Author Archives: Derek Wenmoth

Information Fluency

I've been reading a little lately about the notion of information fluency and digital literacy in relation to some work I've been doing, and came across this interesting infographic below from Denis O'Connor. It's an interactive infographic which allows you to click on a topic and you're taken to resources on the 21st Century Information Fluency website.

I like the way the five key questions in this diagram supports an agentic approach to thinking about information fluency, with the embedded links taking you off to more information to help resolve your personal response to these questions. Could be a useful poster in its existing form in a classroom too. 

Pocketlab

Pocketlab video

A colleague, Dr Paul Lowe, sent me a link this evening to this intriguing project called "Pocketlab"

Before he left NZ to take a job in Abu Dhabi, Paul was a leading science teacher here in NZ, and I remember well his experiments with using geo-location technology to monitor the downward movement of a parachutist, measring acceleration, velocity, and the size of the arcs through which the parachutist moved as he descended. All of this intrigued me – physics in the real world instead of the traditional trolley on rails in a lab – and measured through the imaginative use of computer-linked sensors etc. Paul was very imaginative in this way and through his work I came to appreciate the incredile potential of sensors in the real world to bring science alive. 

So it came as no surprise tonight to receive this link – with the promise of a very simple sensing device that can be used in conjunction with a mobile phone to carry out a range of scientific experiments "in the field". Here's how it's descibed on the website:

PocketLab is a wireless sensor for exploring the world and building science experiments. We built PocketLab for the curious explorers, educators, students, and makers to bring science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to life like never before. PocketLab connects with a single button to a smartphone or tablet and instantly streams measurement data that you can see and record. PocketLab measures acceleration, force, angular velocity, magnetic field, pressure, altitude, and temperature. Using our cloud software, you can easily analyze your data, create graphs, and integrate your data with other software. PocketLab has the same features as lab equipment that costs thousands of dollars but is low cost and intuitive to use.

 

Digital Makers

Nesta-digital makersThe idea of encouraging young people to become creators with technology rather than purely consumers has been present in education circles for some time – but in recent years the impetus to see more of this happening in schools has increased, particularly given the high demand for technology-realted skills, including coding, in the current and future workforce. 

Young Digital Makers is a report just out from Nesta in the UK that highlights the opportunities and identifies gaps and next steps for young people to create with technology across the UK.

The report explores the emerging field of digital making for young people in the UK. It charts the organisations providing opportunities for young people to make things with technology; looks at how these opportunities relate to what young people learn in school; and explores the attitudes of young people, parents and teachers towards digital making.

The rationale for the focus on digital makers is described in the report as..

For most young people digital technology is an everyday part of life. Many are avid consumers of digital media. However they often don’t understand how to manipulate the underlying technology, let alone how to create it for themselves.

As technology shapes our world, young people need to be able to shape it too. As skills and work become increasingly technologically mediated, the need for digital skills is paramount with some calculating a potential £2 billion loss to the UK economy from unfilled roles requiring such skills.

In New Zealand we have yet to see this emphasis emerge as a serious focus in our education system, yet the need is the same. We do have the emergence of the Maker Movement present in initiatives such as Maker Crate, Fab Lab and Mind Lab – and there is evidence of programmes developing in some schools, usually led by the enthusiasm of a particular teacher. We have yet, however to design and implement a national level initiative that  makes this sort of experience a part of what every student has while at school. 

Coding is a key part of this thinking, and in the UK this also is receiving large scale government and business support. There, Samsung, Microsoft, ARM and the people behind Raspberry Pi are collaborating with publicly funded UK broadcaster the BBC on the Micro Dot device in an effort to provide 1 million UK children a free computer for coding.

Such initiatives prompt me to consider how seriously we are thinking about the future of our young learners in NZ schools, and how well we are preparing them with skills, competencies and knowledge required to participate effectively in the knowledge age. We are a small, island nation of just 4.5 million people, over 10,000km from our key markets, contributing globally in a world that is increasingly digital and where the traditional approach to exchanging goods and services will be challenged considerably in the lifetime of the current generation of school students. With or without any form of national initiative, schools need to be promoting maker opportunities for their students, combining with local businesses and the community to ensure they can provide authentic, rich experiences that develop the foundational knowledge and skills required. 

Robots as teachers?

Robot teacher

Robots are becoming increasingly used to replace human activity in many areas of modern society. They've  been used for decades in various forms of manufacturing such as car assembly, in medicine and and are even used now in the dairy industry in New Zealand and other parts of the world. Tasks that were once considered too sophisticated and something that humans only could do are now being taken up by the use of robots

Education has long been considered sacred in this regard, with the catch cry "robots will never replace teachers" oft repeated. But consider how the repetitive and routine aspects of a teacher's job are already being replicated in the online world with software that provides adaptive learning experiences for learners, with increasing use of artificial intelligence behind it. In recent years, robots have crept onto the education scene, popping up in American classrooms as toy-like teaching assistants and in Japan as remote-controlled novelties.

And now a school in Columbus Ohio has introduced a new robo-teacher into its classrooms to allow staff in other parts of the country to teach their pupils. The 1.2 metre tall robot features a screen that broadcasts a video of the teacher's face and a camera allows the teacher to see what is going on in the classroom. In some ways this is not robots replacing teachers in the conventional sense, rather, robots enhancing the teacher presence by allowing a teacher in one location to be present with learners in another.

The headline in The Mail Online article reads "Is This the Future of School?" and goes on to describe how ROBOT lets teachers take lessons, check work and talk to students from thousands of miles away. The article lists the following features of the robot teacher:

  • A screen displays a video of their face while a camera allows them to see
  • Pupils say the robot felt weird at first but it made lessons more personal
  • The teacher can see the class and their work using the robot's camera

While the idea if a 'robot teacher' in a classroom conjures up images from sci-fi novels, the concept here is really only a step further from the traditional video conferencing approaches that have been used in education for more than a decade. Rather than crowding into a space to interact with the remote teacher on a screen, the remote teacher can now have a 'presence' in the physical classroom, with tools that allow her or him to act more like the traditional teacher might in the physical space. 

Of course, this is where the intrique reduces for me – as the fundamental premise of the robot as presented in this scenario is simply about replacing the physical teacher – not about changing or adpating the pedagogy in any way. So the robot takes on the role of the traditional instructor, with the one to many pedagogy of the traditional classroom – rather like the images from the jetsons some decades ago! while I can see some potential for this sort of thinking in cases where the persistent presence of a teacher may be required, say with learners with special needs, the concept of am instructionally oriented teacher being replaced by a robot like this doesn't exactly excite me – it's rather like replacing the traditional paper based exam with an online equivalent and calling it an advance in assessment. The arguments for and against the use of technology like this in education has long provoked reaction from a wide range of perspectives, as a recent article by Stephen Heppell in the Sydney Morning Herald illustrates (read in particular the responses at the bottom). We need to beware of the seduction of technology, yet critically aware of the ways in which it is incrementally permeating our lives, creating new opportunities, and new challenges. Education won't be immune. 

Jetsons robot teacher

New Pedagogies for Deep Learning

(Wait for a few seconds for the new article to begin once you've pressed play)

For those who may have noticed, I've taken a break from my regular blogging for the past couple of months as the new year has proved to be particularly demanding on my time and energies. I'm prompted to start again now having spent time this week with Michael Fullan at a number of events, in particular, the launch of an exciting project involving a cluster of seven schools in Christchurch as part of an international collaboration under the banner of New Pedagogies for Deep Learning

New Pedagogies for Deep Learning is an international innovation partnership involving students, teachers, school leaders, families and education communities working together to address a key education challenge: how to design teaching and learning that leads to more successful lives for all students. The project is based on the work of Michael Fullan's paper A Rich Seam: How New Pedagogies find Deep Learning (PDF download). The Christchurch cluster will be working in close collaboration with around 80 schools in Victoria and another 20 in Tasmania, Australia, which in turn are a part of a larger group involving over 300 schools in nine countries so far.

The following quote from the New Pedagogies website sums up why this project has been established:

There is a growing sense among education leaders, educators, students and parents that traditional approaches are not delivering the necessary outcomes for all students to flourish in the increasingly complex world in which they live. Education is at a major turning point with a powerful push-pull dynamic at play. Push being that traditional school is too often boring leaving students disengaged and pull that the digital world is exciting and ubiquitous. All students need to be able to flourish and positively solve life challenges and problems important to them. Equipped with new pedagogical models, a growing digital ubiquity and new learning partnerships, students will shift from learning about life to learning being living.

All students need to be able to flourish and positively solve life challenges and problems important to them. Equipped with new pedagogical models, a growing digital ubiquity and new learning partnerships, students will shift from learning about life to learning being living.

Over the next 2-3 years the Christchurch schools are going to be exploring together how they can create far richer, relevant and engaging programmes of learning for their students, involving new approaches to using technology to support learning, new approaches to planning, learning and assessment, and now approaches to leadership across the cluster at all levels to support what is happening. I'm looking forward to an exciting time working with them. 

A renaissance in assessment?

The end of year is a time where the focus of most teachers and students is on the summative assessments we incude in our education process. These forms of assessment have been with us for decades, and changed little despite significant change being experienced in other areas of our system, including pedagogy, technology etc. The video above is one of this year's Ten Trends from CORE, which makes the case for new apporaches to assessment

Assessment14The argument for re-thinking assessment is not new, but while it has been debated for some time, there has been little done to act on this thinking. "The existing exam system is unable to distinguish between test performance and knowledge and does not lead to genuine progress", according to a leading educationalist reported in the Times Education Supplement (TES)

What we need is a massive re-think, a revolution in our approach – and a new report titled "A Renassance in Assessment" authored by Sir Michael Barber and  Dr Peter Hill provides a thought provoking response. The report is critical of current testing regimes for focusing on a narrow set of low level skills. The authors criticize an over-reliance on grades that reveal little about what the student can do and call for “validated learning progressions” with efficient processes for collecting and analyzing data and easy-to-use assessment tools.

In contrast to current state testing systems, Barber and Hill suggest assessment should:

  • Accommodate the full range of student abilities
  • Provide meaningful information on learning outcomes
  • Accommodate the full range of valued outcomes
  • Support students and teachers in making use of ongoing feedback to personalize instruction and improve learning and teaching
  • Have integrity and that are used in ways that motivate improvement efforts and minimize opportunities for cheating and ‘gaming’ the system.

There's a lot of excellent reading in this report – much of it supporting what I've noted in the Ten Trends video, and also reflecting the thoughts of other educators such as Fullan and Hammond, Wilhoit, and Pittenger, and echoing the content of a report on the Opportunity to Lead released in March this year. 

An important thing to mention here is the role that technology will play in our future thinking about assessment.  It's great to see the Qualifications Authority in New Zealand making moves towards online assessments, something we need to support and encourage – but there's a danger here that it could simply be seen as a substitution approach, with online tools replacing the traditional pen and paper for exams. 

Barber and Hill recommend the use of adaptive testing to generate more accurate estimates of student abilities across the full range of achievement while reducing testing time. They note that online environments facilitate, “The collection and analysis in real time of a wide range of information on multiple aspects of behavior and proficiency,” as well as, “More immediate, detailed and meaningful reporting to specific stakeholder groups, such as via smartphone/tablet devices and through the creation of e-portfolios.” 

I believe that 2015 may well be a year in which we see some bigger steps taken towards the renaissance in assessment that this report describes. I'll leave you with some of the quotes from the report to whet your appetite…

assessment quotes

Battling for the soul of education…

Soul-of-edOver 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. 

Soul-quote

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. 

Thinking about engagement…

engaged learners

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…

The conflict continues…

Mail Online - chalk and talk

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. 

Defining success

SuccessI 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.