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Archive for August, 2019

Students and parents in the Pontus school in Lappeenranta, one of the first  Finnish schools to implement the “phenomenon-based” digital curriculum, are now disputing the broad claim made by the World Economic Forum in its 2018 Worldwide Educating for the Future Index. Concerned about the new direction, parents of the children have lodged a number of complaints over the “failure” of the new school and cited student concerns that they didn’t “learn anything” under the new curriculum and pedagogy. For some, the only recourse was to move their children to schools continuing to offer a more explicit teaching of content knowledge and skills.

The Finnish parent resistance is more than a small blip on the global education landscape. It strikes at the heart of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s 2016 plan to introduce “phenomenon’ problem-solving — replacing more traditional subject-based curriculum in mathematics, science, and history with an interdisciplinary model focusing on developing holistic skills for the future workplace. Perhaps more significantly, it blows a hole in the carefully-crafted image of Finland as the world leader in “building tomorrow’s global citizens.”

The basis for Finland’s claim to be a global future education leader now rests almost entirely upon that 2018 global ranking produced by the World Economic Forum, based upon advice gleaned from an ‘expert panel’ engaged by The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited.  While Finland has slipped from 2000 to 2015 on the more widely-recognized Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings, that educational jurisdiction remains a favourite of global learning corporations and high technology business interests. A close-up look at who provides the “educational intelligence” to the World Economic Forum demonstrates the fusion of interests that sustains the global reputation of Finland and other Western nations heavily invested in digital technology and learning.

The 2018 World Economic Forum future education index was a rather polished attempt to overturn the prevailing research consensus.  The PISA Worldwide Ranking – based upon average student scores in math, reading and science — place Asian countries, Estonia and Canada all ahead of Finland in student achievement.  The top five performers are Singapore (551.7), Hong Kong (532.7), Japan (528.7), Macau (527.3), and Estonia (524.3). A panel of seventeen experts, selected by The Economist Intelligence Unit, sets out to dispute the concrete student results of an OECD study of 70 countries ranking 15-year-olds on their scholastic performance.

The Economist Intelligence Unit index runs completely counter to the PISA rankings and attempts to counter the well-founded claim that student mastery of content-knowledge and fundamental skills is the best predictor of future student success in university, college and the workplace. Upon close examination, the World Economic Forum index seeks to supplant the established competencies and to substitute a mostly subjective assessment of “the effectiveness of education systems in preparing students for the demands of work and life in a rapidly changing landscape”( p. 1). It focuses on the 15 to 24 year-old-age band in some 50 countries around the world. Setting aside how students are actually performing, we are provided with a ranking based almost exclusively on compliance with so-called “21st century learning” competencies – leadership, creativity, entrepreneurship, communication, global awareness, and civic education skills.

The poster child nation for the World Economic Forum rankings is Finland, now ranked 8th on its PISA scores, because it has now embraced, full-on, the “21st century learning” ideology and invests heavily in technology-driven digital education. The balance of the Top 5 World Economic Forum nations, Switzerland, New Zealand, Sweden, and Canada, rank 15th, 16th, 26th, and 5th on the basis of their students’ PISA scores. Most problematic of all, the future education ranking downgrades the current global education leaders, Singapore (7th), Japan (12th), and Hong Kong (15th).  Mastery of academic competencies is, based upon the assessment criteria, not relevant when you are ranking countries on the basis of their support for technology-driven, digital education.

Who produced the World Economic Forum rankings?  The actual report was written by Economist Intelligence Unit contract writer Denis McCauley, a veteran London-based global technology consultant, known for co-authoring, a Ricoh-sponsored white paper, Agent of Change, alerting business leaders to the urgent necessity of embracing Artificial Intelligence and technological change.  Scanning the seventeen-member expert panel, it’s dominated by the usual suspects, global technology researchers and digital education proponents. One of the more notable advisors was Chief Education Evangelist for Google, Jaime Casap, the American technology promoter who spearheaded Google’s Apps for Education growth strategy aimed at teachers and powered by online communities known as Google Educator Groups, and “leadership symposiums” sponsored by the global tech giant.

Most of The Economist Intelligence Unit advisors see Finland as the ‘lighthouse nation’ for the coming technological change in K-12 education. Heavily influenced by former Finnish education ambassador, Pasi Sahlberg, they are enamoured with the Finnish model of phenomenon-based learning and its promise to implant “21st century skills” through structural changes in curriculum organization and delivery in schools.  It’s not surprising that it was actually Sahlberg who first tweeted about the Pontus school uprising, likely to alert Finnish education officials to the potential for broader resistance.

Launched in 2016 with a flurry of favourable ed-tech friendly research, the Finnish curriculum reform tapped into the rather obscure academic field of phenomenology.  The new curriculum adopted a phenomenon-based approach embracing curriculum integration with a theoretical grounding in constructivism. All of this was purportedly designed to develop student skills for the changing 21st century workplace. The ultimate goal was also spelled out by Canadian education professor Louis Volante and his associates in a World Economic Forum-sponsored April 2019 commentary extolling “broader measures” of assessing success in education. Peeling away the sugary coating, “phenomenon learning” was just another formulation of student-centred, project-based, 21st century skills education.

The daily reality for students like grade 6 student Aino Pilronen of Pontus School was quite different. “The beginning of the day was chaotic,” she reported, as students milled around developing study plans or hung-out in the so-called “market square.” “It was hard for me that the teacher did not teach at first, but instead we should have been able to learn things by ourselves.” Her brutally honest assessment: ” I didn’t learn anything.”

The Economist Intelligence Unit not only ignored such concerns voiced by students and parents, but brushed aside evidence that it would not work for the full range of students. A Helsinki University researcher, Aino Saarinen, attributed the decline in Finland’s PISA education standing to the increasing use of digital learning materials. Investing 50 million Euros since 2016 in training teachers to use digital devices and laptops, she claimed was not paying-off because “the more that digital tools were used in lessons, the worse learning outcomes were” in math, science, and reading. The most adversely affected were struggling and learning-challenged students, the very ones supposedly better served under the new curriculum.

What can we learn from taking a more critical, independent look at the actual state of Finnish education?  If Finnish education is in decline and 21st century learning reform encountering parental dissent, how can it be the top ranked “future education” system?  Who is providing the educational intelligence to the World Economic Forum?  Is it wise to accept a global ranking that discounts or dismisses quantitative evidence on trends in comparative student academic achievement? 

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Every school year seems to herald the arrival of a new crop of education books seeking to “fix the education system.”  Some champion the latest educational panacea, others target the supposed causes of decline, and a select few identify a possible pathway for improving teaching and learning or making schools better. Despite significant investments in remedial programs and ‘learning supports,’ a yawning “achievement gap” persists between students from marginalized or low-income families and their more affluent counterparts and, with few exceptions, it has not closed much over the past fifty years.

Two new education reform books, Natalie Wexler’s The Knowledge Gap, and Michael Zwaagstra’s A Sage on the Stage, raise hope that the sources of the problem can be identified and actually addressed in the years ahead. Each of the two books, one American, the other Canadian, offer markedly similar diagnoses and urge policy-makers and educators alike to shore-up the rather emaciated content knowledge-based curriculum. 

Prominent American journalist Wexler demonstrates that elementary school teaching and learning, once considered a bright spot, is so undernourished that most teachers now teach as though it doesn’t matter what students are reading or learning, as long as they are acquiring skills of one kind or another.  Manitoba high school teacher Zwaagstra, in one commentary after another, shows how teaching content knowledge has been downgraded at all levels and overtaken by constructivist experiments embedded in the latest “foolish fads infecting public education.”

Forays into American elementary schools, during Wexler’s field research, produce some alarming lessons.  First graders in a Washington, DC, inner city school are observed, virtually lost, drawing clowns or struggling to fill-in worksheets in a class supposedly based upon a rather dense article about Brazil. Teachers jump wily-nily from topic to topic asking students to read about clouds one day, then zebras the next, completely out of context.  Few elementary teachers seem aware of the science of learning or the vital importance of prior knowledge in reading comprehension. Equally disturbing is the general finding that so many elementary teachers simply assume that children can acquire content knowledge later, after they have a modicum of skills. Such ‘progressive education’ assumptions prevail in most elementary schools, public, private and independent, almost without variation.

Zwaagstra’s book, composed of his best Canadian newspaper commentaries over the past decade, takes dead aim at the prevailing ideology fostered in faculties of education and perpetuated by provincial and school district armies of curriculum consultants and pedagogical coaches. Beginning teachers are trained to resist the temptation to be “a sage on the stage” and instead strive to be “a guide on the side.”  Zwaagstra completely rejects that approach on the grounds that it undermines teacher content knowledge and devalues the expertise of professionals in the classroom. He is, in this respect, speaking the same language as most secondary school teachers who have never really given up the notion that prior knowledge matters and that knowing your subject is critical to higher achievement in colleges and universities.

Zwaagstra speaks up for regular classroom teachers who focus on what works in the classroom and have learned, over the years, to be skeptical of the latest fads. Most regular teachers reading his stinging critiques of ‘discovery math,” whole-language-founded “balanced literacy,” and  incomprehensible “no zero” student evaluation policies will likely be nodding in approval. Not content simply to pick holes in existing theories and practices, he makes a common sense case for strategies that do work, especially in high schools —explicit instruction, knowledge-rich curriculum, and plenty of practice to achieve mastery.

Both Wexler and Zwaagstra go to considerable lengths to spare teachers from the blame for what has gone wrong in the school system. Prevailing pedagogical theories and education professors are identified as the purveyors of teaching approaches and practices floating on uncontested progressive education beliefs. When it comes to teaching reading comprehension, Wexler carefully explains why teachers continue to teach reading comprehension as a set of discrete skills instead of being founded on prior knowledge and expanded vocabulary. It is, in her analysis, “simply the water they’ve been swimming in, so universal and taken for granted they don’t question or even mention it.”  In Zwaagstra’s case, he’s very sympathetic to hard-working teachers in the trenches who cope by carrying-on with what works and developing ‘work-arounds’ when confronted by staunch ideologues or impossible mandates.

What’s really significant about these two education reformers is that both are strong advocates for, and supporters of, the international researchED movement out to challenge and dispel popular myths that have little or no basis in evidence-based research or cognitive science. Zwaagstra is a very popular presenter at researchED Canada conferences and Wexler is one of the headliners at the upcoming American researchED conference, November 16, 2019, in Philadelphia, PA. 

The two authors are very much part of the great awakening made possible by the flourishing of social media conversations, especially on EduTwitter, where independently-minded educators from around the world now go to debate education reform, share the latest research in cognitive science, and discuss ways of grappling with common problems in everyday teaching.

Slowly, but surely, the global edu-gurus are losing their single channel, uncontested platforms and facing more and more teachers equipped to call into question prevailing teaching approaches and fashionable education fads. Moving forward is now less about finding and embracing education evangelists or grabbing hold of,  and riding, the latest fad, and far more about interrogating accepted truths and trusting your teacher colleagues to work out what works in the classroom.

What’s significant about the two books — Natalie Wexler’s The Knowledge Gap and Michael Zwaagstra’s A Sage on the Stage?  Now that the call for content-knowledge curriculum is back in vogue in the United States, will Canadian policy-makers and educators  begin looking more critically at their policies and practices?  With more educators embracing a knowledge-rich curriculum, what would it take to successfully challenge the the sugary progressive education consensus in elementary schools?  

 

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The rise of the Internet has created a new generation of edu-gurus initially showcased in TED Talks and now powered by their personal blogs and popular e-books. One of the most influential of the crop is Seth Godin, the creative force and animator famous for his rapid-fire commentaries on Seth’s Blog. Hailed by Business Week as “the ultimate entrepreneur for the Information Age,” the marketing whiz also has, since 2012, acquired a following in the education world. His TED Talks, published in an e-book as Stop Stealing Dreams, have been wildly popular with educators and shared millions of times on the Internet.

SethGodinBlogPixWatching Seth Godin in action is very alluring and entertaining, but, when you break down his performances and closely examine his bold assertions, you wonder if there is less here than meets the eye. Marketing is all about mass persuasion and pleasing your customers and some practitioners are essentially mesmerizers or worse, con-artists. In his own field, he is regarded as a star performer and has been likened to “the JFK of the blogosphere: revered, quoted, beloved.” Many in his field were likely aghast in June 2007 when one of their tribe posted a critical commentary that dared to ask What if Seth Godin was full of crap?” 

Godin is a rather unlikely guru for educators. After working as a software brand manager in the mid-1980s, he started Yoyodyne, one of the first dot.com direct marketing enterprises. His firm was acquired by Yahoo in 1998 for $30-million and the global Internet giant hired Godin as vice-president of permission marketing. He’s authored 18 books, mostly in marketing, including such attention-grabbing best-sellers as Permission Marketing (1999), Purple Cow (2003), All Marketers Are Liars (2005), and The Icarus Deception (2012).  It’s rare for a global marketing expert like Godin to find a friendly audience in the education sector.

Today’s educators know Godin through Seth’s Blog, his personal platform generating a steady stream of posts and tweets, some of which venture into education. He made his name in the field with an October 2012 TEDxYouth Talk entitled Stop Stealing Dreams – The School System and a subsequent YouTube Interview on Education Reform. “When we put kids in the factory we call school, the thing we built to indoctrinate them into compliance,” he stated, “why are we surprised when they ask ‘what’s on the test’?” Comparing work with art, he used his rhetorical skills to make the case that schools were monolithic in their structure — not only factory-like but trained kids for “compliance” and “obedience” rather than meaningful, engaged lives.

Godin poses a Big Question – “What are Schools For?” and that raises expectations that he will be providing a fresh perspective. Much of his system analysis lacks depth and is derivative. He encourages us to freely “steal ideas from others” and, in this case, he offers up simplified versions of John Taylor Gatto (factory system and weapons of mass instruction), Sir Ken Robinson ( find your ‘creative’ element), and Alfie Kohn ( gradeless schools, learn at your own pace).  He’s either oblivious to, or dismissive of, more firmly grounded answers to that question, including the highly original formulations of Mortimer Adler ( The Paideia Proposal), Kieran Egan (Getting it wrong from the beginning), Martin Robinson ( Trivium 21c), and Paul A. Kirschner (future-proof education)

As a former dot.com executive, Godin put tremendous faith in technology to transform schools and learning.  “For the first time in history,” he proclaimed, ” we do not need humans standing in front of us teaching us square root.” His technology-driven agenda set out eight proposed education reforms, many now parroted by his followers. His key tenets were:

  • Flip the classroom by exposing students through homework to world-class speakers on video at night and devoting class time to face-to-face interactions and discussion of concepts and issues;
  • Open book, open notes all the time, based upon the belief that memorization is pointless in the Internet age;
  • Abandon grade-level and subject knowledge progression in favour of access to any course anywhere in the world, anytime;
  • Measure experience instead of standardized test scores and focus on cooperation rather than isolation;
  • Precise, focused education instead of mass, batch-driven education;
  • Transform teachers into coaches;
  • Life-long learning with work happening earlier in life;
  • Depth of study in college rather than attending famous ‘brand name’ universities.

Stepping back and zeroing-in on Seth’s education reform agenda, it becomes clear that most if not all of these reforms embrace what is known as “21st century learning” and are prime examples of “romantic progressivism.” Furthermore, it is mostly technology-driven and bound to undermine the remaining autonomy and disciplinary expertise of teachers.

SethGodinPictogramA more recent July 2019 Seth Godin post, “Pivoting the education matrix,” reaffirms his  well-known ‘meta-model” and reform agenda. Schools and classes, Godin continues to insist, “do not teach what they say they teach” and still focus on inculcating “obedience through comportment and regurgitation.” That would seem to imply that most student-centred methodologies featured in PD sessions and model constructivist practices posted on Edutopia are either just for show or figments of the imagination.

His proposed menu of skills is rather odd, like a grab-bag of ill-defined options. Most surprising of all, Godin utterly fails to draw a distinction between the proposed curricular skills (cooperation, problem-solving, mindfulness, creativity and analysis) and the implicit or hidden curriculum (management and obedience). Buried in the curious mix is one nuanced, evidence-based idea: “teaching domain knowledge in conjunction with the skill, not the other way around.” 

TED Talkers like Seth Godin are quickly becoming passe and facing increasing challenges from educators far better versed in school settings, evidence-based research, and what actually works in the classroom. His view of the contemporary school system, in my view, is a rather crude caricature and his reform proposals come off as amazingly facile. His regular Blog posts likely do provide fodder for career-building administrators and needed sustenance to those pursuing the latest educational fads.

What explains the success of Seth Godin and Seth’s Blog in the educational space? Does his simple caricature of the school system appeal to those looking for a neat, clean and uncomplicated picture? Where exactly do teachers as professionals with disciplinary knowledge fit in Seth’s ideal school? Where’s the research in cognitive science to support any of his claims about the process of student learning?  

 

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