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Posts Tagged ‘21st Century Skills’

“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 Gary 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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American education professor Peter W. Cookson, Jr., currently President of Ideas without Borders, recently set the education world atwitter with a futuristic October 10, 2017 Education Week commentary.  Under the eye-catching title, “Ten Disruptions That Will Revolutionize Education, Dr. Cookson proclaimed with declaratory certainty that “Artificial Intelligence (AI) and technology will prove significant for education” in the not-too-distant future.

His Education Week commentary provides a fine example of what Canadian journalist and author Dan Gardner has aptly termed Future Babble.”  In his 2011 book of the same name, he demonstrated that “experts” in any given field were just slightly better at making predictions than a dart-throwing chimp. In addition, the more certain an expert was of a predicted outcome, and the bigger their media profile, and the less accurate the prediction was likely to be.

Reading Dr. Cookson’s rather ‘edutopian’ musings and mindful of the past record of modern day soothsayers, it’s fair to ask whether any of the ten “disruptions” will ever “revolutionize education.”

Let’s start by summarizing his hypothesis and reviewing his list of “creative disruptions” forecasted to “revolutionize” schooling. The advance of machines, according to Peter Cookson, was to be embraced rather than resisted like the plague. “The development of advanced artificial intelligence, or super-intelligence,” he contended,”opens up doors to discoveries never before imagined. While opinions vary about the speed with which superintelligence will develop, there is little doubt that within the next decade, the cognitive landscape will be very different than it is today.”

Here is the full list of purportedly positive “disruptions”:

1. Digital learners will rebel against intellectual conformity.

2. Learning avatars will become commonplace.

3. Participatory-learning hubs will replace isolated classrooms.

4. Inquiry skills will drive learning.

5. Capacities will matter more than grades.

6. Teachers will become inventors.

7. School leaders will give up their desks.

8. Students and families will become co-learners and co-creators.

9. Formal credentials will no longer be the Holy Grail.

10. Policymakers will form communities of continuous improvement.

His summation amounts to a declaration of faith in the new gospel of “21st century learning.” “If education stays stuck in the past, generations of students will be miseducated,” Cookson claims. “They (students) won’t be equipped to thrive in a world of new ideas and technologies. The current task of educators should be to embrace these changes with an open mind and consider how new disruptions can aid, rather than hinder, learning for all students.”

Cookson’s vision of a digital learning future proved tantalizing to leading education education observers and, whether intended or not, was seen as a provocation.  University of Virginia cognitive psychologist Daniel T. Willingham responded tersely on Twitter: “My bold prediction: none of these 10 will disrupt education. None.”

All but one of the 16 comments on the post on the Education Week website dismissed Cookson’s forecast as either sheer nonsense or a threatening forecast of a dystopian future where teachers were supplanted by robots.  Most of the teacher respondents considered the commentary the hallucinations of a “21st century education” futurist.  Canadian education blogger and Math/Technology teacher David Wees rejected Cookson’s forecast entirely and provided a ‘reality check’ list of his own, pointing out the real obstacles to American educational advance, including the status and salaries accorded to teachers, inequitable funding and resources, and the stark inequalities facing students from marginalized communities.

Cookson’s forecast is so problematic that it is hard to decide where to start and whether there is enough space in a short blog commentary to take issue with each of his prognostications.  Since Cookson provides no research evidence to support his claims, you are expected to accept them as unassailable truths. If one thing is abundantly clear, Cookson exhibits a significant blind spot in his total neglect of the “knowledge domain” in his brief in support of embracing technology-driven. “21st century learning.”

Dr. Willingham is essentially correct in his critique of the education futurists. Since 2008, he has been sounding the alarm that the pursuit of “21st century skills” will prove unwise because the acquisition and application of knowledge still matters and will continue to matter in the future.  Without sound background knowledge, students have more difficulty mastering reading and are susceptible to online hoaxes such as the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus activity. He goes further in pointing out that mathematics, science, reading, civics, and history are more critical in K-12 education than what are termed “21st century skills.”

Being attuned and open to new research and pedagogical advances is desirable and but so is applying a skeptical eye when confronted with unproven theories. Willingham, for example, is not opposed, per se, to developing critical capacities in students, particularly in new media literacy.  Yet, he and other prominent edutopia skeptics, still worry that futurists are leading us astray and they certainly have past experience on their side.

Where are North American edutopian educators like Peter W. Cookson, Jr. leading us?  Where did he come up with the purported “creative disruptions”?  Is there any evidence, that such changes will improve student achievement or produce better informed, more productive citizens? Without radical changes in the socio-economic conditions of, and schooling provision for, marginalized students, can we expect much of an improvement?  And finally, is it sound thinking to put so much faith in the transformative powers of technology? 

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