Why do so many “Digital Age” Ed-Tech initiatives run aground in the classroom? That was the critical question that I tackled on September 10, 2016, at the researchED 2016 National Conference in London, UK. My short presentation set out to confront the significant challenges posed for classroom teachers by initiatives attempting to usher in what is now termed the “Brave New World” of 21st century learning. It also attempted to pick-up and further develop insights gleaned from Tom Bennett’s thought-provoking 2013 book, Teacher Proof, an indispensable little handbook for every teacher who’s been introduced to an ‘innovative’ teaching strategy or ‘new’ curriculum and been told that it is “based upon the research.”
The current 21st Century Learning mantra likely found its origins in a very influential November 2000 OECD Schooling for Tomorrow address by Sir Michael Barber, British PM Tony Blair’s chief education advisor. In his sppech, “The Evidence of Things Not Seen: Re-conceptualizing Public Education,” he provided the essential narrative, replicated in most of the derivative education initiatives:
“The explosion of knowledge about the brain and the nature of learning, combined with the growing power of technology, creates the potential to transform even the most fundamental unit of education: the interaction of the teacher and the learner. Moreover, huge social changes, such as growing diversity and population mobility, present educators with new and constantly changing circumstances. As a result, the characteristics which defined the successful education systems of, say, 1975, are unlikely to be those which will define success in the future.”
Barber and his disciples unleashed what I term “Big Idea mimmickry” that popped up in a whole series of top-down education policy spin-offs ranging from the infamous June 2009 UK “Your Child, Your Schools,Our Future” declaration to New Brunswick’s short-lived 2010 “21st Century Learning” initiative (NB3-21C) with its bizarre CRT2 formula, with C standing for “Creativity,” R representing “Relevance,” the first T signifying “Time” and the second one “Technology.” In the case of New Brunswick, it provided a convenient new pedagogy to accompany the mass distribution of laptops to all of the province’s teachers. While the NB plan fizzled and died, its initiator, Deputy Minister John D. Kershaw, resurrected it and took it nation-wide rebranded as C21 Canada: Canadians for 21st Century Learning and Innovation, championed by the Council of Ministers of Education and bankrolled by Canadian branches of the world’s leading learning corporations.
Most “Digital Age Revolution” plans, like the September 2015 North Carolina version, promote “binary thinking” pitting the “old” against the “new,” analogue vs. digital, and traditional vs digital age/progressive. It all rests upon the purely theoretical assumption that constructivist learning is better than explicit instruction, and proceeds to perpetuate such false dichotomies. The latest iteration, Michael Fullan’s “New Pedagogies of Deeper Learning,” hatched with Barber and Pearson Education, is the most recent example of Digital Age pedagogical theory rooted in such fallacious thinking.
Twenty first century learning advocates set out to “Shift Minds” utilizing You Tube videos mimicking Colorado IT teacher Karl Fisch’s 2006 smash hit, Shift Happens. Riding that 21st century bicycle has proven difficult, facing an uphill climb against stiff headwinds emanating from resistant classroom teachers and legions of concerned elementary school parents.
Three dominant ideologies have recently arisen to propel the latest phase of high-tech education: personalization, robotization, and Goolization. Mass introduction of ICT is now packaged as a way of “personalizing” education for today’s students, allowing them to work more independently and to proceed at their own pace. Preparing pupils for a life “dancing with robots” is now accepted uncritically as a necessity in the 21st century workplace. School districts once cautious about technology integration are turning to Google for single-source agreements to get free or heavily discounted access to Google Apps for Education (GAFE). Few education bureaucrats seem to question these priorities or the implications of such technological initiatives.
Education policy analysts like Stanford Education professor Larry Cuban and Hack Education blogger Audrey Watters have issued periodic warnings about the impact of “machines” on teachers in the classroom. In Teachers and Machines, Cuban examined previous cycles of classroom technology from film strip projectors to calculators. Every new innovation, he shows, has followed the same pattern in the classroom: adoption by teachers, inflated claims by enthusiasts, deflated expectations, then followed by a new technological panacea.
So far, ed-tech has not transformed how teachers teach in the classroom. That’s the firm assessment of Larry Cuban in a June 2015 piece posted on the Education Week Digital Learning Blog. It also prompted me to dig a little deeper to find our why there is such teacher resistance to initiatives seeking to introduce widespread e-learning in K-12 schools.
Based upon my own recent research, conducted for an upcoming chapter in the Springer Guide to Digital Learning in K-12 Schools (September 2016), the explanation is deceptively simple. Top-down initiatives branded with “21st Century Learning” labels tend to falter and rarely succeed in winning over regular teachers or in penetrating the so-called ‘black box’ of the school classroom. The potential of e-learning will only be realized when initiatives enjoy the support of regular classroom teachers and engage those teachers from the school-level up.
Top-down initiatives simply do not work in education, and a succession of struggling high-tech education initiatives are proving this every school day in classrooms world-wide. Four critical factors come into play in undoing such initiatives: great teaching still matters most, “sheep dip” tech-ed training does not last, new pedagogies are merely ‘warmed-over’ constructivist ventures, and teachers integrate IT only when it demonstrably improves their teaching effectiveness.
All is not lost when it comes to introducing technology and e-learning in the classroom, if the hard lessons are absorbed by wise education policy makers and head teachers, capable of tuning out 21c learning missionaries and IT zealots. It will take what I describe as a “flexible, agile, responsive approach” starting with teachers themselves.
To that end, at researchEd 2016 in London, I proposed four strategies with a better chance of succeeding in winning over today’s teachers.
1: Support Early Adopters committed to Technology Integration and initiating Blended Learning Programs
2: Strengthen and expand Existing and ‘Seed’ New Self-Directed Online Learning Programs
3: Focus on building the A La Carte Model of Blended Learning Programs in Junior and Senior High Schools
4: Build School Leadership capacity in E-Learning, Change Management, and Disruptive Innovation
5: Develop and test (before proceeding large-scale) more reliable measures of the effectiveness of E-Learning Program innovations.
What is really needed is a much more strategic, longer-term Technology Integration plan in our school systems. Teachers must be in full control of the technology— to produce true deeper knowledge of much greater benefit to students. Students and teachers are yearning for more stimulating and engaging classroom instruction, tapping into the potential of e-learning. We deserve much more from our schools. My presentation was intended, in a small way, to demystify e-learning in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.
Why do high-sounding 21st century learning initiatives fail to gain traction among classroom teachers? When will high-tech education advocates begin to demonstrate that their have absorbed the hard lessons? Is my modest set of proposals worth pursuing? Would it work – where it counts – with teachers and students in the classroom?