You will be forgiven for not knowing the meaning of the word gallimaufry. I didn’t before I read this piece. The definition, ‘a confused jumble or medley of things’ can sometimes be applied to education, especially during this period of emergency remote teaching. Lester Lalla, Headmaster at St John’s Preparatory School, offers a way through the confusion.
The sudden closure of schools and the race to online learning has been a mammoth task for educators across the globe. I maintain that the dedication and devotion of teachers is incomparable. I am very proud of my profession.
Educational technology has been a game-changer. It has enabled us to engage our students remotely and enabled us to teach in both synchronous and asynchronous ways. However, while EdTech is an enabler, it is not a substitute teacher. A growing…
With everything moving on-line, I’m seeing more discussion about whether this on-line life might just be better. Amy Ko recently blogged (see post here) about how virtual conferences are cheaper, more accessible, and lower carbon footprint than face-to-face conferences, ending with the conclusion for her “it is hard to make the case to continue meeting in person.” My colleague, Sarita Yardi, has been tweeting about her exploration of “medium-independent classes” where she considers (see tweet here), “Trying to use the block of class time just because that’s how we’ve always taught seems like something to revisit. Less synchronous time; support short, frequent individual/small group interaction, less class time.”
The second day of the conference started with a series of keynotes focusing on the what, the content of education. Hayden Brown walked us through The Big History Project, an online course which looks at the history of the universe and our place in it. What struck me was the affordances offered by technology to take the curriculum to places beyond the reach of an individual teacher, but I sensed in Hayden’s story the power of a passionate teacher to make a difference.
Hadi Partovi talked about the need to teach computer science in all schools. His code.org has done amazing work in promoting coding in schools, and represents a clear imperative to address a world where computer science is increasingly important. What struck me was how obvious that seems, and how important training teachers is going to be. I am not convinced by his argument that teachers can be reskilled to teach computer science that easily. There is not just a knowledge base to be learned, but a way of thinking too, and I’m not sure a short course can do that.
The drive to address an uncertain future in which we have to prepare students for a world of work that has not been created yet remains at the forefront of everyone’s attention. How to use the tools available, not just to enhance teaching, but also to empower students as authors and creators emerges as a central theme running through many of the talks. Whether the tool is a robot, VR goggles, a 3D printer or a Google doc, the central message of the day was how to make students the authors of their own stories, the architects of their own learning.
I have to end this summary of the day with a comment I overheard at lunch, that this is all very well, but conferences like this speak to those who are already enthusiastic about tech. But what of the rest of faculty? What of teachers who shun technology? How do we include them?
I have no answer to that question. But I do believe that the pool of teachers who are enthusiastic adopters has increased exponentially, and will continue to do so. Perhaps we have already reached a critical mass, a tipping point. Many teachers are quiet adopters, who have integrated technology into their classrooms without fanfare, sufficient to their purposes. Not everyone needs to champion a cause.
A bigger question is how to extend access to schools and teachers who fall on the wrong side of the digital divide. Lack of equity comes in many forms, but the most crippling way in which inequality is reproduced is the uses to which technology is put. Some students are being taught to think critically and be creative with tech, others to capture data in a mindless way.
That, to my mind is the big question that all teachers need to address.
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.
On the second day of the Conference the focus seemed to shift from what schools should be doing, to the nature of learning itself. Dr Maria Calderon took us on a whistlestop tour of what neuroscience has to tell us about learning. Key to understanding this is the surprising role played by emotion in mediating learning experiences. If the amygdala is too excited learning is blocked. Ian Russell then stressed the importance of changing the way learning happens in schools so that it reflects how the world now works and students are better prepared for the world of work. Learning needs to be flexible and delivered just in time. Employers are interested in your skills not your qualifications. The days of students earning a degree and then entering the world of work are gone. Mark Lester amplified this idea by stressing how tertiary learning is increasingly blended and modular. Life-long learning is the new norm.
Dr Neelam Parmar presented us with a model for weaving together technology and pedagogy. Choices around technology and pedagogy are driven by decisions around curriculum and finding a match between schools and the world of work. She left us with an image of the accelerated use of AI in schools: robots in China that monitor student attention and nudge them awake when they fall asleep.
It is in many ways an image which encapsulates the future and its possibilities. Technology can deliver a more personalised, seamless tracking of educational achievement, much of it delivered online. Students of all ages can learn what they need to learn just in time, building their own curriculum. The curriculum can be based on the task, the challenge at hand. And yet there is a danger, a danger that we will lose the ability to discriminate out what it is that is important to learn. The dilemma of self directed study is that you can’t know what you need to learn until you have learned it.
There is a strong movement away from traditional school disciplines, towards problem based learning, and I believe this is a mistake. Knowledge is coherent because it is bounded by a field. If it becomes nothing more than fodder for solving problems we lose something very valuable and that is the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge sake. Something happens when you do history for its own sake, not just to prepare for a career in politics, for example. Or if you do maths just for engineering. You lose a certain perspective, you lose knowledge itself. Knowledge is not just something you gain to live, it is something, almost tangible that enriches our lives because it throws up surprising perspectives and unleashes powerful forces of change.
The conference this year had a strong sense that the teacher is increasingly irrelevant, and I’m not that convinced that wide awake robots are the best solution. I think the teacher will be with us for quite a while yet!
The video game Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag came about five years ago. And as an avid fan of Assassin’s Creed, my son and his friends were some of the first in line to purchase it. And play it.
If you’re not familiar with the Assassin’s Creed line of video games, they’re basically an action adventure featuring a centuries old struggle between two groups of people – the Assassins, who fight for peace and free will, against the Templars, who believe peace comes through control of humanity. There’s fighting, walking around, some fighting, sneaking around, more fighting, some running, and then some more fighting. Fairly typical video game.
The thing that makes the series a little different than many other action adventure or first person shooter games, is the creators of Assassin’s Creed have been very deliberate about mixing the historical fiction of Assassins vs. Templars with real-world historical events and figures. In Assassin’s Creed III…
It’s not a secret. I say it a couple times a week:
“If Google was a person, I’d marry it.”
And not just for it’s money. (Though that would be nice.) I love how the Google universe has something for everyone. Elementary. Middle and high school. Different content areas. A variety of tools for consuming and creating. VR. Digital literacy.
You don’t have to look very hard before you find something you can use.
But one of the easiest things you can use is the Google Chrome browser and what Google calls Chrome extensions.
A Chrome extension is basically a small piece of software that you download from the Chrome Web Store and add to your Chrome browser. These little pieces of software extend the capabilities of the browser across multiple web sites and do something that the browser itself can’t do. Most extensions add a button to your browser’s taskbar to…