Author Archives: Derek Wenmoth
The latest report from the OECD titled Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection has attracted lots of attention in the past week. The report's main claim is that computers do not improve student results, and news feeds around the world have picked up on this using headlines suggesting school technology struggles to make an impact and schools are wasting money on computers for kids.
Lying behind the headlines are revelations that technology in the classroom leads to poorer performance among pupils is that it can be distracting and that syllabuses have not become good enough to take make the most of the technologies available. There are also concerns about plagiarism with concerns that if students can simply copy and paste answers to questions, it is unlikely to help them become smarter.
Such headlines are bound to appeal to the 'digital doubters' and those calling for 'back to basics' as the panacea to education's woes – but what does this report really tell us? Given the level of investment involved with the use of technology it's certainly not inappropriate to ask whether it makes a difference, but in doing this we need to ask: “Difference in what?"
The OECD researchers found no appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that had invested heavily in ICT for education. It adds that the use of technology in schools has done little to bridge the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students. The report concludes that ensuring that every child reaches a baseline level of proficiency in reading and mathematics seems to do more to create equal opportunities in a digital world than can be achieved by expanding or subsidizing access to high-tech devices and services.
Of course there's nothing new in studies comparing educational outcomes using technology with those that don't. Back in the early 1990s the "No Significant Difference" study provided an analysis of several hundred reports comparing student outcomes between face to face and distance delivery courses. It concluded that an overwhelming number of studies showed that when the course materials and teaching methodology were held constant, there were no significant differences (NSD) between student outcomes in a distance delivery course as compared to a face to face course.
One interpretation of the NSD conclusion holds that the use of technology to deliver courses does no harm – that is, face to face learning has no inherent advantage to students over learning at a distance. The other interpretation is that technology does not help – and if a course can be delivered for less expense without technology, there is no need to use technology at all.
In the early 1990s Stanford historian of technology in education, Larry Cuban set out to find out if computers were changing education practice. His findings mirror the original NSD study. In his book he writes "In the schools we studied, we found no clear and substantial evidence of students increasing their academic achievement as a result of using information technologies." Further, he found "…the overwhelming majority of teachers employed the technology to sustain existing patterns of teaching rather than to innovate." In other words, by simply using the ICTs as a substitute for traditional approaches it was not surprising to Cuban and his colleagues to find no significant difference in achievement.
Acknowledgement of this is made in the foreword to the OECD report…
The report leaves many questions unanswered. The impact of technology on education delivery remains sub-optimal, because we may overestimate the digital skills of both teachers and students, because of naïve policy design and implementation strategies, because of a poor understanding of pedagogy, or because of the generally poor quality of educational software and courseware.
So here remains a big question for us to answer as educators, leaders and policy makers: "is the apparent lack of 'difference' in achievement attributable purely to the affordances of the technology, or is it more to do with the wider issues of teacher and student digital skills, pedagogical practices, assessment regimes etc.?"
In their response to the NSD phenomenon, Diana Oblinger and Brian Hawkins of Educause suggest that asking whether technology makes a difference in student learning implies that learning is a high-tech or no-tech phenomenon. They argue the issue is not that simple. Learning occurs as a result of motivation, opportunities, an active process, interaction with others, and the ability to transfer learning to a real-world situation.
This is the key focus of educational leadership guru, and more recently technology advocate Michael Fullan. His book Stratosphere: Integrating Technology, Pedagogy, and Change Knowledge is about how the ideas embedded in the new technology, the new pedagogy, and the new change knowledge are converging to transform education for all. Fullan claims that…
Technology has had its own pace, wildly outstripped the other two in sheer quantity and in aimless quality. It is now time to reconcile how technology can join the fray in a more purposeful way in order to transform learning for educators and learners in the 21st century.
The OECD's Andreas Schleicher appears to support this position in his final paragraph in his foreword to the report:
If we want to mobilise support for more technology-rich schools, we need to become better at communicating the need and building support for change. We need to invest in capacity development and change-management skills, develop sound evidence and feed this evidence back to institutions, and back all that up with sustainable financing. Last but not least, it is vital that teachers become active agents for change, not just in implementing technological innovations, but in designing them too.
Computers can be useful when teachers sufficiently understand the technology themselves, believe it will enhance learning, and have the power to shape their own curricula. But these conditions can’t be met without a broader and deeper commitment to public education beyond preparing workers. More attention needs to be paid to the civic and social goals of schooling, goals that make the question of how many computers are in classrooms trivial. As the OECD report points out…
Empowering young people to become full participants in today’s digital public space, equipping them with the codes and tools of their technology-rich world, and encouraging them to use online learning resources – all while exploring the use of digital technologies to enhance existing education processes, such as student assessment or school administration – are goals that justify the introduction of computer technology into classrooms. (OECD report, page 186)
So what are some lessons for us all in this…
- Don't read the headlines only, read the substance of the report to find out what is really being reported.
- Take note of what the report confirms about comparative studies – if it can be done without technology then it possibly should.
- Consider the appropriate response to concerns about plagiarism and digital distraction in your school.
- Don't expect technology to, on its own, result in improved student outcomes.
- Don't give up on the idea of embracing technology in your school – but ensure it's not simply as a substitute for existing approaches
- Improving levels of digial literacy and digital fluency among teachers and learners is vital – where is our PD focus?
- Focus on how technology, combined with new pedagogies and change knowledge, can transform our practices as educators.
The buzz words around many areas of education at the moment include STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) and the Maker Movement – both of which emphasise 'hands-on' learning and 'learning by doing', emphasising engagement in real world problems and the use of design principles and approaches.
This interest has been building for some time now – Mark Osborne discusses the Maker Culture in CORE's Ten Trends in 2014, noting that active learning increases the rate of learning faster than passive learning. Simply watching others build or make things fire up parts of our brain that are left untouched by passive learning.
Mark is one of the featured speakers at this year's pre-conference workshop day titled Permission to Play, which will provide an opportunity for the sharing of ideas and activities that are taking place in classrooms around NZ.
In his Trends talk, Mark references the fact that the idea of making, of building, of constructing has a strong basis in research. Seymour Papert introduced us to the notion of Constructionism in his book Mindstorms, back in the 1980s, and since then there has been a growing body of experience and literature supporting the call for more of this sort of experience in our schools.
Thus I have been interested to see the release of a document from MakerEd titled MakerSpaces – Highlights of Select Literature (PDF download). This review looks at a selection of the latest discourse and thinking emerging from the growth of makerspaces and their developing roles in education and communities.
Not motivated by the same political agendas that lie behind the STEM movements in many countries, this publication provides a useful read for those wishing to get their head around the Maker Movement and its impact in schools. There are sections that explore the types and categories of maker space that are emerging around the world, a whole section on benefits for participants and one on the interdisciplinary roles of maker spaces which has to be one of the defining benefits of this movement in my view.
From the section on benefits to participants I particularly liked this quote:
“ … the most important benefits of maker-centered learning are neither STEM skills nor technical preparation for the next industrial revolution. Though these benefits may accrue along the way, the most salient benefits of maker-centered learning for young people have to do with developing a sense of self and a sense of community that empower them to engage with and shape the designed dimension of their worlds."
At the end of the day this is what we ought to be striving towards in our education system – not simply that our young people will be equipped to get a job in the modern world, but that they will be equipped as individuals and as human beings to live as citizens in tht world and contribute in positive ways to creating a 'decent society'.
Five years ago today, at 4:35 am, Saturday 4 September 2010, the Canterbury region was rocked by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake. The next major earthquake was on 22 February 2011 at 12:51pm. On this occasion 185 people lost their lives.
From 4 September 2010 until 4 September 2011, there were around 9,000 aftershocks and earthquakes. Some of these were very strong and caused more damage to buildings and land.
Schools were closed for about two weeks after the Feb. 2011 earthquake. Over 12,000 students re-enrolled in schools outside of the Greater Christchurch area – almost 16% of the total number of students in the region at the time. Half of these had returned within a year of the first quake.
Damage to school buildings was extensive, with remediation required ranging from complete demolition and rebuild to extensive repairs and refurbishment.
A number of the more seriously affected schools were co-located on other schools’ sites for periods expected to vary from a month or so to the rest of the 2011 academic year, and potentially beyond that.
During this time and since we have witnessed examples of incredible courage, of resilience, and of leadership in the face of crisis. This includes our education leaders – particularly school principals, many of whom worked tirelessly to support their staff, students and community for months on end, returning home each evening to their own damaged homes and property.
A lot of people believe that the true leadership capacity of a person is tested during times of crisis. Performance under stress can show how quick witted or level headed a person is, or on the contrary, it can show where their weaknesses lie.
The devastation of the Christchurch earthquakes caused an unprecedented impact on the human and formal school systems and infrastructures in the city. This natural disaster created a state of crisis. School leaders were required to respond during this crisis, executing crisis management and crisis leadership strategies.
Of course, this isn’t just about principal leadership. In times of crisis leadership emerges at all levels of the system. MIT Sloan Professor Deborah Ancona notes that natural disasters call on all of a person's leadership skills. She says…
“What is clear is that during such disasters you need leadership at all levels. Executive leadership to devise overall strategy and people on the ground with the authority and skills to act of their own accord when necessary.”
She goes on to say… “Natural disasters demand all these skills, they are important aspects of a leader's repertoire. A huge amount of innovation is necessary, new processes, new structures to pull together relief agencies and all the disparate actors in the relief effort. Multiple agencies have to work together, so relating skills are pivotal.”
Since the Christchurch earthquakes we have seen many examples of this with the emergence of groups such as the Student Army and CANcern, the activation of community groups in leading the restoration of community assets and facilities, to the heightened work within some neighbourhoods to provide support for the vulnerable in their midst.
A recent initiative to aid the recovery of schools involves a partnership between the regional Ministry of Education and Ngai Tahu, working with four provider organisations to design, develop and deliver a programme of support for schools and their communities as they work through their recovery process.
This is what the distributed leadership model is all about: understanding the context in which one is operating, developing productive relationships and networks, visualizing the desired outcome, and inventing ways of working together to realize that vision.
We are evolving towards the view of a networked education system, where models of distributed leadership will most certainly be required, and collaborative approaches demanded. We can use today to reflect on the events five years ago in Christchurch, and use this experience to consider what model or models of leadership are needed, working with parents, whānau and community, to provide us with the future focused education system that will prepare our learners, our tamariki, our mokopuna, for their future – and not our past.
There's been a lot of discussion among my colleagues at CORE Education recently about the nature of transformation, and what this looks like in education. Stories emerge daily in our media of how our existing education system is failing to adequately address the needs of current students such as this one about Auckland's education story or this one about our 'broken' assessment system. So where are the stories of where innovation is challenging traditional educational systems and models in a practical sense?
We do have some great examples of innovative practice here in NZ, as highlighted by the Prime Minister's excellence awards, or browsing the case studies on the NZC Online site or the enabling eLearning site for example. There's so much we can learn about innovation and the transformation process from such stories.
With this in mind I was encourged recently to find this site from InnoveEdu featuring 96 initiatives from around the world. Each story presents meaningful learning experiences connected with the demands of the 21st century, distributed among five categories. Curated by Porvir, in partnership with Edsurge, Innovation Unit and World Innovation Summit for Education, InnoveEdu presents a wide range of ideas. Entries range from technological tools to facilitate teachers' jobs, to government policies to transform pedagogical practice in public education systems.
There's a useful filter you can use to locate the stories that will be most interesting to you, with three key sections:
- Innovation – which differentiates between the type of innovation – disruptive or incremental
- Where – locating the innovation within the school, community, home or online context
- Trend – focusing specifically on one or more of five trends identified by the project as being hallmarks of innovative education experiences; 21st century skills, personalised learning, hands-on learning, community based learning and new credentials (including new forms of assessment).
Using this framework, each case study is presented in a way that allows you to easily access the key points and make comparisons between and across a range of contexts.
This is a great site to be exploring on a Winter weekend
At a meeting I attended last week a group of people were discussing approaches they might use to 'bring teachers up to speed' with the ideas and approaches they were discussing (in this case, computational thinking). The discussion that ensued raised all of the usual issues around why it's difficult to find effective PLD solutions: teachers are time poor, the overloaded curriculum, lack of expertise, reluctance to change etc. When turning their attention to finding a solution the predictable list appeared: provide more teacher only days (TODs), introduce a range of incentives (carrots), introduce mandatory requirements (sticks) etc. The discussion also ventured into the problem with providing PLD support that is 'just in time' rather than that which is 'just in case'.
As one of the few professionals in the group whose work is built around designing and delivering professional learning and development, I was asked to offer my thoughts on what makes for effective professional learning and development. Having spent much time exploring what the literature says about this, and being involved in significant national research efforts to identify the same, my list was easy to share:
Effective professional learning and development has the following four characteristics:
- It is in-depth
- It is provided over time
- It is related to practice
- It is contextually relevant
I use this list as my litmus test when designing PLD approaches with principals and schools. Based on more recent experience, I think I'd add a fifth point: 5. It is collaborative. I see this increasingly as the differentiating factor in the level of success with PLD programmes in schools I work with.
Clearly, it would be easy then to eliminate the one-day workshop, or attendance at a one-off seminar or conference if using this list. So too a one-size fits all style of 'course' that is 'delivered' on a large scale with no provision for customisation or adapting to a personal need.
This sort of thinking is certainly contributing to the current government policy in NZ, where the 'evidence' suggests that most forms of PLD to date have been ineffective, and that a new approach needs to be taken. In NZ's case this appears to be based on recognising the expertise that exists within schools and clusters and providing support for internally designed and developed approaches to PLD.
Such moves are not surprising. In the US, similar dissatisfaction with existing PLD approaches has been reported, with a recent publication titled "Teachers Know Best" from the Boston Publishing group, sponsored by the Gates Foundation, reporting that large majorities of teachers do not believe that professional development is helping them prepare for the changing nature of their jobs, including using technology and digital learning tools, analyzing student data to differentiate instruction, and implementing the Common Core State Standards and other standards. The report provides a detailed breakdown of the types of PLD that teachers consider work or don't compared with what is provided.
Based on their research, the report authors suggest that principals and teachers in the US largely agree on what effective PLD looks like, and it is summarised in the paper as:
Characteristics of professional development associated with improving student achievement:
- Sustained and content specific
- Teacher learning goals aligned with standards
- Involving active learning techniques (e.g., observing expert teachers, leading discussions)
- Including established teams to facilitate “collective participation” and teachers using data in making instructional decisions
Two formats that hold promise:
- Coaching has been shown to improve teachers’ abilities to adopt and implement new teaching practices
- Collaboration helps to build relational trust in the school building, which enables teachers to more effectively make difficult decisions
In a recent blog post titled Developing Great Teaching that explores these same issues I referenced a report from the Teacher Development Trust which identifies 8 characteristics of effective PLD (repeated below)
- Duration: effective professional development lasts at least two semesters, and needs a ‘rhythm’ of follow-up and consolidation;
- Targeted: the content should be relevant to the teachers’ needs and day-to-day experiences;
- Aligned: no single activity is universally effective – instead it is a combination that reinforced the message from different perspectives that works;
- Content: successful development must consider both subject knowledge and subject-specific teaching techniques;
- Activities: successful development features common types of activities including discussion, experimentation and analysis and reflection;
- External input: constructive external input provides new perspectives and challenges orthodoxies;
- Collaboration: peer support gives participants an opportunity to work together and refine new approaches;
- Leadership: effective leaders get involved in development, define opportunities and provide the support needed to embed change.
While there are some differences in each of the three lists above, there are also some very strong alignments. These are the sorts of things that we need to be taking notice of and building our future PLD programmes around.
It's too easy to look at PLD in a 'fractured' sort of way, thinking about each PLD event in isolation, without appreciating how, if a systemic view was taken, these elements could actually be aligned and understood as a part of a continuum of development, rather than an isolated experience. This is where the analysis in the Gates report is weakened, as it examines the reported effectiveness of each PD event (i.e. workshops, conferences, in-class observation etc.) without referencing how that might 'fit' within the overall programme of development of a school or district. Clearly, since the reports were based on teacher perceptions, those who were surveyed didn't have an appreciation of that – or the survey design didn't allow them to report that.
Back to the NZ scene, I'm very excited about the increased emphasis on supporting schools and clusters to take a more proactive role in designing and developing their own PLD processes and approaches as clearly the mandated, imposed sorts of approaches are becoming less relevant where the needs are so diverse. There's a danger we must be aware of, however, in that cluster leaders will themselves need to be fully aware of and able to lead PLD approaches that are founded on the key principles that the research and evidence reveals, or else they two run the risk of implementing some of the very same practices that we know don't work.
The secret is to take a system-level view, one that is designed to take all staff on a journey, over time, towards achieving both personal and school/cluster goals. and which has strategic means of measuring impact and outcomes.
So much of the work I do currently involves working with education leaders and school communities who are confronted with change as a result of one or a combination of new buildings, investment in technology or adopting modern learning practices. Typically there is a mix of reaction, from those who are keen to embrace the changes through to those who fiercly resist, preferring to defend the traditions of the past.
Whatever the reaction, we need to recognise that we are living in a world characterized by change, complexity and paradox. These changes signal the emergence of a new global context for learning that has vital implications for education. It requires that we revisit the purpose of education and the organization of learning.
Here's a great new release from UNESCO titled The Future of Education – Towards a global common good (PDF downlaod) that explores the context for this change at a global level. This report reconsiders the purpose of education and the principles that govern education and knowledge as common goods. The publication is intended as a call for policy dialogue and as a platform for research on the future of learning, but makes for excellent reading for those interested in education from whatever level of the system they are involved in, whether principals, teachers or parents.
The report argues that the complexity of today’s world requires a comprehensive approach to education policy embedded in a better understanding of the way in which knowledge is created, controlled, disseminated, acquired, validated and used. It also requires further development of the ethical principles that govern education and knowledge as common goods.
I found reading this both refreshing and challenging. Too often the dialogue around educational change is anchored in the surface features of schooling – and in the materialistic context of NZ, focuses on things such as decile ranking, status, architecture, resources etc. instead of the outcomes in terms of what will best serve the future of our nation and our planet. This quote from the foreword by Irina Bokova Director-General of UNESCO, emphasises my point:
There is no more powerful transformative force than education – to promote human rights and dignity, to eradicate poverty and deepen sustainability, to build a better future for all, founded on equal rights and social justice, respect for cultural diversity, and international solidarity and shared responsibility, all of which are fundamental aspects of our common humanity.
Of course, a particular interest for me is the perspective on the impact of digital technologies, and how the ways in which the emergence of a 'cyber culture' is likely to shape and change our modern world. Here's the section from the report that deals with this (p.26):
One of the defining features of development today is the emergence and expansion of the cyber world, stimulated by the spectacular growth in internet connectivity and mobile penetration. We live in a connected world. An estimated 40 per cent of the world’s population now uses the internet and this number is growing at a remarkable rate.35 While there are significant variations in internet connectivity among countries and regions, the number of households with such links in the global South has now overtaken those in the global North. Moreover, over 70 per cent of mobile telephone subscriptions worldwide are now in the global South.36 Five billion people are expected to go from no to full connectivity within the next twenty years. However, there are still significant gaps among countries and regions, for example between urban and rural areas. Limited broadband speed and lack of connectivity hamper access to knowledge, participation in society and economic development.
The internet has transformed how people access information and knowledge, how they interact, and the direction of public management and business. Digital connectivity holds promise for gains in health, education, communication, leisure and well-being.38 Artificial intelligence advances, 3D printers, holographic recreation, instant transcription, voice-recognition and gesture-recognition software are only some examples of what is being tested. Digital technologies are reshaping human activity from daily life to international relations, from work to leisure, redefining multiple aspects of our private and public life.
Such technologies have expanded opportunities for freedom of expression and for social, civic and political mobilization, but they also raise important concerns. The availability of personal information in the cyber world, for example, brings up significant issues of privacy and security. New spaces for communication and socialization are transforming what constitutes the idea of ‘social’ and they require enforceable legal and other safeguards to prevent their overuse, abuse and misuse. better prepare new generations of ‘digital natives’40 to deal with the ethical and social dimensions of not only existing digital technologies but also those yet to be invented.
My earliest experiences of professional learning and development (PLD) tended to be short courses focusing on introducing a new skill, strategy or technology. I can remember as a young teacher being 'sent' to courses on how to use an overhead projector, or how to use simulation activities in social studies classes. Sometimes these things were useful to me when I returned to the classroom, other times they were more 'just in case' courses, simply provided because the opportunity was there.
Since the time I began as a teacher the expectations of teachers have increased, and so to have the expectations of PLD programmes and providers. My professional career has been focused on the professional development (PLD) of teachers for nearly three decades now, and in that time I have had the privilege of working with hundreds of educators across all sectors of the education system. In the work I have been responsible for I have seen a significant shift to participation in programmes that provide quality professional learning that is in-depth, in context, sustained over time, and designed to meet the needs of individual staff and whole schools.
I am anticipating that the findings of the NZ PLD Review (when it is eventually published) will support this – empahsising that the most effective professional learning is that which occurs within schools and is focused on supporting school goals targetting the improvement of student learning and achievement.
Whether the PLD focus is on individuals or whole schools, whether short programmes or longer term engagments, the common concern of most teachers remains "where do I find time to fit this learning in?" The increasing demands on teachers across a range of areas means that PLD is often relegated to the 'nice to have' pile, instead of being accorded the priority it deserves. This creates challenges in terms of the sorts of PLD activities and approaches that should be offered.
A new report, Developing Great Teaching: lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development, sheds some light on the sorts of activities that are worth our while. Written by researchers from Durham University, the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE) and UCL Institute of Education, the report confirms that the right PLD (or CPD as it is known in the UK) not only improves teacher practice but also improves outcomes for pupils.
Key findings include (emphasis mine):
- The content of effective professional development should involve both subject knowledge and subject-specific pedagogy to achieve its full potential, with clarity around learners’ progress. Activities should help teachers to understand how pupils learn, generally and in specific subject areas.
- The duration and rhythm of effective CPD requires a longer-term focus – at least two terms to a year or longer is most effective, with follow-up, consolidation and support activities built in.
- Participants’ needs should be carefully considered. This requires stepping away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach to creating content for teachers that integrates their day-to-day experiences.
- There should be a logical and consistent thread between the various components of the programme and creating opportunities for teacher learning.
- Certain activities are more effective – these include explicit discussions, testing ideas in the classroom and analysis of, and reflection around, the evidence and relevant assessment data.
- External input from providers and specialists must challenge orthodoxies within a school and provide multiple, diverse perspectives.
- Teachers should be empowered through collaboration and peer learning; they should have opportunities to work together, try out and refine new approaches and tackle teaching and learning challenges.
- Powerful leadership around professional development is pivotal in defining staff opportunities and embedding cultural change. School leaders should not leave the learning to teachers, they should be actively involved themselves.
One thing that the report identifies is clearly not helpful is sending teachers on one-day external courses which they say is likely to be wasted time unless participants also have in-school collaborative and iterative activities for preparation and follow-up.
The report also emphasises that schools that have stopped using external expertise completely are missing out on a key ingredient of effective PLD. It says that external experts and courses are an important element of in-school processes if we want to improve pupil outcomes. The point here is that the external 'expertise' can no longer be the person 'wheeled in' to provide the new ideas and strategies etc, but their role is changed now to being the critical friend, mentor and strategic adviser, allowing the leadership within the school to take responsibility for leading and managing the PLD programme. This is a particularly interesting to me as the pendulum appears to be swinging here in NZ, away from external providers to supporting the internal PLD leadership of schools.
What do you get when you achieve a state where everyone 'buys in' to the change that is happening and feels that they are a part of it? You get systemness – a state where there is a 'harmonisation' among all parts of the system, each working towards the same vision and doing their part to 'make it work'.
In our current education system, particularly since the 1989 reforms in NZ, we have seen a pervasive spirit of competition and divisiveness among schools in our system, brought about largely because of the emphasis on the 'self managing school', and rewards for leaders who are successful in making their particular school successful (often at the expense of or in spite of what's happening elsewhere). While this may be a good thing in terms of the experience of students in that partcular school, the result is fragmentation at a system level, with significant variations among schools and learners, depending on where they are learning and who they are learning with.
This thinking has been reinforced for me as I've worked recently with Michael Fullan with the NZ cluster of schools participating in the New Pedagogies project. Systemness is one of the things identified in Michael's 2011 paper titled Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reform, in which he identifies four policy and strategy levers that have the least and and four with the best chance of driving successful reform.
A ‘wrong driver’ is a deliberate policy force that has little chance of achieving the desired result, while a ‘right driver’ is one that ends up achieving better measurable results for students.
Systemness is not simply about aligning our activities and focus at a system level, it is about system coherence – it involves a mindset change. "Systemness” means that you develop experiences in people where they start to identify with the bigger part of the system itself. So a teacher, for example, who moves from just thinking of “my classroom only” to thinking of all the kids in the school—that’s “systemness”. It becomes a case of thinking in terms of "we, not me".
At the system level, ‘systemness’ means all schools work to improve the learning of each and every student across the system. Within the local school context, ‘systemness’ means each teacher isn’t just responsible for the learning of his/her own students, but for each and every student in the school. Structures won't achieve this – it requires a change of thinking and mindset.
- commitment to a common vision and aspiration for our learners across the system
- shared goals
- a high level of trust among all participants
- a focus on 'we, not me' at all levels
- the right support at the right time to the right people
- inherent values of sharing and collaboration
This post has been prompted by some thinking I've been doing as I returned from the EduTECH conference last week in Brisbane, where I met and talked to a number of educators from Australia and other parts of the world who, like me, are involved in thinking about and working towards education change at a system level. It seems that no matter where we came from I heard common questions being asked around 'how to make the change scalable and sustainable?'
For too long we've tolerated a high degree of fragmentation in our school system, celebrating the achievements of individual schools at the expense of their neighbouring ones, and we've promoted the teacher and principal 'heros' at the expense of their colleagues. We have to change this mindset and work more determinedly towards a state of 'systemness' – a refreshed way of thinking that places the wellbeing and needs of every learner in the system at the heart of our thinking and decision making.
I've just been browsing this recently released report from the Economist Intelligence Unit titled The skills agenda: Preparing students for the future which draws attention to the challenge in education to prepare our current students with the skills and knowledge they'll require to participate fully in the future, in particular, in a digitally-enabled future.
The EIU embarked on a research programme, sponsored by Google, to examine to what extent the skills taught in education systems around the world are changing. For example, are so-called 21st-century skills, such as leadership, digital literacy, problem solving and communication, complementing traditional skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic? And do they meet the needs of employers and society more widely?
Their key findings are:
- Problem solving, team working and communication are the skills that are currently most in demand in the workplace.
- Education systems are not providing enough of the skills that students and the workplace need.
- Some students are taking it into their own hands to make up for deficiencies within the education system.
- Technology is changing teaching, but education systems are keeping up with the transformation rather than leading it.
These findings are consistent with the work of many other reports I read in the course of my work, and very consistent with the work of a group I am part of here in Christchurch where I live comprising members of local IT-related companies, the local economic development agency and some educators. Key issues that this group are considering include the fact that while there is a bias toward increasing demand for employees to fill positions in the IT sector, there is a distinct lack of sufficiently skilled staff available to fill these roles, which in turn is becoming a barrier to companies being able to grow and achieve their organisational goals. The same concerns exist in other parts of NZ – in Auckland earlier this year a survey of 61,000 secondary school students found that less than 6 per cent had a qualification in basic ICT, raising concerns among the Auckland Business Leaders Group about the ability to find staff for the growing number of IT-relaed jobs appearing in the city.
The EIU report does contain several examples of where, at a strategic and systemic level, initiatives are under way that are addressing these issues, with students proved with opportunities at all levels of the school system to develop the range of digital literacies required to prepare them for their future. One example comes from New Zealand – featuring the work of the Manaiakalani Education Trust in Auckland (see page 11 in the report) where the provision of devices for each student has resulted in significant gains in learning for students, and preparation for their digital futures.
While these examples are something to celebrate and share more widely, for the bulk of our education system we are simply moving too slowly, and putting the future of our young people – and the economic future of our country – at risk because of our conservative approach. What we now know about knowledge building, skills transfer, how learning occurs etc. has yet to fully impact the changes in education that are necessary to provide the sorts of programmes and environments that will prepare our young people for these futures. As the report states in its conclusion:
This style of learning places new demands on teachers, who may themselves not be universally equipped with the competencies to lead a more fluid, interactive class. It also requires governments to be willing to rethink their approach to teacher training and professional development. It is no longer sufficient—if it ever was—that teachers are well versed in their subject. They must recognise that the skills a student acquires through learning are as important, if not more so, than the content, and be able to incorporate opportunities for the development of problem solving, collaborative, creative and communication skills into their teaching. These skills cannot be taught in isolation but must be present across the curriculum, embedded in the fabric of how teachers teach.
We have this happening in pockets aroun the country – but how can we link it up and ensure that every student in every school has these sorts of learning opportunities as a matter of course? This is what the transformation agenda is about!!!
Tony Bates has done it again – completing an extremely useful volume on ‘Teaching in A Digital Age: Guidelines for designing teaching and learning for a digital age’. It’s available online in a range of formats and its FREE! It’s an excellent resource.
There's something in this book for everyone involved in education in the digital age – from an examination of the drivers of change in education and the changing nature of knowledge, to an analysis of the pedagogical benefits of particular technologies, an overview of MOOCs and online teaching and a few chapters designed to translate all of this into practical, effective teaching in a digital world.
At nearly 500 pages it's one of those volumes you'll want to dip in and out of, with sections broken down into easily digestible 'chunks', each with a call to action included to provide a focus for how this may be translated into something meaningful in your own context.
I particularly liked the breakdown and explanation of a 'learning environment' that is added as an appendix – the broad definition Bates references appeals to me:
Learning environment refers to the diverse physical locations, contexts, and cultures in which students learn. Since students may learn in a wide variety of settings, such as outside-of-school locations and outdoor environments, the term is often used as a more accurate or preferred alternative to classroom, which has more limited and traditional connotations—a room with rows of desks and a chalkboard, for example. The term also encompasses the culture of a school or class—its presiding ethos and characteristics, including how individuals interact with and treat one another—as well as the ways in which teachers may organize an educational setting to facilitate learning…..’ (The Glossary of Educational Reform, 29 August, 2014)
If we situate our thinking about modern learning/teaching in a digital age within this broad understanding of a learning environment then our appropriation of the ideas, frameworks and strategies suggestd by Bates in his book will be more likely to yield the results our digital age students deserve.