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Category Archives: Personalization

Does The Great Onlining Offer Opportunities to move from Teaching Content to Teaching Thinking?

One often hears the view expressed that one of the benefits of the enforced move to teaching online is that it will entail a move away from teaching content, and open up opportunities for a new vision of teaching that foregrounds students’ problem-solving skills. One of the many educational trends that have been rained down on teachers like the ten plaques of Egypt, is the idea that content is outdated, and that what counts in the Twenty First Century is Problem-Solving or Thinking Skills. It is an idea that has become all pervasive. At every Educational Technology Conference I’ve ever attended, at some stage a keynote speaker will express this point of view. Especially if they come from industry. “What we need is not people with paper qualifications,” they say, “it is people who can think and problem-solve!”

But can thinking be distilled from all context and taught as something discrete? Knowledge is changing so fast, the argument goes, that it will become outdated as soon as you teach it, and therefore what we need to be doing is teaching students to think, rather than teaching them content. This idea is seductive because of course it appeals to a kernel of truth. Knowledge is changing really fast. What I learned about the structure of the atom in high school is certainly not what is taught today! And yet the notion that somehow education’s core business has suddenly changed is somewhat ludicrous. Did teachers not teach students how to think pre-millenium? What does thinking that is separated from content look like, anyway?

My own career as a teacher has been affected by this movement towards explicit teaching of thinking. I teach a class called Thinking Skills. In this class we use problem-based approaches together with introducing the Harvard Visible Thinking Routines and cognitive tools such as the De Bono Thinking Hats, David Hyerle’s Thinking Maps and Costa and Kallick’s Habits of Mind. These thinking tools and strategies are embedded in every school subject, but the purpose of the Thinking Skills class we do in our grades 8-10 is to give importance to thinking itself, and to provide a platform for explicit teaching of the range of cognitive tools we use across the school. I am in two minds about how effective this is as an approach. Thinking, after all, is always about something. Thinking divorced of content makes no sense, and thinking always has a context. How you think as an historian, a musician or as a scientist is different. Learning to think in one context surely confers benefit, and surely fuels habits and dispositions which are transferable to other contexts. But how this happens is not easy to pin down, or easy to demonstrate. Nor is it automatic. We assume that it happens, but we cannot definitively demonstrate that it does. We hope that an awareness of different cognitive tools, and familiarity with using different thinking strategies will improve our students’ thinking skills. We try to teach them to notice when they need to reach into their cognitive tool kits, and develop their capacity to reflect on their own thinking, and to become better at choosing appropriate cognitive strategies. But all the documentation in the world does not add up to proof that this is effective. And as much as I think the Thinking class I teach is useful, I do not believe it supplants Maths or English classes in any way. Students still need to learn to think like a mathematician, or think like an artist!

There is some anecdotal evidence of course, that our approach to cognitive education does work. Visitors to the school express amazement at how well our students engage with problem-solving tasks. As encouraging as this feedback is, it does not amount to proof. The benefit of an explicit Thinking course is not really about improving performance in other subjects, the aim is to improve the ability to think in any context. I think what students enjoy about it is that they get to think about real-world problems without the pressure of assessment or swotting. I think it is also important in that it signals that what the school values is thinking, and the development of thinking dispositions. I believe that this approach has benefits because solving problems helps improve the ability to solve problems. Not least it builds confidence in the ability to solve problems. As anyone who has ever tackled problems like crossword puzzles, for example, will know, once you start to understand how the puzzles are set, and develop strategies for solving the clues, the easier it becomes to work through the clues. And even a difficult seven across will be tackled with a level of confidence that it can be solved given enough time. The ability to solve crosswords does not necessarily make one a better problem-solver in another context, such as Chess problems. One can be quite good at solving one type of problem, but quite bad at another. In our class we try to tackle different types of problems and help students develop strategies and tools for approaching problems. The hope is that each student will develop a sizable toolkit of cognitive tools, and an awareness of which tools are good in different situations.

So, whilst I believe that teaching Thinking has value, I do not believe it can be done divorced from the curriculum. At my school the explicit teaching of thinking is limited, we wish it to be embedded in our curriculum, rather than becoming the focus of the curriculum. It would be lovely to believe that the move online would allow teachers to throw off the yoke of curricula and standardized testing and teach students to think, to problem-solve. Sadly I do not think that it does. It is rather naive, to believe that students, simply by doing an online project rather than more formal classes, will develop thinking skills miraculously. Thinking skills need to be carefully scaffolded and nurtured. Even in a Thinking class tasks are contextualised and we seek to draw students’ attention to opportunities for transferring their skills across the curriculum. As any teacher who has ever set an open-ended project will know, the success of the project depends on how carefully it was scaffolded and supported. Remote learning will not suddenly unlock hidden abilities in our students. If we want those abilities to emerge we need to put in the pedagogical work to develop them. And remote teaching is hard, it is hard enough teaching the regular curriculum.

Doing the kind of work needed to foster advanced thinking skills over Zoom?

I don’t think so.

 

The Great Onlining – From Digital Natives to Digital Aliens – Reflections after Week Two!

After two weeks of remote teaching, I have to say that mental exhaustion is starting to set in. I can only imagine how challenging it is for students as well. In last week’s blog I highlighted the problem of reaching students online who might not be able to be reached, or might not want to be reached. Technological problems aside, the very constraints of online platforms may make it more difficult for students to focus, find relevant instructions and resources or manage their time effectively enough to be able to complete much work.

Marc Prensky popularised the idea of the Digital Native, one who appears to have the natural, in-born disposition for digital applications. Prensky defined this as a set of dispositions stemming from age alone. Anyone born after a certain date was somehow imbued with technology in their bloodstream, so to speak. The rest of us, born before this date were digital immigrants, we would have to learn how to use technology through pain and sweat. This idea has been thoroughly debunked. Anyone who has ever taught children ICTs will attest to this. Children are not born with the habits, behaviours and dispositions neatly in place to make them natural born users of technology. And many older people take to technology like a duck to water. Nevertheless the concept of digital nativity, of dispositions, a gaze which predisposes the person towards digital use does seem to hold some merit. We all know people who seem to get it naturally, and others who will probably never cope with anything digital. Perhaps digital nativity is an acquired, cultivated or trained gaze – a way of looking at things which makes some people better at dealing with the new technologies than others. This disposition is not dependent upon age, but describes a spectrum from digital nativity to digital alienation.

When teaching online this becomes absolutely crucial because the medium of delivery is so dependent upon the technology. In my experience with hybrid classrooms, any class follows a law of thirds, although the quantification of that fraction changes from year to year, class to class and lesson to lesson. Students have different digital dispositions. One third I shall call the Digital Natives with apologies to Marc Prensky. This group is quite capable of working independently online. They can find and follow instructions, manage the resources left by the teacher and manage to ask questions where needed to complete tasks totally online. They don’t really need a teacher to tell them what to do, they have a capacity and disposition for discovery and an ability to figure things out quite quickly on a digital platform. This group tends to submit assignments without prompting on time, often well before the due date.

A second third, the Digital Immigrants need instructions to be in-the-flesh, so to speak. They struggle to locate resources or instructions online, but can cope with whole class instructions. If a teacher tells them what to do, and where to look, they can then work on their own. This group needs someone to foreground what they need to notice. But once this is done, they are happy to work on the task, although they do ask more questions, and need more scaffolding generally. A quick online check-in meeting may be all they need to get working.

A third group, the Digital Aliens struggle online, but also need any instructions given to the whole class to be repeated individually. Something said to the group only seems to be processed effectively when repeated once they are ready to process the information. This group may not respond well to instructions given in a group check-in meeting for example. They need to be taken aside individually and carefully guided through every single step. This is extremely difficult on an online platform. You really need a one-on-one meeting. This can be done in class more easily whilst circulating, but for a student struggling with the technology anyway, setting up an individual tutoring session can be well nigh impossible.

If this perception is correct, it has important implications for remote (and online) instructional design. It suggests that students from each of these groups really needs different strategies. In a face-to-face classroom teachers are able to manage these differences much more seamlessly, although it is never easy. Online, differentiating teaching is much more difficult. In the last two weeks I think I have started to get the hang of managing the Digital Natives and Immigrants. By posting instructional videos online ahead of a class the Digital Natives have a head start. Then I have check-in meetings at scheduled times where I can answer questions, share my screen and show students how to do things. I record these as well as some students seem to need the question and answer to make sense of it all. What is extremely difficult is trying to reach the Digital Aliens, most of whom do not check-in during scheduled times, or probably even watch the videos. Often reaching this group involves long tortuous emails in which I try to make sense of the difficulties they are experiencing and coax them onto the platform.

Sometimes this results in a eureka moment, but often it results in radio silence. I have sent out a number of emails in the last week which basically said something like, send me what you’ve got so I can have a look. Many of tehse remain unanswered, but I live in hope that week three will bring my break-through moment with the Digital Aliens!

 

EduTech Africa 2018 – Moving Beyond the Technology to Make a Difference t

Over the last decade or so the focus of the ed tech conferences I have attended has shifted increasingly away from the technology itself towards what we can do to transform education. In the early years it was as if ed tech enthusiasts were like magpies, dazzled by every shiny new tool. Some of that sense of wonder still exists, of course, and is healthy. We need to be alive to new possibilities as technology evolves. But over the years we have learned to become more discriminating as we found what tools actually worked in our classrooms, and learned not to try to do too much at one time. The focus started shifting towards pedagogy, towards how to use the tools effectively. Behind this was always some thought as to the significance of the impact of technology on education. Common refrains have been the development of 21st Century Skills, personalised learning, a movement away from teacher-centred to student-centred approaches, problem-based learning, what technologies will disrupt education and learning based on the burgeoning field of neuroscience. The overall sense has been one of promise, that technology has the potential to make teaching and learning more effective, and that education will become transformative in liberating humanity from a model  grounded in the factory system and a mechanised reproduction of knowledge and skills.

 

This year’s conference was no different in content although the technologies have changed somewhat. The focus has shifted towards Artificial Intelligence, robotics and coding, especially how to involve women in STEM and how to infuse computational thinking across the curriculum. However, this is the first time the sense I have is not one of advocacy, but of militancy. Speakers from the world of work were united and adamant in a condemnation of schooling itself. A clear preference for extra-curricular learning and the futility of academic qualifications was presented stridently. Employers, we were told, prefer people able to solve problems. If any learning is required it can be delivered, just-in-time at the point of need, online via MOOCs. Tertiary qualifications should be modular and stackable, acquired over time when required to solve real world problems. Educators endorsed this stance stressing personalised learning and the use of Artificial Intelligence and even real-time feedback from brain activity. The sense was one of an urgent need for a curriculum based on problem solving rather than subject disciplines. If you need some Maths to solve a problem you can get it online. You don’t need to study Maths divorced from real world imperatives.

 

The very idea of tertiary institutions is clearly under massive assault, and it cannot be long before they come for secondary schools as well. What scares me about this is not that I don’t agree that learning should be problem-based at some level, or that degree programmes should not be using MOOCs and blended models to achieve greater modularity and be more student-driven. What scares me is what we lose by doing that. My fears are based on two premises.

 

Firstly, I believe that knowledge should be pursued for knowledge sake rather than for the needs of the world of work alone. Of course our education should prepare us for employment or entrepreneurship. To argue that it shouldn’t is folly. But knowledge has its own trajectory and logic. Mathematical knowledge, for example, represents a body of knowledge bounded by rules and procedures. It forms a coherent system which cannot be broken up into bite-sized chunks. Can one quickly study calculus without studying basic algebra just because you need calculus to solve a problem? Historical knowledge is not just about reading up on Ancient Sumeria on Wikipedia quickly. Historical knowledge is founded on a system of evidentiary inquiry within a narrative mode of explanation. I worry that just-in-time knowledge will lack a solid enough base. If we erode the autonomy of the universities and do away with academic research, what happens to knowledge? It will become shallow and facile.

 

Secondly, I believe that the discovery model of learning is deeply flawed. Of course, if left to our own devices, following our curiosity, we can discover much. It is a fundamental learning principle. But it is not very efficient. There is no earthly reason why teaching should be ditched. Being told something by someone else is as fundamental a learning principle as learning something for yourself. It is an effect of socialised learning. We learn from each other. Teaching is an ancient and noble profession, and there seems no reason to ditch it now. The scholar’s dilemma is that it is unusual to discover anything unless you know it is there, and this requires guides and mentors. The world we live in is complex and vast and we need a working knowledge of a great deal. Without extensive teaching, it is difficult to see how we could acquire the knowledge we need.

 

I would argue that we need a broad-based liberal education, focusing on critical thinking and problem solving, which gives us a grounding in Mathematics, the Sciences, the Arts and Humanities. At this stage, after a first degree, say, the best approach could well be just-in-time content delivery delivered online.

 

Just because technology can disrupt education doesn’t mean it should. Teachers have been very conservative in their adoption of new technologies, and I think this is a good thing. Education and knowledge are just too important to change willy nilly. We need to be certain that we are not destroying our evolutionary advantage, our ability to think, simply because we can.

 

Five Apps that Support Group Work in the Classroom

Constructivist Learning Theory emphasises the value of Group Work in the Classroom. As Vygotsky has highlighted, learning is first social before it becomes internalised. In other words the more opportunities students have to discuss and work through any content, the greater the opportunity to internalise that content. And yet many students have a hatred of group work. Learning to work with other people is not easy. Those with a healthy work ethic often do not know how to handle interactions with those who have less of a motivation to finish a task. Those who are used to achieving high marks for their individual assignments often feel resentful towards those who who turn in work they consider drags them down. Should they just take over and do all the work themselves, or do they accept peer contributions which they consider sub-standard? Others in the group may be resentful of those who try to take over, or who come across as bossy or exacting. And yet, more than ever, learning to work together and think interdependently is considered a crucial and employable skill.

Are there any digital applications which can help quieten the choppy Group Work waters? Here are five suggestions.

1. Google Docs

Google Docs provide unparalleled functionality for facilitating collaborative text authoring. A document can be shared with all members of the group, and the teacher, and then all who have been given editing rights can simultaneously work on the document. All changes are saved automatically. There is an online chat facility, and authors can leave comments and suggest edits. One of the greatest limitations on collaboration has always been the difficulties around sharing a document and writing one up. One member of the group often had to volunteer to do the “write up”. Google docs allows for this workload to be shared.

Teachers can carefully scaffold tasks within a Google doc and then share the document with a group so that the steps to be taken are highlighted, and strategies which might be deployed to afford collaborative thinking are suggested. In the graphic, the teacher is suggesting that de Bono Thinking Hats might help the group explore explore the topic though parallel thinking. Teachers can comment at any stage during the authoring process much as teachers circulating in a classroom can eavesdrop and intervene where necessary to get a group back on track. This allows teachers to  continue scaffolding learning in class, and outside class while students are authoring their write up.

These affordances for collaborative authoring and scaffolding make Google docs one of the most valuable educational tools to emerge in recent years. Students are able to use Google docs both while in group discussion, and for after-school homework.

2. Bubbl.us

Bubbl.us is a web-based tool, with limited free and paid options. It allows users to set up a mind-map board which groups discussing a topic can use to create mind maps and save these as a jpeg, png or even html, which can be downloaded and shared. Upgrading to paid versions allows users to share a mind-map which can then be used for follow-up tasks.

One of the limitations of any paper based mind-map is how to share it, if the ideas are needed for follow-up action. To my mind, mind mapping tools offer the key affordance of guiding discussion around how ideas fit together. It forces students to address issues such as where does this idea fit? This helps sharpen an argument.

Bubbl.us allows grid, tree and bubble layouts. You can insert files only with an upgraded paid version, but the free version does allow links, so students can use the mind map to record useful links.

Some way of recording a discussion in a form which can later be shared is invaluable, but mind maps are especially valuable because they force students to simultaneously organise their thoughts.

3. Padlet

Padlet is a web-based tool which has free and paid options. The free version allows up to four walls. On a wall you can add files, voice and video recordings, links searched from within Google, text and doodles. You can share the wall with other users, each with authoring rights, or share a link, or wall saved as pdf or image.

The chief affordance to my mind is the facility for co-authors to add voice or video messages to the wall. This provides a superb tool for a group to collect resources and leave commentary both while planning a project, and when leaving a report back, with group members recording commentary on different aspects of a topic.

A teacher can set up a topic and invite students to co-author a document, thus setting up a group, and providing impetus sources if required, or groups can set up their own walls and share with each other informally, or with the teacher, formally. Walls have different themes and templates which can be applied. A wall can be deleted when it is no longer needed.

4. Kahoot!

Kahoot! is a tool which allows students to create quizzes or games or discussion boards which they can then share with the rest of the class. This is a great end product which encourages a group to research a topic, master the content and share with the class in the form of a quiz. Students find Kahoots engaging to create and to consume. This provides one means a teacher can use to ensure that the end product is itself engaging and encourages the group to take care in its creation.

Thinking of suitable questions to ask the rest of the class is a great way to get students to dig down deeper into a topic than they might otherwise have done so. The competitive nature of the quizzes also seems to encourage students to put in greater effort.

5. Lino

Lino is a sticky note web-based application which allows multiple users to post sticky notes on a topic. Users can post files, links to videos or images on an electronic cork-board. This allows for group-based brainstorming. It is a very versatile tool in that it can be used by a group or whole class and used for multiple purposes from group discussion through to presentation and feedback or reflection.

I like to use it as a reflection tool for students to post final comments on a topic after group-based feedback presentations have been made. It is quick and visual  and allows for a rapid round-up of reflections or comments and makes for a good way to sign off on a topic.

For a teacher it is a good way to spot any comments which reveal need for further action. Maybe some aspect of the topic needs to be picked up on at a later stage, or could do with further exploration.

This list of tools is by no means exhaustive. There may be better examples of applications with improved functionality. All of these tools, however, represent different ways in which collaborative group-based work can be usefully supported and enhanced. Please use the comments to suggest other tools, or share how you are using these tools.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mentoring – The Killer App? Using Game Mechanics to achieve Differentiated Learning Opportunities.

One of the great conundrums facing education is that while we as teachers know that students only learn effectively when they are in their proximal zones of development, ie. learning something just a little above their current competence, we sit with classes of twenty to forty students, each one with different learning needs! How to personalise learning when economics determines larger class sizes remains the burning issue of our times. In an ideal world all classes might be one-on-one, or relatively small group sessions when preferred. In that way all instruction could be tailored towards the precise needs of each individual student. Those promoting the use of computers have long touted the machine as an answer. BF Skinner’s teaching machines promised the panacea of an infinitely patient machine providing students with individualised content and appropriate feedback, using branching procedures to make sure that each student received exactly what they needed to maximise learning. These machines did not work, however, and were quickly labelled drill and kill!

Now it might be that advances in Artificial Intelligence will deliver machines more capable of the subtlety and empathy required for effective content delivery and feedback, but we are not there yet. In my experience computer driven instructional software tends to be rejected by students overwhelmingly. The classroom still sits with the problem of one teacher and multiple students, and no clear way to offer personalization efficiently and effectively. Dan Buckley’s Personalisation By Pieces approach offers perhaps the best solution yet. Students create pieces of work which demonstrate mastery of skills. This work is uploaded electronically and assessed by a peer mentor who has passed the skill level being demonstrated. This provides the student with accreditation at that level and enables them to mentor and assess others. There is more to the system than this, but in a nutshell this is what is used to establish a cycle of virtuous practice designed to create independent learners.

The model presented is of two possible routes for Personalisation, one teacher lead (T-Route) and the other student driven (P-Route). The uses of ICT are accordingly different, specifically being used to monitor and record progress, and link peer mentors and mentees and provide them with channels of communication rather than to prepare teacher resources and instructional materials. Crucially learning becomes student-directed, with multiple pathways available and students able to choose which direction they wish to pursue. The key difference between the Personalisation By Pieces approach and Skinner’s Teaching Machines lies in the key insight that mentorship works to the benefit of both parties! Students who have completed a level are more than capable and benefit from helping explain, mentor and assess the work of their peers.

As Vygotsky noted, learning is social in the first instance, and we need the assistance of a more experienced other to help us bridge the gap between what we already know or can do, and what it is that we are learning. A system which uses peer mentor assessment could be crucial in providing the kind of individualised feedback that promotes personalised learning pathways. In my view this does not down-play the role of the teacher, whose whole class instruction and oversight of progress remains crucial.

Now the PbyP approach obviously crosses the borders of individual classrooms and schools in linking mentors and mentees, but it would be interesting to see what could be done even within individual classrooms and without the benefit of a custom-built ICT platform like PbyP.

Computer Gaming is often seen as the enemy of education, but as James Paul Gee has pointed out in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, computer games demonstrate principles of learning in remarkably efficient ways! Players are kept in their proximal zones of development and learning is artfully scaffolded. Players do not feel daunted by failure, they simply try and try and try again. Ample time is given for these re-takes, and the rewards are epic! No player seems to resent someone who is a level or two ahead of them, they simply strive to get their themselves. Players are also generous in their assistance, mentoring newbies and sharing strategies and tactics. We could do a lot worse than getting our classrooms to emulate games.

I am not arguing that every lesson should be gamified, or that the syllabus should be rewritten as a game. There is a great deal of knowledge which cannot be gamified. But I am suggesting that game mechanics should be used as exemplars of classroom management practice. In a game, players take on urgent tasks, but not necessarily in any given order. They tend to tackle that task and keep working at it until a solution is found. They may suffer spectacular failure, but bounce back until they succeed. Players collaborate to help each other out. This is exactly what we would like to see in the classroom. But how do we get the same effects without trivializing the tasks involved?

As a teacher of English Second Language, I often found a great deal of differentiation in level amongst the students in my class. But with classes of 35 plus, addressing everyone’s specific needs was difficult without creating a variety of tasks graded for ability. This is not really very difficult to do. Take comprehension skills, for example. I still did whole class instruction when tackling skills, strategies and approaches to comprehension. But when it came to selecting practice tasks for students to tackle, it is easy enough to have a box full of differentiated tasks, colour-coded for reading ability. These can be used across age cohorts. When tackling language skills, I would direct those students struggling with concord, for example, towards exercises around this, and those needing more work with vocabulary towards these tasks. I kept a file with a page per student to record what tasks had been completed, and what needed further work. While not very game-like, this did mean that students were tackling mastery across parallel, overlapping, but differentiated paths. One can easily imagine overlaying game mechanics to create a more engaging experience. Students loved the individual attention they were getting. I was usually able to sit down with about a third of my class in any session and I used to assess work in front of them and give feedback and follow-up tasks at the same time. I have never believed in taking marking home with me!

As a Computer Skills teacher I have a gamified my syllabus completely in that all the tasks revolve around a narrative – see The Mobius Effect – Gamifying Your Classroom. But while these tasks allow for different speeds of progress they are not differentiated according to learning needs. This is partly because a computer skills syllabus does not really involve much work that is really complicated. There are only so many spreadsheet skills, for example. Something more complicated and nuanced, such as comprehension skills provides far more need for branching. Many students struggle with idiomatic expressions. There appears to be something of a generation gap between the authors of pieces used in comprehension passages, magazine or newspaper articles, and school-aged readers. But others may be misconstruing the connotations of words and therefore missing the purpose of the writing. Differentiated learning paths would greatly benefit students in this instance. But simply adding a games layer to your English classroom may seem forced and artificial. Simply awarding badges and posting leaderboards does not seem to me to be the answer either.

The idea of using peer mentorship and assessment using more experienced peers to be found in Personalisation By Pieces, however, seems to me to offer a real alternative. To take our example of Comprehension Skills, having a student who is struggling with idiomatic language usage receive help and have a task based on idioms assessed by someone who has recently “passed” a unit of work based on idioms would deliver a useful and authentic context for games-like level based achievement. This could be achieved across grades and ages using online piece submission platforms such as Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams for Education. Analog work could be scanned for submission purposes if need be. This would provide a paper trail and record of what was covered.

 

 

 

 

Learn to Code Online – Making Waves with Code Combat

I do not usually review any platforms or tools which come with a cost, but Code Combat offers a free Introductory Unit which can be used as a stand-alone unit of work so I will set my scruples aside! My school has purchased a Code Combat license which includes 11 Units of work in either Python or JavaScript with some web development units using HTML and CSS. The platform has students create games by typing in code, and progressing from one level to another once they have completed a previous level. Each unit varies in length from about an hour to complete to several hours of work. The units introduce basic programming concepts such as For loops, While loops, nested loops and so on. Concepts are introduced incrementally and learning can be very rapid. I use it for my grade 8 & 9 Computer Skills classes. A solid diet of Code Combat is not a very good idea, so I intersperse it through the year with applications and information literacy assignments.

The platform is generally excellent, but there are a few issues which need to be taken into account when implementing it as a coding platform. You will note that I am not considering the wider question of whether to offer coding to all students. To my mind it is crucial that all students get some exposure to coding, not necessarily because everyone will be coding in their jobs, but because I believe everyone needs an understanding of how coding works, and because I think it helps develop problem solving skills generally! The command line interface, rather than the more usual drag and drop “Scratch” style interface helps develop skills of accuracy and precision.

The issue that I want to address is how the platform can be used pedagogically, because I believe it cannot simply be used on its own. The teacher cannot simply point students in the direction of the platform and walk away! I want to draw on Semantic Wave theory, which I have discussed in a YouTube video, to demonstrate what I mean. To recap, teaching and learning is crucially about the deconstruction and reconstruction of meaning (semantics). Teachers help students to unpack ideas, helping them understand complex or abstract ideas using metaphors, examples and everyday language so that they can understand it in their own terms. Teachers then help students to take these raw, more experiential, concrete or simple ideas and reformulate them in more academic understandings. An example would be when a teacher models the unpacking of a work of literature, exploring the themes and imagery of a Shakespearean play and  then scaffolding a student’s writing so that they can take incidents from the play and tease out the thematic concerns in a coherent literary essay. Knowledge is deconstructed and reconstructed.

This movement between abstract and complex and concrete and simple, and hopefully back again is described in the research literature as a semantic wave. Research into good practice in the classroom suggests that good teaching and learning requires a full range between abstract and concrete, complex and simple, and repeated waves over time. My own research interest lies in looking at what affordances technology may offer for meaning making practices in the classroom.

I have recently done an analysis of the lowering or strengthening of semantic gravity and density in one of the Code Combat units which taught web design skills (HTML and CSS). What emerged was a pattern not too unfamiliar in the classroom with traditional face-to-face instruction. The software was very good at explaining concepts, introducing an idea, such as a mark-up tag, and giving concrete examples so that students could understand what an HTML tag looks like, and what it does. Across the thirteen levels of the unit there were repeated movements between abstract and concrete as the software unpacked each of the concepts involved. Very little opportunity was given for students to explore the examples and try to reconstruct knowledge by, for example, creating novel tags. Only in the final two lessons was there any emphasis on encouraging students to build knowledge themselves.

This type of semantic wave, a movement from abstract (weak semantic gravity) to concrete (strong semantic gravity) is very common in the classroom. It is termed a “down escalator”. Down escalators are essential, and problematic only if they form the major part of the diet and are seldom accompanied by any upward movement of the wave. In other words most of the class is simply explanation, with very little opportunity for students to explore their own understandings and construct knowledge in their own voice.

This happens more often than we would like to admit in classrooms, but with digital platforms it is even more common. In fact this unit of work offers quite a decent nod at constructivist pedagogies with a fairly open ended final set of units in which the student is invited to use the knowledge they have gained to create their own web pages. When students construct knowledge, sound educational practice is to carefully scaffold this to help students draw valid conclusions. Experienced teachers are skilled at doing this, but educational software is not. Perhaps developments in Artificial Intelligence will render it more effective, but currently machines do not respond to what students are doing with much insight or facility. This makes the Instructional Design absolutely vital. If all the software does is help explain concepts to students, but never give them an opportunity to use that knowledge to reconstruct it in their own understandings and voice, that knowledge will never be internalized. Machines are ill-suited to this task. In this Code Combat unit of work the Instructional design does in fact give some opportunity to take knowledge of one tag, for example, and try it with another, or see what happens when the properties of tags are changed. There are in fact partial upward movements of the wave. part of the reason I chose Code Combat as a platform was that it does a reasonable job of explaining and giving an opportunity to practice skills, but it is clearly not enough.

In order to provide more scaffolding I had two choices. the first was to ensure that I was able to jump from student to student as they worked on the units, helping mediate the content to ensure greater opportunities for exploration. This might be practical on an individual basis, but almost impossible with a class of thirty as I had. I was also reluctant to become the expert, solving everyone’s problems. That way nobody except myself would learn anything! Debugging student code is also very time consuming, and in a class of thirty would give me, say one minute with each student, always assuming I could help spot any problems in that time!

The second option was to encourage students to work in pairs and provide peer and teacher mentoring. The aim of this was to ensure that students always had someone else present with whom to discuss what they were learning, help overcome problems when students got stuck, to try out ideas and compare code – “why does yours work and mine doesn’t?” This provides students with opportunities to explain to others why their code seems to work, and what their thinking was, and helps, I believe, build a better understanding over time. It also helps students to express their ideas about what they are doing and weakens the semantic gravity by getting them to abstract their thoughts out. Indeed when I do help a student what I try to do is ask them what they are trying to do rather than trying to fix the issue myself.

Peer mentoring and collaboration is a powerful way to bridge the gap between the instructional power of e-learning software, and its somewhat less potent ability to foster constructivist learning practice.

 

 

 

 

Big Data in Education – Big Brother!

The recent shenanigans surrounding Cambridge Analytica and Facebook reveals reasons why we should be very wary of Big Data in education. The argument is often advanced that computerization of the classroom will allow for the collection of large amounts of data on a student’s progress and for increased personalization and more effective pedagogical approaches to be adopted. Teachers are limited and when asked to teach large classes especially, are often unable to give the kind of individual attention we would like. This idea harks back to the teaching machines beloved of Behaviourist psychology and the dream that programmed learning paths could be built into instructional design in such a way as to deliver the right content at the right time for each individual, making learning much more efficient. I have two problems with this notion. Firstly it ignores the crucial understanding of learning as a social construct, reducing it to a solitary interaction between student and teacher (machine). And secondly it dovetails so neatly with the great push for Taylorist efficiency and the erosion of privacy as to raise alarm bells around our civil liberties. If they can gather so much data about us when we are young and in school, how on earth will they use it later when a student has graduated? Will that data be destroyed or sold on for profit? Will the data belong to the student, the school or the educational publishers producing the software?

At the risk of sounding like a Conspiracy Theorist, I do believe that it is incumbant on us as teachers to do everything in our power to protect the data of our students, especially such sensitive data as intimate knowledge of learning patterns and behaviours! If I know how you learn, I have great insight into how to control your behaviour, what shoes you will buy, or how you will vote!

As important as this point is, I do not want to dwell on it. Learning is not individual, It is social, as Vygotsky pointed out. We learn first socially and then internalize that knowledge individually. The distance between the two, Vygotsky termed the Proximal Zone of Development. We need more experienced others to show us not only how to do things or to pass on knowledge, but also to show us what is knowable. What we believe it is desirable to know is also socially constructed. I learn to do things first with the help, guidance and instruction of others, and then, after a while, am able to do it myself. Can machines fulfil the role of the more experienced other? In some ways, yes. Pressey’s testing machines from the 1920s or Skinner’s teaching machines from the 1950s demonstrated that programmed learning could be used with some degree of success. However, these machines, and the computer programs that replaced them have not been dubbed drill and kill for nothing! While there is some research evidence that they were successful for weaker students, their interface and relentless diet of machine delivered question and answer killed all motivation and they lost favour as the fortunes of Behaviourism waned.

As Constructivist learning theories gained traction, learning machines were ditched in favour of new theories about how machines could be used in the classroom. Seymour Papert’s influential Constructionism and approaches such as Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow came into vogue. Computers were to be used by students to author content and as tools for active learning. But beyond this, with the advent of the Internet, computers came to be seen as above all else tools for communication and collaboration, well suited for affording contact between students. Google docs, with its capacity to allow multiple users to author a single document simultaneously unlocked the power of collaboration. Skype could bring other students from across the globe into a classroom, or allow videos to be exchanged across continents. These are hugely engaging uses, and if used properly, can have enormous educational benefits. But they depend on being almost invisible. When you are collaborating in a Google hangout or a Google doc you are not concerned about the technology, you are engaging with other people’s minds! Learning is social, meaning we learn by, with and from others.

The notion of the computer as a device that could track student progress and provide just the right input and feedback at just the right time never quite went away, however, and the growing capacity of computers to do this has led to a resurgence in the belief in personalized teaching machines. Many platforms allow student progress to be tracked and content unlocked depending on progress. Khan Academy, for example has such an interface, and programs such as MyMaths allow teachers to track progress on a dashboard. While this may seem innocuous and indeed beneficial, the drill and kill effect is often cited by students who resist, or try to subvert such programs when they are used in the classroom. These programs are sold in the name of personalization and with a Big Data tagline. The technology may improve, but at the moment these uses of technology are viewed by students as boring and alienating.

And if the technology improves, the Conspiracy Theorist in me starts to be afraid, really afraid!

 
 
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