be considered a single giant document, which is "codified" as the United States Code, or USC for short. USC is divided into fifty or sixty “titles” or subject areas, of which the relevant one here, title 23, concerns “Highways”. The titles are then divided into sections (the free coffee is in section 131), paragraphs, sub-paragraphs, and so on, each with an identifying letter. The free coffee is 23 USC §131 (c)(5).

But this didn't tell me when the coffee exception was introduced or in what legislation. Most of Title 23 dates from 1958, but the coffee sign exception was added later. When Congress amends a law, they do it by specifying a patch to the existing code. My use of the programmer jargon term “patch” here is not an analogy. The portion of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1978 that enacted the “free coffee” exception reads as follows:


Sec. 121. Section 131(c) of title 23, United States Code, is amended—
  (1) by striking out “and (4)” and inserting in lieu thereof “(4)”; and
  (2) by striking out the period at the end thereof and inserting in lieu thereof a comma and the following: “and (5) signs, displays, and devices advertising the distribution of nonprofit organizations of free coffee […]”.

(The “[…]” is my elision. The Act includes the complete text that was to be inserted.)

The act is not phrased as a high-level functional description, such as “extend the list of exceptions to include: ... ”. It says to replace the text ‘and (4)’ with the text ‘(4)’; then replace the period with a comma; then …”, just as if Congress were preparing a patch in a version control system.

Unfortunately, the lack of an actual version control system makes it quite hard to find out when any particular change was introduced. The code page I read is provided by the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University. At the bottom of the page, there is a listing of the changes that went into this particular section:

(Pub. L. 85–767, Aug. 27, 1958, 72 Stat. 904; Pub. L. 86–342, title I, § 106, Sept. 21, 1959, 73 Stat. 612; Pub. L. 87–61, title I, § 106, June 29, 1961, 75 Stat. 123; Pub. L. 88–157, § 5, Oct. 24, 1963, 77 Stat. 277; Pub. L. 89–285, title I, § 101, Oct. 22, 1965, 79 Stat. 1028; Pub. L. 89–574, § 8(a), Sept. 13, 1966, 80 Stat. 768; Pub. L. 90–495, § 6(a)–(d), Aug. 23, 1968, 82 Stat. 817; Pub. L. 91–605, title I, § 122(a), Dec. 31, 1970, 84 Stat. 1726; Pub. L. 93–643, § 109, Jan. 4, 1975, 88 Stat. 2284; Pub. L. 94–280, title I, § 122, May 5, 1976, 90 Stat. 438; Pub. L. 95–599, title I, §§ 121, 122, Nov. 6, 1978, 92 Stat. 2700, 2701; Pub. L. 96–106, § 6, Nov. 9, 1979, 93 Stat. 797; Pub. L. 102–240, title I, § 1046(a)–(c), Dec. 18, 1991, 105 Stat. 1995, 1996; Pub. L. 102–302, § 104, June 22, 1992, 106 Stat. 253; Pub. L. 104–59, title III, § 314, Nov. 28, 1995, 109 Stat. 586; Pub. L. 105–178, title I, § 1212(a)(2)(A), June 9, 1998, 112 Stat. 193; Pub. L. 112–141, div. A, title I, §§ 1519(c)(6), formerly 1519(c)(7), 1539(b), July 6, 2012, 126 Stat. 576, 587, renumbered § 1519(c)(6), Pub. L. 114–94, div. A, title I, § 1446(d)(5)(B), Dec. 4, 2015, 129 Stat. 1438.)


Each of these is a citation of a particular Act of Congress. For example, the first one

Pub. L. 85–767, Aug. 27, 1958, 72 Stat. 904

refers to “Public law 85–767”, the 767th law enacted by the 85th Congress, which met during the Eisenhower administration, from 1957–1959. The U.S. Congress has a useful web site that contains a list of all the public laws, with links — but it only goes back to the 93rd Congress of 1973–1974.

And anyway, just knowing that it is Public law 85–767 is not (or was not formerly) enough to tell you how to look up its text. The laws must be published somewhere before they are codified, and scans of these publications, the United States Statutes at Large, are online back to the 82nd Congress. That is what the “72 Stat. 904” means: the publication was in volume 72 of the Statutes at Large, page 904. This citation style was obviously designed at a time when the best (or only) way to find the statute was to go down to the library and pull volume 72 off the shelf. It is well-deisgned for that purpose. Now, not so much.

Here's a screengrab of the relevant portion of the relevant part of the 1978 act:

Screengrab of scan of the text quoted earlier, ADVERTISING BY NONPROFIT ORGANIZATIONS

The citation for this was:

Pub. L. 95–599, title I, §§ 121, 122, Nov. 6, 1978, 92 Stat. 2700, 2701

(Note that “title I, §§ 121, 122” here refers to the sections of the act itself, not the section of the US Code that was being amended; that was title 23, §131, remember.)

To track this down, I had no choice but to grovel over each of the links to the Statutes at Large, download each scan, and search over each one looking for the coffee provision. I kept written notes so that I wouldn't mix up the congressional term numbers with the Statutes volume numbers.

It ought to be possible, at least in principle, to put the entire U.S. Code into a version control system, with each Act of Congress represented as one or more commits, maybe as a merged topic branch. The commit message could contain the citation, something like this:

    commit a4e2b2a1ca2d5245c275ddef55bf8169d72580df
    Merge: 6829b2dd986 836108c2ba0
    Author: ... <...>
    Date:   Mon Nov 6 00:00:00 1978 -0400

        Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1978

        P.L. 95–599
        92 Stat. 2689–2762
        H.R. 11733   

        Merge branch `pl-95-599` to `master`

    commit 836108c2ba0d5245c275ddef55bf8169d72580df
    Author: ... <...>
    Date:   Mon Nov 6 00:00:00 1978 -0400

        Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1978 (section 121)

        (Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1978, title I)
        P.L. 95–599
        92 Stat. 2689–2762
        H.R. 11733

    Signs advertising free coffee are no longer probitied
    within 660 feet of a federal highway.

    diff --git a/USC/ b/USC/
    index 084bfc2..caa5a53 100644
    --- a/USC/
    +++ b/USC/
    @@ -20565,11 +20565,16 @@ 23 U.S. Code § 131. Control of outdoor advertising
     be changed at reasonable intervals by electronic process or by remote
     control, advertising activities conducted on the property on which
    -they are located, and (4) signs lawfully in existence on October 22,
    +they are located, (4) signs lawfully in existence on October 22,
     1965, determined by the State, subject to the approval of the
     Secretary, to be landmark signs, including signs on farm structures or
     natural surfaces, or historic or artistic significance the
     preservation of which would be consistent with the purposes of this
    +section, and (5) signs, displays, and devices advertising the
    +distribution by nonprofit organizations of free coffee to individuals
    +traveling on the Interstate System or the primary system. For the
    +purposes of this subsection, the term “free coffee” shall include
    +coffee for which a donation may be made, but is not required.
     *(d)* In order to promote the reasonable, orderly and effective 

Or maybe the titles would be directories and the sections would be numbered files in those directories. Whatever. If this existed, I would be able to do something like:

  git log -Scoffee -p -- USC/

and the Act that I wanted would pop right out.

Preparing a version history of the United States Code would be a dauntingly large undertaking, but gosh, so useful. A good VCS enables you to answer questions that you previously wouldn't have even thought of asking.

Steve Buscemi in _Reservoir Dogs_ is playing the world's smallest violin.

This article started as a lament about how hard it was for me to track down the provenance of the coffee exception. But it occurs to me that this is the response of someone who has been spoiled by plenty. A generation ago it would have been unthinkable for me even to try to track this down. I would have had to start by reading a book about legal citations and learning what “79 Stat. 1028” meant, instead of just picking it up on the fly. Then I would have had to locate a library with a set of the Statutes at Large and travel to it. And here I am complaining about how I had to click 18 links and do an (automated!) text search on 18 short, relevant excerpts of the Statutes at Large, all while sitting in my chair.

My kids can't quite process the fact that in my childhood, you simply didn't know what the law was and you had no good way to find out. You could go down the the library, take the pertinent volumes of the USC off the shelf, and hope you had looked in all the appropriate places for the relevant statutes, but you could never be sure you hadn't overlooked something. OK, well, you still can't be sure, but now you can do keyword search, and you can at least read what it does say without having to get on a train.

Truly, we live in an age of marvels.

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13 days ago
Pittsburgh, PA
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Task Specific Programming will only matter if it solves a user’s problem (Precalculus TSP Part 4 of 5)

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This is the fourth in a five part series about Precalculus Task-Specific Programming. I presented two prototypes in Parts 1 and 2, and discussed what I’m exploring about programming in Part 3.

I’ve shown my prototypes to several teachers — some computer science (e.g., I presented the first prototype at the Work In Progress Workshop at ICER in Toronto) and a half-dozen math teachers. The computer science teachers have been pretty excited, and I have had several requests for the system to try out with various student groups.

Why am I looking at precalculus?  Because it’s what leads to success in college calculus. I’m influenced by Sadler and Sonnert’s work showing that high school calculus isn’t the critical thing to support success in undergraduate calculus (see article here). It’s precalculus. Undergraduate calculus is a gatekeeper. Students don’t get STEM undergraduate degrees because they can’t get through calculus. So if we want more students to succeed in STEM undergraduate, we want high school precalculus to get better, in terms of more inclusive success.

Precalculus is a pretty abstract set of topics (see an example list here).  For the most part, it’s foreword looking: “You’ll need this when you get to Calculus.”  My idea is to teach precalculus with concrete contexts made possible by computing, like image filters. I want more students to find precalculus more engaging and more personally meaningful, leading to more learning.

So, might my prototypes help students learn precalculus?

Math teachers have generally been, “Meh.”

I’ve had four teachers tell me that it’s “interesting*.” One math teacher was blunt and honest — neither of these tools solve a problem that students have. Basic matrix notation and element-by-element matrix operations are the easiest parts of matrices. Precalculus students can already (typically) figure out how to plot a given wave equation.

What’s hard? Students struggle with forms of matrix multiplication and determinants. They struggle with what each of the terms in the wave function do, and what influences periodicity. Seeing the graphed points is good, but having the values display in symbolic form like (3*pi)/2 would be more powerful for making a connection to a unit circle. I’m learning these in a participatory design context, so I actually pushed more on what would be useful and what I need to do better — I have a much longer list of things to do better than just these points.

The math teachers have generally liked that I am paying attention to disciplinary literacy. I’m using their notations to communicate in the ways that things are represented in their math textbooks. I am trying to communicate in the way that they want to communicate.

Here’s the big insight that I learned from the mathematics teachers with whom I’ve spoken: Teachers aren’t going to devote class time or their prep time to something that doesn’t solve their problems. Some teachers are willing to put time into additional, enrichment activities — if the teacher needs more of those. As one teacher told me, “Most math classes are less about more exploration, and more about less failure.” The point of precalculus is to prepare students to pass calculus.  If you want more diverse students to get into STEM careers, more diverse students have to get through calculus. Precalculus is important for that. The goal is less failure, more success, and more student understanding of mathematics.

This insight helps me understand why some computational tools just don’t get a foothold in schools. At the risk of critiquing a sacred cow, this helps to explain why Logo didn’t scale. Seymour Papert and crew developed turtle geometry, which Andrea diSessa and Hal Abelson showed was really deep. But did Logo actually solve a problem that students and teachers had? Turtle graphics is beautiful, and being body syntonic is great, but that’s not the students’ problem with math. Most of their real problems with mathematics had to do with the cartesian coordinate system, not with being able to play being a turtle. Every kid can walk a square and a triangle. Did students learn general problem-solving skills? Not really. So, why should teachers devote time to something that didn’t reduce student failure in mathematics?

It would be hard to be disciplinary literate when Logo and turtle geometry was invented. Logo was originally developed on teletype machines. (See Cynthia Solomon’s great keynote about this story.) The turtle was originally a robot. Even when they moved Logo to the Apple II, they could not match the representations in the kid’s textbooks, the representations that the teachers were most comfortable with. So instead, we asked student to think in terms of fd 200 rt 90 instead of (x,y). Basic usability principles tell us to use what the user is familiar with. Logo didn’t. It demanded more of the students and teachers, and maybe it was worthwhile in long run — but that tradeoff wasn’t obvious to the teachers.

I have a new goal:

I want to provide a programming experience that can be used in five minutes which can be integrated into a precalculus class to improve on student learning.

I want to use programming to solve a learning problem in another domain. Programming won’t enter the classroom if it doesn’t solve a teacher’s problem, which is what they perceive as the student’s problem. Improving student learning is my users’ (teachers’) goals. Good UI design is about helping the user achieve their goals.

I’ve started on designs for two more precalc prototypes based on the participatory design sessions I’ve had, and I’m working on improving the wave texture generator to better address real learning problems. The work I’m doing with social science educators is completely driven by teachers and student learning challenges. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t have working prototypes there yet — it’s harder to address real problems.  My precalc prototypes were based on my read of literature on precalculus. That’s never going to be as informed as the teacher-in-the-classroom.

Now, there’s another way in which we might argue that these prototypes help with education — maybe they help with learning something about computer science? Here’s a slide from my SIGCSE 2019 keynote, referencing the learning trajectories work by Katie Rich, Carla Strickland, T. Andrew Binkowski, Cheryl Moran, and Diana Franklin (see this blog post).

You’re not going to learn anything about #1 from my prototypes — you can’t write imprecise or incomplete code in these task-specific programming environments. You can learn about #2 — different sets of transformation can produce the same outcomes. You definitely learn about #3 — programs are made by assembling instructions from a (very) limited set. If I were to go on and look at the Rich et al. debugging learning trajectories (see paper here), there’s a lot of that in my prototypes, e.g., “Outcome can be used to decide whether or not there are errors.”

So here’s the big research question: Could students learn something about the nature of programming and programs from using task-specific programming? I predict yes. Will it be transferable? To text or blocks language? Maybe…

Here’s the bigger research question that these prototypes have me thinking about. For the moment, imagine that we had tools like these which could be used reasonably in less than five minutes of tool-specific learning, and could be dropped into classes as part of a one hour activity. Imagine we could have one or two per class (e.g., algebra, geometry, trigonometry, biology, chemistry, and physics), throughout middle and high school. Now: Does it transfer? If you saw a dozen little languages before your first traditional, general-purpose programming language, would you have a deeper sense of what programs did (e.g., would you know that there is no Pea-esque “super-bug” homunculus)? Would you have a new sense for what the activity of programming is about, including debugging?

I don’t know, but I think it’s worth exploring task-specific programming more to see if it works.

Request to the reader: I plan to continue working on precalculus task-specific programming (as well as in social studies).  If you know a precalculus teacher or mathematics education researcher who would be interested in collaborating with me (e.g., to be a design informant, to try out any of these tools, to collaborate on design or assessment or evaluation), please let me know. It’s been hard to find math ed people who are willing to work with me on something this weird. Thanks!

* In the South, if you hear “Bless your heart!” you should know that you’re likely being insulted.  It sort of means, “You are so incompetent that you’re pitiful.”  I’ve learned the equivalent from teachers now.  It’s “That would make a nice enhancement activity” or “We might use that after testing.”  In other words, “I’d never use this. It doesn’t solve any of my problems.”


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16 days ago
Pittsburgh, PA
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How World Language Teaching Has Evolved

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Listen to my interview with Rebecca Blouwolff (transcript):

Sponsored by Public Consulting Group and ViewSonic


“I took French for three years, but I can’t speak any French.” Some version of this is expressed by so many of us who took a language class in school. The lack of connection between school-based language classes and actually learning how to speak that language seems to be something we’ve just accepted.

This is probably due to the way languages have traditionally been taught: Lots of vocabulary and book work, verb conjugations, occasional bite-sized “culture” studies, and scripted dialogues that don’t give students much real-life practice using the language in real situations.

But if you stopped by a world language class today, you might be surprised to find that a lot of those traditional practices are disappearing: Textbooks are being replaced with more authentic resources, culture is integrated in a more organic way across all activities, and there’s a much bigger emphasis on helping kids learn to actually communicate in the whole language, rather than just master parts of it. 

I first became aware of these shifts when I met Rebecca Blouwolff, a French teacher in Boston who interviewed me for the We Teach Languages podcast this past spring. Getting to know Rebecca, I could see how excited she was about some of the changes she’d made to her practice in recent years, and she mentioned how different things were getting across the board in the world language teaching community.

Rebecca Blouwolff

So naturally I wanted to know more. In our podcast interview, which you can listen to above, Rebecca shares six of the most significant changes she has made to the way she teaches her own French class, changes that reflect a growing trend among world language teachers across the board.

If you want a more comprehensive look at all the shifts in world language instruction, two documents from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) will help to flesh out the thinking behind the changes:

  • The Six Core Practices for language learning recommended by the ACTFL
  • A Skills Map for world language learning produced by the ACTFL in collaboration with the Partnership for 21st Century Skills

Six Shifts in World Language Teaching

1. Students learn to USE the language instead of learning ABOUT the language

It used to be that world language teachers could opt to use English for most of their instructional communication and only use the new language for structured lessons or activities. Although there have always been language teachers who insisted on speaking as much of the new language as possible, many other teachers tended to isolate the new language to structured lessons without really requiring students to use the language to communicate throughout a class period.

But now all world language teachers are encouraged to use the new language much more: The ACTFL recommends that teachers and students use the new language for 90 percent of class time. The rationale is that regular use of the language will result in greater fluency and proficiency in day-to-day communication.

“No one is signing up for my class because they’ve always dreamt of learning the subjunctive, right?” Blouwolff says. “I think everyone who takes a language class wants to talk to people in the language, but we had not been delivering on that promise in previous generations.”

This doesn’t mean the teacher simply barrels ahead with the new language in a way that students have no chance of understanding.

“It can’t just be that I get up there and yap on in French and maybe the kids are listening and maybe they’re not,” Blouwolff explains. “It has to be what we call comprehensible input. I’m providing meaningful messages in a way that they can digest them, and I am designing lessons so that I’m getting tons of feedback on which parts they’re able to process and understand. I’m scaffolding for them so that from the very first days, they know enough French to be able to respond to me either nonverbally or with very, very simple words.”

2. Communicative activities are given priority

Whereas the speaking that happened in language classes of the past was often highly structured, focusing mainly on getting the correct answer to a set of exercises, more emphasis is now being given to activities that require students to actively communicate with each other.

This shift begins with the way the teacher interacts with students.

“So often as teachers,” Blouwolff says, “our talk with students is evaluative in nature. Teacher asks a question, student gives an answer, and then the teacher says something like, Good job, yes!

To create a language speaking community, she says, “we really need to quell the desire to give that evaluative answer and try to be more interactive, like, Oh really? Tell me more about that. You’re going to the movies this weekend? Are you going to go to this movie theater? This shows that we’re curious about what our students have to say, so we’re encouraging them to keep talking in the language.”

Along the same lines, discussion activities are also changing to require more active, relevant communication between students.

For example, instead of having students talk about what they did over the weekend, Blouwolff might say, “Talk to your partner about their weekend until you found two things that you both did and two things that were different. And then I might say, having done that, decide who had the more physically active weekend.” In this way, students are not just listing activities for an exercise; they’re having a conversation about something that might be more inherently interesting to them.

3. Grammar is taught in the context of other meaningful activities

“In the past,” Blouwolff says, “I think we had this idea that we had to give students all the rules before they were allowed to create with language at all. So don’t even think about the past tense until you know all six forms this way and that way.”

Now with the larger emphasis on functional communication, “We’re really backing up and saying, what do we need students to be able to do? In order to do that specific task, what grammar would they need? What language would they need?”

So rather than teaching grammar in isolation, with students completing dozens of conjugations, concepts are taught in small chunks as needed to meet a particular communication goal.

“When we present those chunks as vocabulary and not as tricky grammar,” Blouwolff says, “the kids are able to use it right away. Even my first-year French students can say, ‘I went,’ and if I give them that, they can tell me all the places they went over the weekend. But if you were to look at a traditional textbook, absolutely no way would students be allowed to form a past tense irregular verb in the first year. That’s just not going to happen.”

“I think the fact that we don’t tell them it’s tricky grammar makes it go down a lot easier. The focus now is really on, do you know enough so that you can convey a message, and who would understand your message? Depending on how accurate you are, maybe only another world language teacher can understand your French right now. Maybe next year you’ll be able to be understood by a patient native speaker who’s accustomed to non-natives. And then the goal would be someday you could stop a busy person on the streets of Paris, and they would listen to you. 

“But we’re not aiming there right away. If we insist on perfection from the get-go, most people just drop out, because that’s not how we’re built to communicate.”

Source: ACTFL

4. Students examine authentic cultural resources

“For far too long,” Blouwolff says, “culture was relegated to these little blurbs in the textbook chapters, and if you had extra time you would read them and sometimes they were really awful. Or maybe some teachers were doing a thing like culture Fridays.”

In place of these activities, she says, “We’re using audio and text that were created by and for native speakers. So these are not materials for language learners: things like children’s books, YouTube videos, finger plays, pop songs, advertisements, tweets. The textbook really is not the curriculum anymore, and when we take these authentic resources and start using them at the center of our courses, then culture becomes the curriculum. But it just happens to be taught, for example, in French.”

For this approach to work, teachers need to select these materials with care. “We do have to be very intentional about the texts we choose, making sure that they’re appropriate for the level of our learners, that there’s tons of visual support, that the way they’re laid out really makes it clear what’s going on. And then we can create tasks that are appropriate.”

One activity Blouwolff did with her students was watching real estate videos in French. While watching, students are likely to notice some cultural differences, like the fact that homes in France keep the toilet in a separate room from the rest of the bathroom.

“They will initially often have a yuck factor,” she says, “like That’s so gross. How can the sink not be with the toilet? So we can try to take some of that judgment off of it by looking at it as a cultural product and then thinking about, okay, what’s the practice? What is the thing going on in this culture that makes this practice make sense? And it’s just a different way of looking at it.”

5. Instruction is planned using backward design

Just as in so many other subject areas, language teachers have traditionally followed the lead of their textbooks to plan instruction: They follow the book’s path through a series of exercises, then create and deliver some sort of assessment (or use one provided by the textbook company) when the exercises are done.

Although this approach allows teachers to cover a lot of content, the priority is exactly that: coverage, rather than real transfer of knowledge. This is another likely explanation for why so many students leave language classes without knowing how to speak the language.

“For so many years I felt that I was a necessary prisoner of my textbook, and that was my curriculum. The textbooks I have seen for world language cover a ridiculous amount of vocabulary and grammar, and maybe that sells more books because you get so much for your buck, but it’s totally unrealistic in terms of what kids are going to retain.”

When language teachers shift to planning with backward design—where they start by developing an assessment for a clear, measurable outcome, then plan lessons to enable students to succeed on that assessment—they keep the focus on goals for real communication.

“It’s so important that we start with the end in mind,” Blouwolff says. “What do we want our students to be able to do at the end of a unit? What do we hope our students will be able to write at the end of this unit? What do we hope they will be able to talk about? What would that sound like with their language level?”

Blouwolff heightens the impact of this kind of planning by sharing these goals with students at the beginning of each unit. For example, “At the end of this unit,” she’ll tell them, “I’m going to ask you, tell me about your town and then compare it to Quebec City. So there’s no stress at the end. Everyone knows. But there’s also some motivation. Like, how close am I getting to be able to do that? Why is she talking about this? Oh right, because at the end of the unit, we have to be able to XYZ.”

Keeping the end goal transparent not only boosts motivation for students. “It’s super exciting for the teachers,” Blouwolff says, “because they’re like, OK, let’s see how we can get there, what’s going to happen, you know? There is that discovery moment at the end that’s very different than correcting your publisher written unit exam.”

6. Teachers regularly provide appropriate feedback

In the past, assessment meant measuring what students can’t do. Now language teachers are trying to put more focus on the progress students are making.

“We’re absolutely not marking every error and all the more so when they’re speaking; we’re not going to interrupt students speaking to let them know that they said this or that wrong,” Blouwolff explains. “Number one, it’ll just shut them down. Number two, they’re never going to remember the correction and reuse it in all likelihood. They’re too busy thinking of what they’re going to try to say.

“So I think what teachers can do is look for patterns of error and think about giving maybe one or two pieces of feedback to students on their work. I really like that model of glow and grow: Here’s something that you did really well, here’s an area where you could improve.”

To help teachers get a sense for what students should be capable of at each stage of language learning, ACTFL has defined proficiency levels students go through as they progress in their language development. Blouwolff appreciates having these targets on hand. “I know, for example, in French 7, I need to get my kids to what we call a Novice High. And that level has very particular characteristics that I want my students to know and understand in a really deep way, so that they know what they need to do to reach that level and then even to surpass it.”

Other frameworks like Shrum and Glisan’s T.A.L.K. rubric measure qualities beyond language proficiency, like whether students are cooperative with other group members in a discussion. Including factors like these in assessment and feedback furthers the big-picture emphasis on quality communication.

“Years ago,” Blouwolff says, “I was having kids recite skits where it literally did not matter what the other person said, because you’d memorized your half, and you were reciting that no matter what happened. This is much more like what they’re working towards: talking to people in another language.”

You can find Rebecca Blouwolff on Twitter at @MmeBlouwolff or on her blog at

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16 days ago
Pittsburgh, PA
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