Practice and Provenance

By: Steve Peha

The Common Core, the Flipped Classroom, and new technology that makes creating and distributing teaching materials easier than ever has given us a true cornucopia of free educational resources via the Open Educational Resources movement. Educational publishers, too, are producing more resources than ever.

But no matter how much teaching material we have at our disposal, individual teachers will always have the same question: “How do I know that a particular practice, lesson, or unit will work for me? In fact, the more resources we have, the harder this question becomes to answer.

There are many organizations working on solutions for this. Most of these solutions involve aggregating huge numbers of resources and determining quality by user rating and review systems and by usage statistics. Higher ratings, favorable reviews, and better stats are certainly indicators of popularity, and they might even be indicators of quality, but even if they are,  I’m not sure they’re enough.

The Proof is in the Provenance

To validate the best practices, I think we need provenance. Provenance refers to the origin of something and everything that has happened to it from its creation to the present day. Provenance is vital in the art world where people paying millions of dollars for paintings need to have proof that they aren’t forgeries.

While the stakes aren’t nearly as high with practices in the classroom, the same question exists: How do I know that the practices I’m using are “the real thing”. That is, the thing that does for me what it claims to do for others.

The provenance of an educational practice wouldn’t be the same as a the provenance of a painting because we’d want to know other things about it than those that simply verified its authenticity; we also need to verify, as best we can, its effectiveness. Aggregating the information necessary might take work, but it wouldn’t be impossible.

Where We Are in the Present: Search and Research

Let’s say a middle school teacher is looking for something to teach expository essay writing. Searching Google for “expository essay writing middle school” just returned “about 116,000 results” for me. At Curriki, the same search just returned 14,673 results.

Even if we get the number of resources below a hundred, teachers don’t have the time or luxury of reviewing and then trying out even a smaller number of those in order to find what works best. That’s why an educational practice provenance system might be valuable.

Where We’d Like to Be in the Future: A Path to Provenance

To help that middle school teacher find a great way to teach expository essay writing, I think we’d need something like the following:

  • A highly focused resource that directly addresses specific teacher needs. Here’s an example, with step-by-step instructions, of how teachers can use something I call the What-Why-How strategy to help kids craft successful expository essays. There’s not much content here—a whopping seven pages—but that’s the point. We should begin with only what is absolutely necessary so evaluating it can happen as efficiently as possible.

  • A small amount of directly related supplementary resources. A small set of directly related supplementary materials is often helpful and sometimes even necessary. Here’s a possible example. But again, the amount of material is very small—just four pages.

  • Scientific research that supports the resources. Even in our current age of the imperative of research-based practice, we don’t know whether many of the practices we use are supported by research. But I can show that the What-Why-How strategy is an implementation of two research-proven learning techniques: “elaborative interrogation” and “self-explanation”. Those techniques, and an overview of the study that describes them, can be found here.

  • Reasonable information about the usage and success of the resources. I have download statistics and many anecdotal accounts of how this strategy has helped kids score well on tests that required expository essay writing. I also have a brief informal case study about general writing success across the curriculum at one school where the strategy was heavily used. But this is not specific enough, so this is a breakdown of provenance.

  • The story of how the resources were created. I created this resource by first teaching it in a variety of forms at many grade levels and in many subject areas. After tuning it up and putting it into its optimized final form over a two-year period, I trained other teachers to use it and followed their progress. This is the kind provenance we want for the creation of a new practice. And while I can recreate it, I didn’t create it at the time, so this too is at least a partial breakdown in provenance.

But imagine what it would be like if, in addition to the usage and review information we can get now, we had this kind of provenance information for educational practices. In addition to all the other information that could be evaluated, the provenance of a practice could be evaluated as well.

An Idealistic (But Hopeful) Future?

Ideally, these resources wouldn’t exist as as they do in my examples as a disparate set of PDF documents. Everything should be bundled together in an accessible format users can review as efficiently as possible.

The resources could be delivered in a standardized fashion like the experience of downloading an application from an app store. With user accounts, update notices could be sent to users when a particular resource was improved. Teachers would have cloud storage where they could always review the links to their most valued resources.

The Human Element

To create educational practice provenance systems, we need two things: human curation and deep practice in the field. The majority of the resources teachers have access to today—both teaching materials and technology products—have no basis in science, no proven record of use, and no provenance educators can rely on as they set about the challenging and often time-consuming work of finding what they need and implementing it successfully.

Education resources are still, for the most part, human-created. But that’s a long way from human curated. Curation is vital because it adds tremendous value by turning things that might be useful into things that are definitely useful.

Finding high-quality teaching resources shouldn’t be like finding a needle in a haystack; it shouldn’t be like separating wheat from chaff or discerning signal from noise. Teachers should only find needles, they should only get wheat, and they should always hear the signal loud and clear. Anything less is a waste of valuable time. And time is the most precious resource of all in education.


Steve Peha is a learning strategist and education technologist with more than 25 years of experience. He is the founder of Teaching That Makes Sense, an education consultancy focused on literacy, leadership, and school-wide change. He has written extensively about teaching, technology, and education policy for sites like The Washington PostThe National JournalEdutopia, and others. He is also the originator of The Agile Schools Project, which he started three years ago with an article that outlined how the popular Agile software methodology could be translated to education.He speaks regularly about this at venues such as Google and Yahoo, and at Agile conferences throughout the US.

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