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Archive for the ‘Ed-Tech Innovations’ Category

One of the world’s most infamous digital visionaries, Marc Prensky, specializes in spreading educational future shock.  Fresh off the plane from California, the education technology guru who coined the phrase “digital natives” did it again in Fredericton, the quiet provincial capital of New Brunswick.  Two hundred delegates attending the N.B. Education Summit (October 16-18, 2019) were visibly stunned by his latest presentation which dropped what he described as a series of “bombs” in what has become his ongoing campaign of creative disruption.

His introductory talk, “From giving kids content to kids fixing real world problems,” featured a series of real zingers. “The goal of education,” Prensky proclaimed, “is not to learn, it is to accomplish things.” “Doing something at the margins will not work” because we have to “leapfrog over the present to reach the future.”When you look out at a classroom, you see networked kids.” Instead of teaching something or developing work-ready skills, we should be preparing students to become “symbiotic human hybrids” in a near future world.

Having spent two breakfasts, totaling more than two hours, face-to-face with Marc Prensky, a few things became crystal clear. The wild success of his obscure 2001 article in On the Horizon on “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” totally surprised him. He is undaunted by the tenacious critics of the research-basis of his claims, and he’s perfectly comfortable in his role as education’s agent provocateur.

Prensky burst on the education scene nearly twenty years ago. His seminal article was discovered by an Australian Gifted Education association in Tasmania, and it exploded from there. Seven books followed, including Digital Game-Based Learning (2001), From Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom (2012), and Education to Better Their World (2016).

While riding the wave, he founded his Global Future Foundation based in Palo Alto, California, not far from the home of TED Talks guru Sir Ken Robinson. He is now full-time on the speaking circuit and freely admits that he seeks to “drop a few bombs” in his talks before education audiences. Even though he writes books for a living, he confessed to me that he hasn’t “used a library in years.”

Assembled delegates at the recent Summit were zapped by Prensky in a session designed as a wake-up call for educators. About one-third of the delegates were classroom teachers and they, in particular, greeted his somewhat outlandish claims with barely-concealed skepticism.

Listening to students is good practice, but idealizing today’s kids doesn’t wash with most front-line practitioners.  How should we prepare the next generation? “We treat our kids like PETS (capitalized). Go here, do that… We don’t have to train them to follow us. Let’s treat them as CAPABLE PEOPLE (capitalized).” Making such assumptions about what’s happening in classrooms don’t go over with professionals who, day-in-day-out, model student-focused learning and respect students so much that they would never act that way. Especially so, with teachers struggling to reach students in today’s complex and demanding classroom environments.

Striving for higher student performance standards is not on Prensky’s radar. “Academics have hijacked K-12 education,” he stated. Nor is improving provincial test scores. “We’re not looking to raise PISA scores. That test was designed by engineers – for engineers.” There’s no need to teach content when information is a Google click away, in Prensky’s view.  “All the old stuff is online, so the goal of education is now to equip kids with the power to affect their world.” 

Prensky has survived waves of criticism over the years and remains undaunted by the periodic salvos.  Since inventing the term “digital natives” and becoming their champion, six points of criticism have been raised about his evolving theory of preparing kids for future education:

  1. The Generational Divide: The generational differences between “digital natives” and pre-iPod “digital immigrants” are greatly exaggerated because digital access and fluency are more heavily influenced by factors of gender, race and socio-economic status. Millennials may use ‘social media’ technology without mastering the intricacies of digital learning and utilizing its full potential (Reeves 2008, Helsper and Enyon 2009,  Frawley 2017)).
  2.  Video-Game Based Learning:  Unbridled advocacy of video-game based learning tends to ignore its negative impacts upon teens, including the glorification of violence, video game addiction, and the prevalence of “digital deprivation” as teens retreat into their private worlds (Alliance for Childhood 2004).
  3. Brain Change Theory: Claims that “digital natives” think and process information differently are based upon flimsy evidence, and trace back to work by Dr. Bruce Perry, a Senior Fellow at the Child Trauma Academy in Houston, TX. It actually relates more to how fear and trauma affect the brain. This is often cited as an example of “arcade scholarship” or cherry-picking evidence and applying it to support your own contentions (Mackenzie 2007).
  4. Stereotyping of Generations: Young people do not fit neatly into his stereotype of “digital natives” because the younger generation (youth 8-18) is far more complex in its acceptance and use of technology, ranging from light to heavy users of digital technology. Boys who play video games are not representative of the whole generation. (Kaiser Family Foundation 2005, Helsper and Enyon 2009)).
  5. Disempowering of Teachers: Changing methodology and curriculum to please children may help to advance student engagement, but it denigrates “legacy learning” and reduces teachers to mere facilitators of technology programs and applications. Dismissing “content knowledge” is unwise, especially when the proposed alternative is process learning and so vacuous (Mackenzie 2007)
  6. Digital Deprivation:  Expanded and excessive use of video games and digital toys can foster isolation rather than social connection which can be harmful to children and teens. Some prime examples of those adverse effects are exposure to violence, warped social values, and ethical/moral miseducation  (Turkle 1984, Alliance for Childhood 2004))

Most critical assessments of Marc Pensky’s case for pursuing “digital wisdom” call into question its efficacy and even its existence. “Digital technology can be used to make us not just wiser but smarter” is his more recent contention. Knowing how to make things is “know how” but it is only one type of knowledge and hardly a complete picture of what constitutes human wisdom.

Combining technology with human judgement has advanced through AI (artificial intelligence), but it’s probably foolhardy to call it “digital wisdom.” It implies, to be frank, that only things that can be qualified and turned into algorithms have value and denigrates the wisdom of the ages.  Championing the inventive mind is fine, but that can also lead to blind acceptance of the calculating, self-interested, and socially-unconscious mind. Where humanity perishes, so do the foundations of civilizations.

Why does digital evangelist Marc Prensky stirr up such controversy in the education world?  Where’s the evidence to support his case for the existence of “digital nativism”? Does “digital wisdom” exist or is it just a new term for useful knowledge or “know how”? Should teaching knowledge to students be completely abandoned in the digital education future?  

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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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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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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.

BCEdPlanElements

 

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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“Wow!,” “Fantastic,” and “Inspirational”were words that filled the Twitter feed coming out of the latest Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE) Innovation in Teaching Day (#HRCEID2018), held November 2 and 3, 2018.  The primary cause of the frenzied excitement was a keynote talk by Brian Aspinall, author of the edtech best-seller Code Breaker, a teacher’s guide to training-up a class of “coder ninjas.”  The former Ontario Grade 7 and 8 teacher from Essex County honed his presentation skills at TEDx Talks in Chatham and Kitchener and is now the hottest speaker on the Canadian edtech professional development circuit.

Mr. Aspinall, the #CodeBreaker, is a very passionate, motivational speaker with a truly amazing social media following. He built his first website in the 1990s before graduating from Harrow District High School, earned his B.Sc. and B.Ed. at the University of Windsor, and learned the teaching craft in the local Windsor Essex school system. In 2016, he won a Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence in STEM. Watching him in action on You Tube, it’s obvious that he’s a real showman and fairly typical of a new breed of North American edtech evangelists.

Like many edtech visionaries, Aspinall experienced an epiphany, in his case while teaching his Grade 8 class. “Someone brought to my attention that every grade 8 in our building was born in 2000 or 2001, ” he recalls. “You could hear the brain matter shift, turn, implode and explode in my head. I had never thought of it like that. My mind was blown.”  Then Aspinall remembered: “I have only taught in the 21st century…went to university in the 21st century!  And I’ve been teaching for nine years now!!”

Edtech evangelists like Aspinall have multiplied rapidly in the 2000s as provincial and school district authorities have pursued a succession of “21st century skills” initiatives. The leading motivational speakers, closely aligned with Google, Microsoft, or Pearson PLC, develop their own personalized brands and can be very persuasive engaging users without any overt marketing. The first and perhaps best known 21st century skills evangelist was Guy Kawasaki, the marketing genius who launched Apple Macintosh in 1984 and the one who popularized the use of the word “evangelist” to describe this marketing approach. The TED Talks back list is not only edtech dominated, but a ‘who’s who’ of ed tech evangelism.

Aspinall is an open book and connected almost 24/7, judging from his personal  MrApsinall.com Blog and rapid-fire Twitter feed. With 60,400 tweets to his credit, @mraspinall has amassed 40,900 followers and recorded 43,100 likes. Reading his tweets, it’s abundantly clear that he’s an unabashed educational constructivist who firmly believes in student-centred, minimal guidance, discovery learning.

Speaking on stage, Aspinall has a messianic, 21st century cool presentation style. “I’m on a mission to expose as many kids as possible to coding and computer science, ” he declared in June 2016 at TEDx KitchenerED.  That’s popular in provinces like Nova Scotia and British Columbia where coding is being implemented in elementary schools — and where teachers are hungry for classroom-ready activities. He’s filling a need, particularly among teachers in the early grades with little or no background or training in mathematics, science or computer science.

What’s contentious about the edtech evangelists is their rather uncritical acceptance of constructivist pedagogy and utopian belief that “students learn by doing’ and require minimal teacher guidance.  A few, like Brian Aspinall, are ideologues who believe that “knowledge is readily available” on the Internet, so teachers should reject teaching content knowledge and, instead, “teach and model an inquiry approach to learning.”

Aspinall’s educational philosophy deserves more careful scrutiny.  In his teaching guide and TEDx Talks, he embraces a distinctly “21st century learning” paradigm. In his 2016 TEDx talk “Hacking the classroom,” he distills his philosophy down to four “hacks” or principles: 1) focus on content creation; 2) embrace failure so kids take risks; 3) free up time and avoid time-limited tests/assignments; and 4) embrace the “process of learning” rather than the pursuit of knowledge-based outcomes.

Those principles may sound familiar because they are among the first principles of not only constructivist thinking on education, but the corporate movement driving “21st century learning” and its latest mutation, “personalized learning” enabled by computer software and information technology.   In the case of Aspinall, he’s clearly an educational disciple of the late Seymour Papert, the MIT professor who invented “logo” programming and championed ‘discovery learning’ in mathematics and science.  If Aspinall has a catechism, it is to be found in Papert’s 1993 classic, Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas.

Aspinall has also latched onto the writings of Janette M. Wing, chair of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. One of his favourite axioms, quoted regularly, is extracted from Wing: “Computational thinking is a fundamental skill for everyone, not just for computer scientists.” She goes further: “To reading, writing and arithmetic, we should add computational thinking to every child’s analytical ability.” Indeed, like Wing, Aspinall sees “coding” as a way of teaching mathematics in a more holistic curriculum.

EdTech evangelists such as Aspinall stir interest in learning coding, but fall into the trap of assuming that constructivism works in every class, irrespective of class composition, size, or capabilities. Utopian conceptions of teaching and learning bequeathed by Papert are now being seriously challenged by evidence-based research. Classroom conditions and student management concerns conspire to limit the applicability of “makerspace learning” and teachers rarely have the resources to make it work in practice.

More fundamentally, Papert’s model of “minimal guidance” has been effectively challenged by Paul A . Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard E. Clark (2006). “Prior knowledge, ” they found, is essential in providing the “internal guidance” required in truly learning something. High quality, engaging and explicit instruction is necessary, in most instances, to ‘bootstrap” learning,  While personal exploration is useful, the most effective teaching and learning approach combines teacher guidance with exploration woven into a child’s education.

Teachers dazzled by Aspinall’s presentations are most likely immersed in edtech culture. Computer software apps and tools such as “Makey Makey” and “Scratch” are bound to make teaching easier for educators and more pleasurable for students. Few question Aspinall’s promotion of Tynker coding programs or his corporate affiliation as a “Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert Fellow.” In his TEDx Talks, he is quite open about his admiration for Microsoft philosophy. “Microsoft believes every child should be exposed to coding,” he tells audiences. “Because you don’t know you like broccoli until you try it.” While he’s not pedaling 21st century ‘snake oil,’ such statements do raise suspicions.

Why have edtech evangelists come to dominate the ’21st century skills’ professional development circuit?  What explains the popularity of, and excitement generated by, TED Talk edtech speakers such as Brian Aspinall? Is coding emerging as the “4th R” of 21st century learning and what’s its impact upon the teaching of mathematics in the early grades? Should we be more leery of champions of coding who see it as a way of introducing “computational thinking” throughout the elementary years? 

 

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One of the Doug Ford Ontario education reform proposals that’s attracted relatively little attention is the June 2018 election pledge to ban cellphones in class. In the immediate aftermath of Ford’s election, education observers would be wise to take a serious look at the sweeping promise to “ban cell phones in all primary and secondary school classrooms, in order to maximize learning time.” While it is tempting to dismiss it as just another example of “back-to-basics” thinking, that would be most unwise. That is because it is inspired by openly expressed teacher concerns and policies now being implemented and debated in France, the United Kingdom, and a number of North American school districts.

French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer is the latest to take action in the form of a National Assembly bill to ban cellphones at school before school resumes in September 2018. Deeply concerned about the phenomenon of “phone-addicted children,” he claims that the bill is a “detox measure” to combat classroom distractions and cyberbullying. More than 90 per cent of French children aged 12 years or older posess a mobile phone and teachers are finding it increasingly difficult to capture and hold the attention of their students.

“Mobile phones are a technological advance but they cannot monopolize our lives, ” Blanquer told LCI TV News. “You can’t find your way in a world of technology if you can’t read, write, count, respect others and work in a team.” Supporters of the French legislation say smartphone usage among children of junior and middle-school age has also aggravated cyberbullying, made it easier to access pornography, and interfered with social interactions in schools. Teachers, caught up in the proposed blanket ban, succeeded in being exempted from the cellphone prohibition.

Since the French cellphone ban was first proposed in December of 2017, school authorities in Britain and Ireland have been debating taking similar measures. The founder of London-based researchED, Tom Bennett, claimed, back in September 2015, that children should not be allowed smartphones until they were 16-years-of-age.  Teachers, he advised, should not allow them unless absolutely necessary, given the many challenges of managing modern classrooms.

The new Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, reports that “pupil behaviour” is “the number one concern of parents” and that steps must be taken to reduce the “low-level disruption,” including the inappropriate use of mobile devices in class. ” I am yet to be convinced of the educational benefits of all day access to ‘Snapchat” and the like, and the place of mobile phones in the classroom seems to me dubious at best.”

One of the most influential studies, “Ill Communication: Technology, Distraction and Student Performance, produced in May 2015 by London School of Economics researchers Louis-Phillipe Beland and Richard Murphy, is usually cited by those favouring restrictions or bans on classroom cellphone use. Based upon a study of moblile phone use in high schools in four English cities (Birmingham, London, Leicester and Manchester) in the Spring of 2013, the researchers found that banning mobile phones produced an improvement in student performance of 6.41% of a standard deviation, and rising to 14.23% among low-achieving students. The net effect of banning mobile phones, according to the researchers, added up to the equivalent of an extra week of school each academic year.

The critical question of whether mobile phones are a necessity or a distraction had resurfaced here in Canada long before an outright ban ended up as a key plank in the Ford Nation education agenda. One very active and informed Ontario elementary school teacher, Andrew Campbell, presented a very thorough review of Ontario cellphone policy and practice on April 14, 2018, at researchED Ontario.  Since the arrival of the Apple iPhone in January 2007, mobile phones have proliferated among children and teens, necessitating changes in school policies. Canada’s largest school board, the Toronto District School Board, reacted by introducing a system wide ban in April 2007, only to reverse it four years later.

Much  of the mobile phone proliferation was sparked by the adoption of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies, formally recognizing their acceptance as tools for learning. While BYOD proved to be bad policy, school systems were simply unable to curtain the technological tide or properly regulate the use of such devices.  In 2013, the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) passed a resolution proposing that cellphones be “turned-off and stored during school hours,” unless authorized for use by a teacher. By 2014, some 60 per cent of Ontario schools had adopted BYOD policies and allowed students to use their own devices, in most cases, for cost-efficiency reasons. One Quebec English school board, in the Eastern Townships, went even further, distributing tablets to all students in Grade 5 and up while maintaining a rather open and permissive smartphone policy.

Mobile phone policies have tended to be reactions to technological innovations. Thierry Karsenti, Canada Research Chair on Technologies in Education and professor at the University of Montreal, told Maclean’s Magazine students will find a way to bring phones into the classroom regardless of the rules. A survey of more than 4,000 high school students showed that while 79.3 per cent of respondents owned a cellphone, they did not figure prominently in day-to-day teaching and learning. Cellphones were widely used in and around schools, even though some 88.4 per cent of student respondents claimed that the devices were banned either in class or at school altogether.

Defenders of cellphone use in class tend to cite research based more upon student attitudes than on the perceptions of their teachers. One online survey conducted for Verizon with 1,000 students in grades 6-8 claimed to show its positive effect on student learning.  Students who used smartphones in the classroom were more likely to ‘feel smart,’ be happier, and show interested in pursuing STEM subjects. More affluent students were more likely to be allowed to use smartphones in the classroom.   “Our research supports the fact that mobile technology can inspire and engage students today. We need to meet children where they are and leverage their use of mobile devices to increase their interest in STEM” claimed Rose Stuckey Kirk, President of Verizon

Another September 2014 Stanford University study focussed on “at risk’ students and purported to demonstrate how technology aids in learning when there is at least one device per student and the devices are readily available for multiple uses by the student throughout the school day. A 2017 study conducted by Dr. James Derounian at the University of Gloucestershire found that 45% of students in a small-scale 100 student group believed that the use of phones in classrooms aided in their education, making it easier to access online text resources.

Clearly defined class expectations and procedures are essential if teachers are to see benefits from cellphone use in class. Strict rules, established at the outset, work best and, without them, student attention is hard to establish and maintain. Many of the most effective teachers now use some form of check-in and check-out system for devices. The “Stoplight System, ” developed by two Halton DSB teachers, Troy Tennant and Cindy Cosentino, shows potential and is being mimicked elsewhere in Ontario.

Maintaining good student behaviour is becoming more of a priority and that explains the renewed popularity of restricting mobile phone use by students in schools and classrooms. Tom Bennett’s School Report blog post, June 23, 2018, again identified mobile phones as a major contributor to the discipline challeges teachers face in today’s classrooms. “Low level disruption sounds cute,” he wrote, “but it’s kryptonite for any lesson. It normalises rudeness, laziness, and grinds teachers down over weeks and months. It is no small issue. It is the most common reason for classroom behaviour to disintegrate.”  The Guardian concurs with the stance taken by Bennett and Ofsted boss Spielman.  A recent  editorial argued that schools would be better places for learning without the constant and distracting presence of the devices.

Should schools continue to welcome mobile phones in class? Why has France taken the lead in banning mobile phones at school? Who is promoting and supporting the continued and expanded use of cellphones in the classroom?  Is it possible to enforce a ban on the use of such devices in schools? Where is the evidence-based research supporting the widespread use of mobile phones in class? 

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