Category Archives: Education Futures
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.
(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.
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 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?
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….
I've just arrived back from a trip to Chengdu, China where I was present for the signing of the Sichuan Christchurch Education Alliance. Nearly 40 educators from greater Christchurch were present, with a key focus of the time spent on developing relationships that are intended to lead to opportunities for educational exchanges between Christchurch and Chengdu teachers and students.
Globalisation will undoubtedly be one of the most significant influences on modern learning practice as we look further into the 21st century. The need for students to have well developed understandings of cultural literacy, inter-cultural awareness and a basic grasp of international language(s) must inform how we shape our curriculum and the sorts of learning experiences we provide for our young people. It's no longer satisfactory to simply teach about these countries and issues – we need to be exploiting the power of online technologies and authentic learning contexts to enable our students to interact directly with people in other places, and to collaborate on projects that lead them to these deeper understandings of the impact of globalisation.
The trip to Chengdu has reinforced this for me – and coming back to NZ on the day of the national election and the associated conversations about what people in our nation consider important even more-so. We cannot ignore the impact that being a part of a global village, with its global economy, will have on the lives of our young people into the future. Preparing them in this way must be a priority in our curriculum ad everyday practice.
The map at the top of this post links to a post of 38 maps that explain the global economy – a useful resource for educators interested in thinking about the impact of the global economy and how to relate this to students – as is this link showing where the oldest and youngest people live in the world's populations. This sort of information can be very useful in forming a more global picture of the sorts of issues that face us here in NZ, now and into the future.
I've spent the past week in Chennai visiting my sister and brother in law. During our evenings together we've enjoyed long conversations about all manner of things, reminiscing experiences and memories from the past – often triggered by a comment or something we've heard on the news. Things like "remember that last episode of M*A*S*H? – why was Hawkeye being treated for a breakdown?" or "whatever happend to that young Afghani woman whose picture appeared on the cover of National Geographic?"
As the conversations continuted and the questions arose each of us in the group would use the devices available to begin searching for answers – generally coming up with them very quickly, and helping fuel further questions. i
The experience provides a graphic illustration of how important access to the internet has become in our daily lives – without it, these sorts of conversations, or more importantly, our ability to inform ourselves in a timely and appropriate manner, would not be possible.
The graphic at the top of this post comes from an article in Edudemic titled "how the world really connects to the internet". The opening paragraph in the article reads:
The internet: Not just for first world countries anymore. While high speed, broadband access may be much more ubiquitous in more developed countries, internet infrastructure and broadband connectivity is much more widespread than you may be aware of. Over the last decade, huge strides have been made, meaning many more students across the globe are being connected to the vast network of students, teachers, and the world.
So it's interesting to me to reflect on what's happening back in New Zealand in the lead up to the election, where it seems that the issue of access and connectivity has become the 'hot potato' – particularly in education. Not surprising, as it's been brewing for some time.
Back in 2012 Nikki Kaye championed a cross-party inquiry into 21st Century Learning and Digital Literacy. With all political parties participating in the process and having full access to all of the submissions etc., there was a plethora of information to inform future political agendas, and all of which provided a strong case for improving the level and quality of access to the internet (and the devices for doing so) for all learners.
Since the release of the report of the select committee being released early in 2013 we've seen the release of a report from the 21st Century Learning Reference Group (of which I am a part) which suggests ten priorities for equipping learners with 21st century skills and digital competencies. One of the recommendations reads:
Achieve equitable access to digital devices for every learner: Ensure all learners have access to suitable digital technologies, regardless of location, background, abilities or socio-economic status.
Seems like this has now become a key focus of all of the political parties – unfortunately not in the coordinated or cross-party way that we might have hoped for durng the select committee process, but that's politics I guess.
While we wait to see what may happen with the recommendations from the 21st Century Learning Reference group, the National Party have announced a new ICT advisory service for schools.
The Labour Party have identified providing kids with devices as one of their 'hot buttoned school issues', where they propose the provision of subsidised netbook/ laptop for all students to the tune of $120 million.
The Internet Party (not surprisingly as it's their primary focus) has a whole section in their policy on modern schools in which they propose triple the amount of annual ICT funding to state and state-integrated schools.(section 5.2).
So the ball has started rolling, and it looks like support for ICT in education, with an emphasis on connectivity and access, will be one of the things to watch.
All I can say is that I hope, amid all of the political manoeuvering and points scoring, we don't lose sight of the fact that whatever the strategy might be that we don't end up simply changing things for the sake of changing them – or to simply do something different from what the other parties suggest because it's another party.
At the end of the day, what I'm interested in is that all learners in our education system can have the opportunity to do what I was doing with my family, where I was able to use the device(s) available to me to access the information I required as and when required (ubiquity!) to help reinforce and inform my learning.
As the politics of pre-electioneering begins to take effect, let's hope it doesn't cloud (too much) the bigger dream we have for equitable and ubiquitous access – to devices and to the inernet – for all.
The focus of my talk was on how we need to work with our teachers and community to ensure we are able to identify and articulate our moral purpose - identified in the beliefs and values we share, and which should underpin our approach to change. If we simply tinker with altering parts of what we do or have (i.e. the furniture in our classrooms), or get carried away with building architectural delights, but without considering our purpose – or the 'why' at the centre of the golden circle that Simon Sinek refers to – then we're at risk of missing the opportunity of effecting change that is meaningful, sustainable and adding value to the lives of our students.
The innovation, then, is being able to set a transformation agenda, working from the core beliefs and values (moral purpose) of our staff and community, reflecting the particular character, aspirations and ideals that they hold in common – to move to a 'third place' in terms of how we think about school and schooling, instead of simply swinging on the perpetual pendulum of improvement.
Of course, we must carry our staff with us – so a special focus must be provided in the area of professional learning and development. This can't be achieved through simply attending the odd workshop or having a guest speaker attend a staff meeting. This sort of change will require a combination of systematic, inquiry-based practitioner reflection and action, combined with the mentoring and support of the 'agents of change' who can introduce the new thinking, challenge assumptions and help clarify the moral purpose that underpins the school's activity.
I'm currently putting the finishing touches to an online course due to go live next term (referred to in my previous post) that will provide the stimulation for groups of staff within a school to activate and lead change in the area of modern learning practice, by challenging together their thinking and assumptions in four key areas:
- rethinking learners
- rethinking teachers
- rethinking learning
- rethinking support.
I'm really looking forward to this opportunity of working with groups of staff from a variety of schools where we can collaboratively seek to find and share our answers to these questions – and from that, build some new frameworks to guide our practice into the future.