Over the past year or so I've been increasingly asked to speak with groups of educational leaders, community groups and parents about the need to reconceptualise our education system, and to explain the rationale for this change. Much of this has been driven out of contexts where new schools are being built or planned, and the focus is shifting to notions of a 'modern learning environment', often superficially conceived of as simply schools with open spaces instead of the traditional 'egg-create' classrooms.
My conviction is that the rationale for change goes much deeper than simply replacing one form of architecture with another – or simply thinking about the architecture at all for that matter! What happens in our classrooms and schools, in the form of the learning activity that goes on each day, is more significantly important – the architecture should reflect this, rather than dictate it (remember the number one rule of design, 'form follows function'!).
In my speaking with groups I am constantly confronted by individuals who question the need for change at all, and in almost all cases, the potential benefits or otherwise are weighed against what we are doing currently, as if that's a valid benchmark for what's working successfully. This sort of thinking has led in the past to the efforts in the 'schooling improvement' movement, with its emphasis on taking the existing system and finding ways of improving it, of making it more efficient and realising improved outcomes and learner successes. While the concept of continuous improvement is laudable in any system or organisation, there's a limit to the extent to which you can improve something without questioning the very basis upon which it is founded, and whether there may simply be a different way of doing things. I've written elsewhere on this, arguing that we ought to be pursuing a transformation agenda, finding a solution for schools and schooling that is more relevant, current and fit for purpose in the 21st century.
So it was of interest this weekend to discover this book titled "Battling for the Soul of Education" (free PDF download) published by the 21st Century Learning Initiative, in conjunction with Education 2000 and Born to Learn. The book's subtitle is "Moving beyond school reform to educational transformation ~ The findings and recommendations of 3 decades of synthesis" . It's not often you get a free PDF download to enjoy of a book like this, but it's obvious from the format that the aim is to get as many people reading it and contributing to the direction it advocates as possible.
The author of a significant section of the book is John Abbott (author of Over Schooled and Under Educated) who is director of the 21st Century Learning Initiative. As Abbott sees it, the need for reflection has never been greater. Spurred by technological advances, he says:
Civilization is on the cusp of a metamorphosis, that will lead either to societal collapse and chaos, or to a resurgence of liberty, community, and ethics. Either way, schools are stuck in the past: The emphasis has been on feeding children static information and rewarding them for doing only what they’re told, instead of helping them develop the transferable, higher-order skills they need to become life-long learners and thrive in an uncertain future.
In the section on constructing an alternative vision, John Abbot writes about adopting a cognitive apprenticeship model, where both the task, and the process ofachieving it, are made highly visible from the beginning. The student understands where they are going and why. Learners have access to expertise in action. They watch each other, get to understand the incremental stages and establish benchmarks against which to measure their progress.
The book explores the socio-cultural changes that are occurring in our modern world, and argues for developing 'citizens of the world' as a key focus of the transformed system. There are also some wise words about the use (and mis-use) of technology;
Technology badly used can push children so fast there is no space for the spontaneous to happen. But just as a teacher who holds too slavishly to their lesson plans misses a precious opportunity, so too do those children who follow the pre-designed paths the technology sets out.
I found the appendices very informative (particularly A and B) in providing an overview of how the education system (based on what's occurred in England) has evolved and developed over time, and the impact of various philosophies and political idealisms along the way.
All in all, the volume re-affirmed my personal conviction that we need to see transformation of our education system, of our schools and what occurs within them. I understand and appreciate that this sort of disruptive thinking isn't popular with most, and is interpreted by many colleagues in the profession as being a threat to their current status and ways of working. However, I don't believe we can afford to simply keep tinkering at the edges, trying to improves somethng that is fundamentally requiring change. For the sake of our kids and grandkids we need to engage in the sort of dialogue that this book aims to inspire and work (quickly) to find the models and approaches that will truly meet the needs of todays learners in preparing them for their future.
It's official… excellent teachers, supported by gifted and visionary school leaders, keep students engaged in the learning process and hopeful about their future. These are two of the crucial outcomes the recent Gallup Student Poll measures.
I was speaking with a school principal yesterday who is working to develop his school's strategic focus for next year. Placing student achievement as the overarching priority for the school, his focus moved to student engagement as the critical success factor for the cohort in his school.
Our discussion then moved to what the indicators of engagement might be that he and his staff could agree should be the focus of their efforts in 2015. The criteria used in the development of this Gallup Poll could be a useful starting point – they ask students, teachers, principals, and other professionals about their levels of hope, emotional engagement, and well-being at work or school.
In the New Zealand context engagement is described in a variety of ways – in their Handbook of Research on Student Engagement, Christensen, Rechly and Wylie point to the following:
- Behavioural engagment – referring to student's actual participation at school and in learning
- Emotional engagement – referring to a student's emotional response to teachers, peers, learning and school
- Cognitive engagement – referring to investment in learning, seeking challenge and going beyond what is required
Using these criteria as a guide provides a useful framework for developing a shared understanding of engagement and what it looks like in the classroom. Unfortunately, our system tends to stress the indicators of 'dis-engagement', drawn primarily from the Behavioural Engagement category – including stand-downs, suspensions and exclusions. And so the focus on engagement becomes more a case of "how can we mitigate these things occurring?" instead of "how can we increase the extent of engagement, behaviourally, emotionally and cognitively?"
According to the Gallup survey, and using their wide range of measures, 55% of American students scored high on engagement. That's a pretty disappointing score in anyone's book I feel. I wonder what the equivalent might be in NZ schools? Across the board? And in specific schools? I imagine we'd find a wide range of results – but the fact would remain that every child represented in the percentage of un-engaged, or dis-engaged is a child unlikely to achieve in his or her academic studies either.
One of the key findings from the Gallup survey is that students who strongly agree that their school is committed to building students’ strengths and that they have a teacher who makes them excited about the future are more engaged than their peers who strongly disagreed with both statements. Again, no surprises, with clear messages there about taking a learner-centred approach, and promoting student agency – and for teachers, that their relationships with the learners, and their interest in and passion for what they are teaching is 'infectious'!
The contentious aspect of this logic is another finding in the Gallup research, which reveals that, unfortunately, most teachers are not in a position to share excitement with students. About 70% are classified as disengaged, which, according to the report, puts them on par with the workforce as a whole.
Now that's what's got me thinking about engagement…
It had to happen… after decades of pursuing 'modern learning practices' in developed nations, the pendulum appears to be swinging (in the UK at least) back to adopting the age-old approach of 'chalk and talk' as the pedagogical approach of choice. And the reason – that this is the approach found in China where the students are achieving on average at a higher rate than their western counterparts.
It all seems a quite straight forward argument really – particularly when eminent educational researchers are quoted thus..,
Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said: "English education was overtaken with progressive ideas in recent decades, which held it was better for children to learn by themselves and at their own pace. This was clearly madness, and it has taken 40 years to realise this."
So that's it then – let's sit back and watch the pendulum swing. With politicians and university professors professing it to be so it must be correct – right?
Wrong. Let's put a bit of perspective on things shall we.
Fact – many schools in the UK (and NZ?) have struggled to fully realise the promise of the 'personalised' approaches to education that have been promoted in recent decades, due to a combination of factors including parental expectations, lack of professional development and the impact of standards-based assessment regimes.
Fact – the Chinese (Shanghai and Beijing that is) have outscored pretty much everyone in the recent PISA results.
Fact – a predominantly 'chalk and talk' pedagogy is only a part of the picture in terms of what contributes to the education of their young as highlighted in this article from the Brookings Institute…
Shanghai parents will annually spend on average of 6,000 yuan on English and math tutors and 9,600 yuan on weekend activities, such as tennis and piano. During the high school years, annual tutoring costs shoot up to 30,000 yuan and the cost of activities doubles to 19,200 yuan.
Before we get too carried away with simplistic 'cause-effect' arguments about what makes for an effective education system, we need to wrestle more profoundly with some of the deeper and more fundamental aspects of our education system – which, as it happens, have been the focus of some of my recent blog posts.
Consider the question "What is the purpose of education" an the opposing philosophies that I outlined in that post. Could not the move to enforce a 'chalk and talk' model of education reflect much of what is suggested in philosophy A, where the system is perceived as broken, but can be fixed fast – and teachers also!
Or consider the question of "What defines success?" in our system – is it purely examination results (based largely on the regurgitation of memorised, transitted knowledge)? The PISA results provide some useful international comparisons of achievement that is measured using a particular metric – but should our overall assessment of a country's success be attributed to that?
And what about the idea that individualised programmes are a fad of just the last couple of decades? I'm sure the significant educational theories who've influenced our thinking and system design with constructivist and social constructivist theories would have something to say here. Key theorists who started this thinking (Dewey and Vygotsky) were actively researching and presenting the case for more participatory, authentic and personalised approaches to learning a century ago.
At the end of the day decisions such as the announcement yesterday from the UK will be driven not by the theorists or educational philosophers – or even teachers and principals in schools, but by politicians and bureacrats, looking for the 'quick fix' solutions. As a profession we need to be ready with a response that is formed out of our professional discourse, backed up with evidence from our practice. In the absence of those things, we're destined to being subject to the whims of whatever the next 'big idea' is that happens to emerge.
I was working with the staff of a local secondary school yesterday, and in the context of our discussion we shared our thinking around the question of 'what is success?' in relation to the purpose of school and schooling, and the focus on assessment that currently dominates much of the thinking in our school system and drives most of our curriculum design and delivery.
We were specifically thinking about the issues raised in the NZCER publication, "Swimming out of our depth" where the authors suggest…
"We need to think differently about what schools are for, about what students should learn in them and about how we should measure the “success” of all this. (p.4)"
The definitions of 'success' and 'being successful' lie at the heart of the design of our schooling system, and drive the activity of everyone in it – from the policy makers through to the students in classrooms. From a current analysis of what we see happening in the NZ school system it wouldn't be difficult to conclude that what we regard as success is intimately tied to academic achievement, and the relentless pursuit of excellence and results measured in terms of standards at a national level and our comparative rankings at an international level.
Now as an educator I'm not going to argue that academic achievement shouldn't be a key focus for schools – but we do need to consider whether there's more to it than simply that? If we aspire to engage with and grow young people and see them develop as citizens into the future, ought we not be thinking about more than simply academic success as measured by (in the most part) summative examination scores?
While many may argue that the curriculum and educational discourse here in NZ has moved past this narrow thinking of success, the evidence I see when visiting schools and talking with students (particularly at this time of year when exams are the focus) would suggest that academic success is definitely the high priority for most.
One of the consequences of this for our learners is the stress it creates – particularly at exam time – but also through the year when the relentless pressure (external and internal) to achieve consumes so many – spurring them to pursue goals beyond what is reasonable or expected in many cases (consider the students who asprite to achieving excellence in 120 credits!)
An article in yesterday's Toronto Star highlights how this should be a concern for all educators – from policy makers to teachers, and parents as well. Titled "Student Stress Must Be Addressed" it begins..
“Schools are first and foremost social-emotional institutions,” says York University professor Stuart Shanker, adding that failure to address issues leads to “early dropouts and lots of disorder.”
Professor Shankar's research is part of a broader move, launched by People for Education, to have schools actually measure how well they foster social-emotional skills, citizenship, physical health, creativity and a positive school climate overall — beyond the 3 Rs.
Such concerns would resonnate with the group I worked with yesterday, where student welfare ranked towards the top of every group's list when we were considering the priorities for the design of new approaches to learning in the school.
Perhaps we need to reflect more seriously on the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson and consider how, in the frentic busy-ness of our lives in and out of school, we make time to embrace the significance of these measures of success for ourselves and our learners.
Here are the slides from my presentation at the CORE Education breakfast session in Auckland this morning. Key questions I addressed were:
- How can schooling change to meet meet the opportunities and challenges of the 21st century?
- How can we prepare students to address "future-focused" issues such as sustainability, globalisation, citizenship, and enterprise?
- How can education prepare students for living in the 21st century?
We've seen a significant uptake of digital learning in all forms and guises in schools over the past few years, driven by a number of things, including the desire to 'keep up' with what other schools, a sense that this is important for our young people and their digital future, or to replace traditional approaches of using text books with something more relevant and engaging.
But how do we know our use of digital technologies is actually contributing to powerful learning? The Evergreen Group have recenty published their annual review of policy and practice titled "Keepng pace with K12 digital learning" in which they present the findings of their research into what is happening with digital learning across schools in the US.
The report authors found that, overall, more students than ever before have access to digital learning opportunities (no surprises there), including online and blended learning, but indentified that state policies and other factors often limit digital learning’s availability. Most school districts in the US use digital learning tools and resources, but the extent, type, and goal of that use vary widely. Different grades use digital content and tools differently, too, according to the report:
The report identifies four reasons schools are increasingly incorporating digital learning opportunities into teaching and learning:
- Improving student access to a variety of schooling options
- Ensuring that students reach their maximum achievement levels
- Increasing technology skills, which parents, teachers, and stakeholders believe to be essential for college- and career-ready students
- Reducing costs
The report also identifies varying patterns of use between school types:
- High schools tend to offer fully online courses and many forms of digital content.
- Elementary schools tend to offer self-paced interactive activities that are topic-focused and collaborative
- Middle schools are a hybrid of high schools and elementary schools, in which younger middle school students are more likely to use interactive and skill-based lessons
- Older middle school students use other forms of digital content and begin venturing into online learning opportunities
Some ineresting reading here for those interested in trends and patterns of use re digital learning.
Like many other countries, New Zealand put all of its eggs into the 'ICT and digital literacy for all" basket from 1990, when the first MoE-funded professional devleopment programmes began. That philosophy has underpinned all of the ICT-PD strategies and spending to the current day – the argument being that ICTs (or digital technologies as they're now being referred to) are a part of everyone's experience, not simply those who are programmers.
This strategy has been reasonably successful in gaining a system-wide acceptance of ICTs within the educaiton sector (although I still come across teachers and schools who see ICTs as one of those 'optional' things for them to focus on!)
As we are now in the fourth decade of having computers in our schools, there's a growing awareness that, as the tide of digital literacy has risen, and we're seeing ICTs used routinely by students in schools across a wide range of contexts to support their learning, simply teaching learners to be users (or consumers) of the technology, without teaching them fundamental skils of creating or constructing with these tools is tantamount to teaching kids to read, but not to write, to listen but not to speak, or teaching them to appreciate art, but not to draw etc.
The simple truth is that while we all marvel at what these new tecnologies can do – someone has had to design, create, build, program and test them. So it makes sense that somewhere in our system we're creating opportunities for our young people to learn skills that are foundational to an ever growing need in our future workforce.
The UK Department of Education has been working on this for awhile, since deciding to scrap its traditional ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) curriculum almost two years ago. Earlier this year they announced the coding requirement for schools, and in September they introduced the new national curriculum for computing for all children from five upwards. This is being given a boost with a half million pound initiative known as the “Year of Code.”
Of course, skills for employment are only one part of the reason for introducing such an initiative. This recent report from European SchoolNet emphasises the wider significance of teaching coding and computer science within our curriculum. The report states..
Coding is becoming increasingly a key competence which will have to be acquired by all young students and increasingly by workers in a wide range of industries and professions. Coding is part of logical reasoning and represents one of the key skills which are part of what is now called "21st Century Skills".
The report outlines responses from 20 countries to a survey where their Ministries of Education gave an overview of their current initiatives and plans. Across this sample of countries it is evident that they see a wider range of benefits accruing from including coding and computer science programmes in schools, including fostering logical thinking skills, coding and programing skills, problem-solving skills, skills for employment, as well as fostering other key competencies.
I was a part of the generation who grew up introducing computers into my classroom under the influence of Seymour Papert, being fascinated with what could be achieved using Logo, and later with Scratch, as well as learning the fundamentals of Basic and later HTML. Finding out what made the computer work the way it did intrigued me, and so discovering that I could create instructions that would get the response I desired seemed a natural thing to do.
Of course, that's fine for someone like me who has a natural interest in such things. But introducing a curriculum requirement for all schools to include coding in their curriculum begs a simple question, "who will teach it?". In an already crowded curriculum, and with change being naturally resisted by many, this is an extraordinarily big challenge. I noted with interest that even England's 'year of code' initiative has attracted cynical responses when the director of the programme herself revealed that she doesn't know how to code.
I see these issues becoming a big challenge for New Zealand into the future. We are a small country, 10,000 km from our markets, with an economy reliant on the export of primary produce products. Into the future we'll need to put more emphasis on the development of knowledge economy skills, because (a) of the impact of much of our primary produce production on our local environment, and (b) the fact that our traditional export markets are now establishing their own means of supply negating the expense of long distance exports. If we're to heed the challenges of the late Sir Paul Callaghan and others, we need to find ways of appropriately incorporating more coding opportunities within our school curriculum across all age groups.
As a parent and as a grandparent, I am increasingly concerned that we act now to ensure my kids and grandkids are equipped with the skills, competencies and dispositions they will require to enable them to function effectively in an increasingly digital world – and exposure to the delights of coding and computer science must certainly be considered here.
I presented a talk on leading change in a networked world to the School Leaders Network in Christchurch yesterday afternoon, focusing on the importance of understanding the emerging paradigm of the networked world and the implications for schools and school leaders.
As a timely introduction to my talk I referred to an article in the latest copy of the NZEI magazine, Educaiton Aotearoa, written by Professor Ivan Snook titled "The Purpose of Education" in which he compares two rival models of education and how these different ideologies shape our thinking and approach as educators. A key point he emphasises, around which his article is based can be summed up in one of his statements:
Education is not centrally about test scores but about preparation for life in its broadest sense.
Having recently been through an election here in New Zealand the presence of competing ideologies (or philosophies) of education became evident as different parties (and politicians) endeavoured to promote their education policies. I've often used the table below to illustrate how these different perspectives play out in our world…
As education leaders we need to…
- be aware of these competing philosophies and how they play out in the political directives we face, the expectations of parents, and the underpinning behaviours of teachers.
- understand that they are simply competing ideologies, and that we need to intentionally and intelligently reflect on our own ideas and understandings to identify our personal beliefs and where this positions us in the various continua.
- seek ways to lead those in our school communities to estbalish and articulate the shared beliefs that will underpin what we do.
- work with our teams to explicitly link our practices with these beliefs, to ensure our coherence between our espoused theory and our theory in practice.
My key message to the APs and DPs at the meeting was to ensure that their thinking and planning is anchored in a 'Future Focused' mindset – not simply replicating what we've done in the past. This is where the emphasis on considering education as a 'networked' endeavour comes into focus – challenging our existing assumptions about the stand-alone school, competitive mind-sets and 'patch protection' among other things.
There is a significant difference that emerges when we genuinely place the learner at the centre of our thinking – considering all of the factors that impact on their learning, including where they learning, what they learn, how they learn – and why they are learning. Much of our previous thinking about how we might reform/transform education has been structurally focused, i.e. the placement and construction of physical schools, the governance and management of the schools, class size and teacher workload etc. While these things are all important in the overall milieu, they don't define the purpose of educaiton – that is clearly around the learner, and equipping them as citizens of the future (or future workforce units, depending on your ideological position
Food for thought – lots to ponder here….
NZ teachers appear to have really gotten behind the first Connected Educator Month here! The info-graphic below illustrates how it is looking as we hit the half way mark for the month:
The numbers will all be larger as you read this – and the month’s events aren’t over yet!
Many of the children in the city today cannot remember a world before the earthquakes. The presenters in this TVNZ documentary ask how this has affected their wellbeing by visiting South New Brighton School in the heart of the most affected suburbs.
As someone who has visited this school, and knows the principal and some staff, I found this a very poignant and informing piece – so am sharing it here to inform and inspire others. It reveals..
- the resiliance of the young people – but also their fragility.
- the importance of schools as a focus of community, and a place where there needs to be opportunity to attend to the things that are important in the lives of the children and their families – in addition to the focus on learning.
- the enormous responsibility placed on the shoulders of school leaders to cope with all of this – on top of them having their own families, homes and personal health to consider.
- the restorative effect of a team of dedicated teachers committed to meeting the needs of learners – supported by other professionals with complementary skills.
It will be some years before the 'new' Christchurch is fully established, and in the meantime I pay full credit to the dozens of school leaders, staff and their communities who are working constructively and collaboratively to provide the sorts of support and opportunities portrayed in this clip.