Category Archives: Education Futures
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.
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!!!
As schools and teachers embrace modern learning practices there inevitably emerge a range of different beliefs about what works and why. Some of this becomes a part of the popular culture of education, and some of it even makes its way into policy at a national level.
Not everyone forms the same view, often leading to debates about what is 'right' and what is 'wrong'. What it really reflects is the differences in values and beliefs that drive our practice as educators. I read this week a Herald article about the decision of Auckland Grammar to stick with a more traditional approach to teaching and learning as they designed their new buildings. Here's a quote from the article that outlines very explicitly what the values and beliefs are in that school …
Headmaster Tim O'Connor said because Grammar's teaching style was to teach content, rather than focussing on student-led learning, the 12-classroom block's layout fitted it better. "Our teaching style is teacher-centered learning," headmaster Mr O'Connor said. "The key thing with the new classrooms are that they are wide not deep – so those in the back row are closer and it's all about the relationship between student and teacher."
In the rush to embrace modern learning practice there is inevitably a storng focus on the practices that may change – the practical, observable things that will impact on how things happen in schools. For example, the emergence of large, free-flowing spaces, moving from indiviudal desks to group tables etc. But these things alone will not change the effectiveness of our educational provision unless they are matched to our shared beliefs and values. It is there that we need to start – and continue to reflect and refine as we seek to develop an educaitonal approach that is relevant to the lives of our modern learners and their future.
What shapes and forms our beliefs is important. Our own school experience, our particular world view, political or religious perspectives and the influence of particular thought leaders are all key influences on our thinking when it comes to forming our values and beliefs about education. A key challenge is to ensure that we are critically engaged, and constantly reflecting on these things in order to distinguish between the ideas that have substance and those that have evolved as 'myths'.
An Edutopia article titled "8 myths that undermine educational effectiveness" exposes some of the ideas that are currently influencing or informing our practice. The 'myths' presented here provide a challenge to some of the things that we may be adopting in our own mindsets – or feel that we're obliged to work within. The key point here is the reminder that we need to remain vigilant as educational professionals and be continually assessing and being critically engaged with the new ideas and thinking as they emerge.
The International Summit on the Teaching Profession is under way this year in Banff, Canada, with a contingent of NZ educators attending. Last year I had the privilege of attending this event when it was held here in NZ, and it provided a a great opportunity to hear from a variety of international 'experts' and leaders from a range of countries in the OECD.
Among them was Andraes Schleicher who is the OECD's director of the Directorate of Education and Skills, and the person most will associate with the research behind the PISA results. He is also author of a new report titled Schools for 21st Century Learners which has been prepared for this year's Summit.
I've only had a chance to browse the document, which has three key themes around building responsive schools for 21st Century Learners:
- Promoting effective school leadership
- Strengthening Teacher's confidence in their own abilities
- Innovating to create a 21st Century learning environments
Each of these themes is already a strategic focus in our NZ education system, and no doubt we'll see some of what happens at the Summit feeding back into our context.
Of the three, however, I have spent a little time looking at the third one, Innovating to create 21st Century Learning Environments (p.61 in the downloadable PDF).
The study concludes that schools and education systems will be most powerful and effective when they:
- Make learning central, encourage engagement, and be where learners come to understand themselves as learners.
- Ensure that learning is social and often collaborative.
- Are highly attuned to learners’ motivations and the importance of emotions.
- Are acutely sensitive to individual differences, including in prior knowledge.
- Are demanding of each learner, but do not overload students with work.
- Use assessments consistent with their aims, emphasising formative feedback.
- Promote horizontal connectedness across activities and subjects, in and outside of school.
The chapter describes how some schools are regrouping teachers, regrouping learners, rescheduling learning, and changing pedagogical approaches – and the mix of those approaches – to provide better teaching for better learning. These are all themes that CORE is currently addressing in our work on Modern Learning.
The commentary and examples provided, together with the conclusions that the reearch team draw from, this will provide a useful reference for school leaders pursuing modern learning approaches in their schools, and who may find themselves responding to requests for 'the evidence' that this will contribute to better learning outcomes.
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?