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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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A recent headline in the New Scientist caught the eye of University College London Professor Rose Luckin, widely regarded as the “Dr. Who of AI in Education.” It read: “AI achieves its best mark ever on a set of English exam questions.” The machine was well on its way to mastering knowledge-based curriculum tested on examinations. What was thrilling to Dr. Luckin, might well be a wake-up call for teachers and educators everywhere.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is now driving automation in the workplace and the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” is dawning. How AI will impact and possibly transform education is now emerging as a major concern for front-line teachers, technology skeptics, and informed parents. A recent Public Lecture by Rose Luckin, based upon her new book Machine Learning and Intelligence, provided  not only a cutting-edge summary of recent developments, but a chilling reminder of the potential unintended consequences for teachers.

AI refers to “technology that is capable of actions and behaviours that require intelligence when done by humans.” It is no longer the stuff of science fiction and popping up everywhere from voice-activated digital assistants in telephones to automatic passport gates in airports to navigation apps to guide us driving our cars. It’s creeping into our lives in subtle and virtually undetectable ways.

AI has not been an overnight success. It originated in September 1956, some 63 years ago, in a Dartmouth College NH lab as a summer project undertaken by ten ambitious scientists.  The initial project was focused on AI and its educational potential. The pioneers worked from this premise: “Every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.”  Flash forward to today — and it’s closer to actual realization.

Dr. Luckin has taken up that challenge and has been working for two decades to develop “Colin,” a robot teaching assistant to help lighten teachers’ workloads. Her creation is software-based and assists teachers with organizing starter activities, collating daily student performance records, assessing the mental state of students, and assessing how well a learner is engaging with lessons.

Scary scenarios are emerging fueled by a few leading thinkers and technology skeptics.  Tesla CEO Elon Musk once warned that AI posed an “existential threat” to humanity and that humans may need to merge with machines to avoid becoming “house cats” to artificially intelligent robots.  Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has forecast that AI will “either be the best thing or the worst thing for humanity.” There’s no need for immediate panic: Current AI technology is still quite limited and remains mechanically algorithmic and programmed to act upon pattern recognition.

One very astute analyst for buZZrobot, Jay Lynch, has identified the potential dangers in the educational domain:

Measuring the Wrong Things

Gathering data that is easiest to collect rather than educationally meaningful. In the absence of directly measured student leaning, AI relies upon proxies for learning such as student test scores, school grades, or self-reported learning gains. This exemplifies the problem of “garbage in, garbage out.”

Perpetuating Bad Ways to Teach

Many AIfE algorithms are based upon data from large scale learning assessments and lack an appreciation of, and input from, actual teachers and learning scientists with a grounding in learning theory. AI development teams tend to lack relevant knowledge in the science of learning and instruction. One glaring example was IBM’s Watson Element for Educators, which was based entirely upon now discredited “learning styles” theory and gave skewed advice for improving instruction.

Giving Priority to Adaptability rather that Quality

Personalizing learning is the prevailing ideology in the IT sector and it is most evident in AI software and hardware. Meeting the needs of each learner is the priority and the technology is designed to deliver the ‘right’ content at the ‘right’ time.  It’s a false assumption that the quality of that content is fine and, in fact, much of it is awful. Quality of content deserves to  be prioritized and that requires more direct teacher input and a better grasp of the science of learning.

Replacing Humans with Intelligent Agents

The primary impact of AI is to remove teachers from the learning process — substituting “intelligent agents” for actual human beings. Defenders claim that the goal is not to supplant teachers but rather to “automate routine tasks” and to generate insights to enable teachers to adapt their teaching to make lessons more effective.  AI’s purveyors seem blind to the fact that teaching is a “caring profession,” particularly in the early grades.

American education technology critic Audrey Watters is one of the most influential skeptics and she has expressed alarm over the potential unintended consequences. ” We should ask what happens when we remove care from education – this is a question about labor and learning. What happens to thinking and writing when robots grade students’ essays, for example. What happens when testing is standardized, automated? What happens when the whole educational process is offloaded to the machines – to “intelligent tutoring systems,” “adaptive learning systems,” or whatever the latest description may be? What sorts of signals are we sending students?”  The implicit and disturbing answer – teachers as professionals are virtually interchangeable with robots.

Will teachers and robots come to cohabit tomorrow’s classrooms? How will teaching be impacted by the capabilities of future AI technologies? Without human contact and feedback, will student motivation become a problem in education?  Will AI ever be able to engage students in critical thinking or explore the socio-emotional domain of learning? Who will be there in the classroom to encourage and emotionally support students confronted with challenging academic tasks?

 

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Equipping the rising generation of students with what are termed “21st century skills” is all the rage. Since the fall of 2010, British Columbia’s Ministry of Education, like many other education authorities, has been virtually obsessed with advancing a B.C. Education Plan championing the latest iteration of a global education transformation movement – technology-based personalized learning.

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The whole concept of 21st century skills, promoted by the World Economic Forum and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), rests upon widely-circulated global theories about our fast changing, technology-driven, unpredictable future. Leading proponents of the new dogma contend that it is now essential to ensure that our youth are “equipped with the right type of skills to successfully navigate through an ever-changing, technology-rich work environment’ and ready to “continuously maintain their skills, upskill and/or reskill throughout their working lives.”

Much of the 21st century learning mantra went unchallenged and escaped critical scrutiny until quite recently. Today many of the education researchers challenging the 21st century learning orthodoxy are charter members of researchED, a British grassroots teacher research organization, founded by teacher Tom Bennett five years ago.

A growing number of outstanding education researchers, including Daniel T. Willingham, Dylan Wiliam, and Paul A. Kirschner, have been drawn to researchED rEDONTWillinghamCloseUpbecause of its commitment to scrutinize prevailing theories, expose education myths, and encourage more evidence-informed curriculum policy and teaching practice. That is precisely why I took the lead in bringing researchED to Canada in November 2017.

British Columbia teachers have given the futuristic B.C. Education Plan a cool reception and are, by every indication, ripe for teacher-led research and curriculum changes that pass the evidence-based litmus test.

A 2017 BCTF survey of teachers gave the B.C. Education Plan mixed reviews and has already raised serious concerns about the province’s latest iteration of a “21st century skills” curriculum. Teachers’ concerns over “personalized learning” and “competency-based assessment” focus on the “multiple challenges of implementation” without adequate resource support and technology, but much of the strongest criticism was motivated by “confusion” over its purposes, concern over the lack of supporting research, and fears that it would lead to “a less rigorous academic curriculum.”

Such criticisms are well-founded and consistent with new academic research widely discussed in researchED circles and now finding its way into peer-reviewed education Vo Raad/Magazine, Blik van Buiten, Paul Kirschner, Heerlen, 12 12 2013research journals. Professor Paul A. Kirschner and his Open University of the Netherlands team are in the forefront in the movement to interrogate the claims and construct an alternative approach to preparing our children for future success.

Research-informed educators are now asking whether the so-called 21st century skills actually exist. If these skills do exist, to what extent are they new or just repackaged from previous generations of attempted reform.  Why, they ask, have the number of identified skills ballooned from four in 2009 (Partnership for 21st Century Skills) to 16 in 2016 (World Economic Forum).

What students need – and most teachers actually want – is what Kirschner has termed “future-proof education.” Based upon recent cognitive science research, he and others are urging teachers to take action themselves to ensure that evidence-informed practice wins the day.

The best way forward may well be deceptively simple: set aside the “21st century skills” paradigm in favour of the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to continue to learn in a stable and enduring way in a rapidly changing world.”

Kirschner and his research team propose a new “future-proof” basis for preparing students for success and fulfillment: 

  1. Cognitive and metacognitive skills are critical. Five of the identified GCM clusters emphasize such skills and suggest emphasizing a progression from concrete cognitive skills to more generic personality competencies.
  2. Authentic learning situations should be a high priority and the driving force for teaching, training, and learning. Such tasks help learners to integrate knowledge, skills, and attitudes, stimulate them to develop coordinate skills, and facilitate transfer of what is learned to new problem situations.
  3. Redesigning schools and professionalizing teachers in 21st century learning strategies are not likely to make much of a difference. Shift the focus to cognitive and metacognitive skills, linking learning with authentic, real-life situations and matching teaching methods with educational contexts and goals.

DidauTaxonomyRushing head-long into 21st century skills makes little sense to Kirschner and fellow researchers because the most effective and durable initiatives are those that are planned and staged over a longer span of as much as 15 years. He proposes a three-stage approach: 1) laying the building blocks (i.e., concrete cognitive knowledge and skills);  2) develop higher-order thinking and working skills; and 3) tackle Bigger Problems that require metacognitive competencies and skills. Much of the underlying research is neatly summarized in David Didau’s 2017 Taxonomy demonstrating the connection between long term memory and working memory in teaching and learning.

All of this is just a small taste of my upcoming researchED Vancouver 2019 presentation on the B.C. Education Plan.  It will not only analyze the B.C. version of 21st Century Learning, but attempt to point the province’s education system in the right direction.

Where did the “21st century skills” movement actually originate?  Where’s the evidence-based research to support 21st century skills projects such as the B’C. Education Plan? How much of the Plan is driven by the imperatives of technology-based personalized learning and its purveyors? Can you successfully prepare students for careers and jobs that don’t exist? Would we be better advised to abandon “21st century skills” in favour of “future-proof learning”? 

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An eye-catching satirical cartoon, “7 Sins in the Digital World,” is now making the rounds on Twitter feeds and it packs quite a punch aimed squarely at today’s somewhat unhealthy social media habits. Seven digital platforms are identified with one of the “sins” or vices.  Facebook is associated with Envy, Instagram with Pride, LinkedIn with Greed, Tinder with Lust, Yelp with Gluttony, Netflix with Sloth, and, last but not least, Twitter with Wrath.

That trenchant cartoon might well have been produced by the Halifax-based Canadian Centre for Ethics in Public Affairs, the sponsors of Dr. Justin Tosi’s April 26 Public Talk on one of the biblical “Seven Deadly Sins,” Wrath. His actual theme, “Moral Grandstanding and Self-Righteous Anger,” also ties in nicely with one of its greatest contemporary sources – the Twitterverse. “Moral grandstanding is the use of moral talk for self-promotion,” Tosi told the CCEPA audience. “ It’s people using moral conversation, making moral claims, to present an impressive image of themselves to others.”

Moral grandstanding is getting easier to spot with so much of our lives spent online. Chest-thumping Facebook posts and pontificating Tweets fill today’s social media. Posts presented as personal observations or short political statements tend to be laden with a much different underlying message: “I’ve got something important to say, worth paying attention to, here on the Internet.”

Joining in on social media seems to feed our innate narcissism. Hours are consumed burnishing an image and seeking approval from our online “friends” or registering our “likes” and favourites, piling on with a certain “tribal abandon.” It’s become a substitute for real-time engagement in morally useful projects and community activities. The allure of social media is hard to resist and, if we are honest, almost everyone has fallen prey to using social media as a platform for moral grandstanding, often to express our moral outrage about one issue or another. Some of us, the real zealots, are more frequent offenders than others.

Moral grandstanding seems to be particularly rampant in the Twitter world of academia. One of North America’s most engaged philosophers, Brian Leiter of the University of Chicago Law School, hit a nerve when he quipped in a blog post that Twitter is revealing in that “otherwise intelligent people” tend to “stake out careers on preposterous-but-shocking arguments.”

Most troubling to Tosi is the way moral grandstanding is foreclosing on free, open and meaningful public discussion. Whether it’s the crisis in health care, the state of public education, or the threat of climate change, the critical issues cannot be reduced to GIFs or 140-character declarations.

Moral grandstanding may provide some outlet for moral outrage or a safety-valve, but it encourages people to stake out radical positions to impress their friends, instead of engaging in civil dialogue and a mutual sharing of ideas. Nuances tend to dissolve when factions are formed and people gravitate to echo chambers, likened to “bizarre partisan camps,” often divided along “progressive” or “neo-traditional” lines. Extreme partisanship, formerly the preserve of card-carrying political party activists, spreads to social action committees, teachers’ unions, and education twitter groups.

When normally intelligent people resort to posting very foolish things on Facebook and Twitter, it is often a prime example of a very real psychological phenomenon, group polarization. Before adding to the pile of “likes,” contributing to the blather, or retweeting an insulting comment, it might be advisable to think first, and decide whether it helps anyone trying to grasp an issue in all its complexity.

The threat to civil discourse posed by the Internet’s most diabolical sub-species, the troll, needs to be confronted. Partisan groups seem to breed trolls and serial re-tweeters (or parakeets) who spew mostly nonsense interspersed with insults or slurs directed against those targeted or marginalized by the faction.

Five common fallacious arguments employed by trolls were ‘outed’ in a recent British Channel 4 News “Fact Check” feature, How to Defeat the Troll (online).  All of them are regularly employed by moral grandstanders on social media  Keep your eye open for examples of these false arguments, aptly described as “rubbish”:

The Straw Man (Person) Attack – Exaggerating or twisting your opponent’s point to make it easier to knock down. Response: You are putting words in my mouth

The Ad Hominem Argument – Attacking the person rather than addressing the point they are making.  Response: That’s an insult, not a counter-argument.

Anecdotal Evidence – Assuming your personal experience trumps more reliable sources of information. Response: That’s one example, can you cite any more?

Whataboutery – Using someone else’s bad behaviour to deflect from your own.  Response: Two wrongs do not make a right.

Shifting the Burden of Proof – Because no one can prove your claim is false… does not mean it’s automatically true. Response: Extraordinary claims need solid supporting evidence.

WrathCCEPATosiCivil dialogue and discourse is under threat in today’s mainstream politics, and especially so on social media. Grandstanding is a major factor and it takes many forms. In their quest to solidify their reputation or impress their in-group, grandstanders tend to trump up moral charges, attempt to silence or marginalize ‘outliers,’ and to pile on in cases of public shaming. Small mistakes or poor choices of words can attract swarms of partisans vilifying the supposed perpetrator. Swarming on social media can also have a chilling effect on others.

Most disturbing of all, grandstanders denounce people who hold contrary views, exaggerate emotional displays, and ramp up discussion until it degenerates into what Toshi calls “a moral arms race.” Today, everyone seems to have their own platform: It’s time to take a hard look in the mirror and to re-assess why and how we engage with one another over political and moral issues.

Whatever happened to civic discourse in the education world? How and why has EduTwitter become such a wild frontier? How prevalent is moral grandstanding?  Is there an alternative to  ‘Echo Chamber Happy Talk” or spectacles of “Twitter Warfare”?  Is there still hope for EduTwitter?

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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.”

elearningred2016coverThe 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.

cyclinguphill21ctrilling2009Twenty 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.

sheepdippingukTop-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? 

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Grade 1 teacher Tammy Doyle is positively euphoric about the return of school.  After 25 years in the elementary classroom, the Ottawa Catholic School Board teacher featured in a recent Canadian Press story no longer considers herself a “teacher” of children. She now calls herself a “learning partner.”

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Play learning is making a comeback in the Digital Age. “We want to stop having education delivered and make (the children) creators of their education,” Doyle says of the efforts to “build a more collaborative classroom” with the help of technology. “I think it’s incredible if we can empower our kids for tomorrow– not looking back to yesterday or even today…That’s the definition of empowerment and innovation and it begins with that simple shifting mindset. ”

What has come over Tammy and some of her elementary school confreres?  It’s called “New Pedagogies for Deep Learning” or NPDL for short, the latest innovation concocted by Dr. Michael Fullan, Canada’s globally-renowned school change theorist.  The Three R’s (reading, writing, and arithmetic) are passe to Fullan and his new disciples because Deep Learning seeks to develop what are termed Fullan’s Six Cs: character education, citizenship, collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking. 

The Ottawa Catholic Board is one of 15 school districts in Ontario and Manitoba working to implement  and “disseminate” these ideas in practice. It’s all being done in advance of developing instruments to assess and support the new outcomes.  Creating “digital ecosystems” in the classroom is, all of a sudden, more important than teaching effectiveness, mastering the fundamentals, and improving student math outcomes.

The latest iteration of 21st Century Digital Learning has just sprung out of a project, spearheaded by Sir Michael Barber and Pearson Education, involving some 100 school districts in 10 countries as part of a global push to reshape education for the Digital Age. While Barber has conceded that, so far, educational technology’s impact on “learner outcomes” has been “disappointing,” the technological revolution, in his words, “does not allow us to abandon our ambition to use technology in classrooms.” That’s why he commissioned Fullan, his Chief Research Officer Maria Langworthy and other “leading education thinkers” to reinvent teaching pedagogy to deploy technology in ways that will “transform learner outcomes.”

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FullansSixCs

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In his Foreward to to the January 2014 White Paper, A Rich Seam, Sir Michael Barber lauds Fullan and Langworthy for conceiving of the “new pedagogy” based upon “a learning partnership” between and among students and teachers. In one memorable passage, he also concedes that “much of what Fullan and Langworthy describe is not new at all,” but building upon the so-called “Progressive” tradition going back through to Piaget, Vygotsky and other key theorists.”

If so, why do it all again? For two reasons: First, the “new pedagogy” was emerging — he claimed– “not in laboratories or universities, but at the frontline, in classrooms” across the globe in response to “the crisis of boredom and frustration among students and career disillusionment among teachers.”  And secondly, educators had little choice, fully immersed in digital ubiquity and struggling to stay Alive in the Swamp, but to integrate technology into their classroom practice.

All of this demonstrates that what British teacher Tom Bennett termed the “Cult of Shift Happens” has now surfaced in Canada (Ontario), the United States (California), the United Kingdom, and four other countries. in a new guise. The familiar Shift Happens mindset, sparked by Barber in his 2000 OECD Rotterdam Address, and immortalized in Colorado teacher Karl Fisch’s viral futuristic Did You Know? YouTube video, is back in a peculiar fusion of old, unproven, pseudo-scientific innovations, borrowing heavily from Project-Based Learning, Cooperative Learning, and Change Leadership, now from the Middle (LftM) rather than the Top or Bottom of school systems.

Some current advocates of NPDL like Richard Messina, Principal of the OISE’s Institute of Child Study Laboratory School, favour Inquiry-Based Learning, a pedagogical model with proven benefits for academically-able students. Such innovative approaches work better in “hot house” elementary education environments than in what Barber describes as the “ordinary schools.”  In Messina’s Toronto private school, it’s easy to imagine Grade 4 students creating their own science experiments, generating their own curriculum, and utilizing technology programs such as Knowledge Forum to assist with research. So far, it hasn’t worked notably well in mainstream classrooms.

“New Pedagogy” zealots such as Tammy Doyle and her Director of Education Denise Andre sound born again in espousing the latest educational fad springing from the still fertile mind of  Michael Fullan and his coterie.  While Doyle sees “a bit of chaos” as up to 80 six-year-olds wander in and out of their four Grade 1 classrooms, she’s all revved-up about their excitement.  “It’s unlike education that we have ever had and experienced,” she says, because “the kids are going home excited and talking about it.” Then comes the ever-popular 21st Century Learning mantra: “We’re preparing kids for jobs we don’t know are going to exist in the future.”

What’s so new about integrating technology into the learning process?  How many of the “new pedagogies” accept the critical need for explicit instruction, particularly in certain cumulative subjects?  Is the Deeper Learning movement really a venture aimed at undercutting and eventually eliminating provincial core subject assessments?  How wise is it to implement Michael Fullan’s Six Cs when we have no reliable, research-based way of assessing such competencies? 

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Among the Canadian provinces Nova Scotia was an “early adopter” of incorporating coding into its Kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum. Basic coding was introduced in September 2015 to all students from kindergarten to Grade 3 and Education Minister Karen Casey has been boasting that Nova Scotia is already “a national leader” in teaching computer coding to elementary school kids.  That’s a bit of political puffery because, in doing so, the province is actually following a few other educational jurisdictions, including Great Britain (2014-15) and the State of Arkansas, and only slightly ahead of British Columbia and Finland.

BeebotsNSKidsIn announcing $1-million more in 2016-17 funding for the Coding for Kids project, the Nova Scotia Department trotted out a pair of Grade 6 students to demonstrate how to program “beebots” — small, yellow-and-black robot toys shaped like bumble bees. A cleverly titled Canadian Press story on the photo op by Keith Doucette captured the moment with an ironic twist: “‘Beebots’ to teach coding in Nova Scotia classrooms.” A recent series of CBC Radio interviews featuring Ryerson Communications Technology professor Ramona Pringle merely confirmed the impression that coding was being promoted as another vehicle to advance “play learning” rather than introductory computer programming.

Teaching “coding” to young children is the latest exemplar of so-called “21st century learning” and it amounts to introducing basic “programming” in the early years, instead of waiting to offer “computer science” in the junior and senior high schools, as was the case from the 1960s to the early 1980s.  That early curriculum essentially withered and died with the arrival of mass word processing and the spread of computer applications courses.

While teaching coding is heavily promoted by the global high tech industry and local off-shoots like Code Kids.com and Brilliant Labs, the emerging coding curriculum philosophy and activities stem from other sources.  Leading advocates such as best-selling author Douglas Rushkoff, former UK coding champion Lottie Dexter, and  CBC Tech columnist Pringle see coding as a “new literacy” symbolically described as “the Three Rs plus C.”

In a summary of his 2011 book, Program or Be Programmed, Rushkoff put it succinctly: “As we come to experience more and more of our world and one another through our digital interfaces, programming amounts to basic literacy…. Once people come to see the way their technologies are programmed, they start to recognize the programs at play everywhere else – from the economy and education to politics and government.”

Introducing coding has generated a robust and enlightening debate seemingly everywhere but in Canada. The Year of Code initiative launched in 2014 in the United Kingdom drew plenty of critical fire and actually claimed a victim, its chief promoter Lottie Dexter.  After flaming-out on the British TV show Newsnight, her rather giddy performance was became fodder for skeptics who saw the coding curriculum initiative as an “elaborate publicity stunt designed to falsely inflate the UK’s tech credentials.”

CodingforKidsCoverCritics of the British coding initiative focus on the wisdom of latching onto the “latest language” and introducing it to very young students.  “Coding is seen as the new Latin,” claimed Donald Clark, the former CEO of the firm Epic Group and a self-described technology in education evangelist.  ” (Coding) is a rather stupid obsession where politicians and PR people, none of whom can code, latch onto ‘reports’ by people who have no business sense or worse, a regressive agenda.” One British technology expert, Emannuel Straschnov, goes further, claiming that today’s  coding and programming languages will likely become obsolete in the future.

Coding skeptics are clear on one key point of criticism. The early adopter educational jurisdictions suck as the U.K., Nova Scotia and Arkansas, lack enough teachers with the coding experience and relevant computer science knowledge to effectively introduce the new programs of study, across the board,  from kindergarten to high school. A frontline teacher in Bristol, England, spoke for most when he decried the “lack of support” and distinct feeling that “it wasn’t clear what was going on” with the initiative until far too late in the implementation.

Software engineer Tristan Irwin of Sioux City, Iowa, sees a deeper problem stemming from the confusion over what we are actually teaching in the schools. On an April 2011 Quora discussion thread, he drew a sharp distinction between the “programmer” and the “coder,” noting that the former was a creator, while the latter was essentially “an assembly line worker.”  As Software Engineering has become more commodified, he added, there’s less demand for programmers and more demand for coders.  His analysis strongly suggested that teaching coding may only succeed in producing a whole generation of “code grinders” in the workplace.

Prominent Mathematics educators like Barry Garelick are sharply critical of the new coding curriculum and its associated pedagogy.  In August 2016, Garelick took direct aim at the Nova Scotia initiative. He’s particularly concerned about its dumbing-down of “coding” into “pictoral symbols for commands” and the total absence of explicit instruction in the recommended teaching strategies.  Most Math teachers fear that “coding” will further erode classroom time for Math and do little or nothing to prepare students for true computer programming, AP-level Computer Science, or a STEM career.

The Nova Scotia coding curriculum, outlined in the August 2015 NS Information and Communication P-6 Guidelines, are surprisingly skimpy, especially given the dollars now allocated for “innovation and exploration kits” and tech toys for every elementary school. For P to 3, for example, the ICT guideline identifies nine “essential learning outcomes,” only two of which relate to technology productivity and operations.  The clear priority is on teaching “digital citizenship” and “computer applications” rather than on basic coding.

Making coding mandatory from K to 9 is not proving to be the preferred implementation model.  In the case of British Columbia, coding will only be compulsory from Grades 6 to 9 and supported by $4-million in teacher training and equipment/resources funds.  It is integrated into a much broader #BCTECH Strategy and will not be rolled-out until September 2018.  In Canada’s largest school district, Toronto District School Board (TDSB), coding is not a stand-alone initiative but rather an integral part of the system’s K-12 STEM Strategy designed to foster collaboration, creativity and innovation.

Why the rush to introduce coding in the early grades — and what will it supplant in the crowded curriculum?  Is the current version of coding just another example of teaching “discovery learning” with simplified coding and high tech toys? Where are the teachers coming from to deliver the more challenging Mathematics-based aspects of computer science?  How much sense does it make to introduce elementary level coding without a broader commitment to preparing students for careers in STEM or related technical fields?

 

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