Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Is there hope (and depth) beyond the bandwagon?

A few weeks back, the Sunday Star Times ran a piece lamenting ‘Classrooms flooded with devices’ (Dudding, 2014), along with the observation that "the latest and greatest" technology has been repeatedly touted as the solution to whatever ails the education system, with mixed results.

It is perhaps unfortunate that the article directly compared devices with very different affordances, as Skinner’s ‘Teaching Machine’, a drill and kill rote learning device designed by the prominent Behaviourist was compared with today’s digital devices. This is an indictment on how modern devices (iPads, Chromebooks and the like) are sometimes used in schools and homes – for repetitive drill of low level skills, as a time-filler to entertain and reward, and as glorified word processors.

To be sure, there is a mountain of rhetoric and corporate interest surrounding everything Digital. But surely there is also something more than what Kentaro Toyama (cited in Dudding’s article) dismisses as “the superficially appealing argument that digital education is essential because digital skills - emailing, copying files, making a Powerpoint presentation - are needed in the modern workforce”.

Digital Skills? A notion that has been surpassed by ‘Digital Literacy’ surely. As the sign on my office door reads “Digital Literacy is about mastering ideas, not keystrokes” (Gilster, 1997). The examples related in Dudding’s article are cringe-worthy, and barely make it into the digital realm – email, powerpoint?! Is that all there is to it?!

What does it take to move beyond a focus on devices, drill and low level skills?

What does it mean to elevate our thinking, learning and teaching so that new possibilities are realised?

And what might this look like in practice? 

According to one school of thought (MoE, 2002):

Learning ABOUT ICT means learning what a device can do and how to work a program, etc.

Learning WITH ICT means using ICT to supplement and complement the usual ways of doing things - so the same learning is occurring, but with digital technology rather than a previous approach

Learning THROUGH ICT means using ICT to bring about new ways of learning that surpass anything that would have been possible without the technology. This is where the innovative potential exists and where real benefits occur that lead to deeper learning and justify the expense and trouble of working with ICT.

Another way of thinking about this is the SAMR model

Examples of learning through ICT that go beyond email, copying files, powerpoint, rote learning and word processing:

1. Students at schools such as Point England primary in Auckland have broadcasted book reviews via student-generated podcasts since 2005 (Burt, 2008). Students communicate and publish on the web to an international audience and receive constructive feedback from listeners.

2. Interactive and collaborative possibilities occur where students connect, via the technology, with other people from diverse cultures and contexts. Examples of this occurring include epals/electronic penpals, electronic mentoring and online discussion/chat, or video/audio conferencing with people from near and far.

3. Collaborative Internet projects, in which students and teachers collaborate with others from around the world to share information and learning, and to create joint products. These projects take a range of forms, such as those devised by Silverman, and iEarn, where students are involved in ‘learning with the world, not just about it’.

4. Web Quests, or research activities requiring use of Internet sources, often completed by students working in groups, where each has a role or specific area to research.

5. Inquiry-based learning, where students identify their need for information, formulate research questions and search for information strategically, using a range of complex search strategies to navigate electronic databases and sources. Students use higher-order cognitive skills to analyse, evaluate and synthesise information, and to apply it to the creation of new meanings and ideas. Students then communicate, publish and disseminate their findings to authentic audiences via such means as blogging, vlogging (video web logs), podcasting (audio episodes subscribed to online), and vodcasting (video episodes subscribed to online).

6. Digital artefacts and legacies, where students produce learning materials to demonstrate their own learning and to share and teach peers. For example, at Kaipaki School near Hamilton, children in the senior school carried out a survey to ascertain the mathematics learning needs of their younger peers, and used the findings to design a range of apps and videos for use by teachers and learners in the school. For a powerful example of a gifted young man using video to teach maths concepts to fellow students, see Tristan Pang’s Learning Hub

What is noticeable about the examples in this latter category is the use of a social constructivist learning approach, rather than the behaviourist approach of Skinner. These examples are based on principles of inquiry learning, information literacy, and higher-order thinking and involve a range of technologies with students sharing their work with authentic audiences. In these examples, students learn through ICT and with others.

Notions of "building the plane as we fly it" (Kate, DP, in Dudding article) are similar to those about "lab rats" and using children as Guinea Pigs. Isn't this what innovative, responsive educators do? All the while, formatively monitoring and adjusting to children's needs. Teaching as inquiry, along with  research partnerships between academics and schools, should ensure that the evidence base is growing. After all 'building a robust evidence base' is one of the strategic priorities highlighted by the Future-focused learning report (May, 2014), cited in the article. This is not to suggest that evidence is unproblematic, or that causal links between technology and achievement can or should be established. The picture is far more complex, but that might have to wait for another post.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Schools policing uniforms and hair lengths

There has been quite a bit in the NZ news in the last few weeks about this topic. It arose because a school in Rotorua sought to impose new rules about hair length on its students, sending a senior (Lucan Battison) home (for a considerable length of time) who would not comply. It went to the High Court to resolve - in the student's favour, of course, because the school rule contravened a human right. This ruling has ramifications across all New Zealand schools. The Waikato Times on Saturday July 5 2014 ran a full page article about this, examining various schools' websites for information on uniform rules, as well as seeking comment from principals. Unfortunately, I've been unable to find an online version of the same article.

The whole debacle reminds me of my own schooling last century. I used to have long hair up until I was in year 11 (we called it fifth form), which I would wear a variety of ways. On the day of a 'Girls' Assembly' - held with annoying regularity to police us into knowing our place as girls - the focus was Hair. Various senior female staff members trawled the rows of girls in the hall, and indicated which girls had to leave these ranks and follow staff members to the stage. I was one of them. One by one we were paraded to the entire assembly, and our hair transgressions were explained. Mine? That day, my hair was tied up in two high pigtails above my ears. My crime with this hairdo? It would interfere with me being able to do work at my desk, because my hair would fall forward as I bent to study. This was received with disbelief, going by the murmurs from the assembled girls. I was outraged.

I tell this story because it was one of those occasions which form who you become. Of course it was ridiculous - my 'crime' suggested I had no agency and was slave to what my hair would do. As if! From that day, I did my best to wear my hair in as many of the offending styles as I could remember. My rebellious streak was truly fired up, and so I resisted their edict as much as I could.

This episode also came flooding back when Lucan Battison's case was publicised. It's been 40 years since my experience. Have school leaders learned nothing? Conformity, control and authority appear to be dominant discourses in some schools, particularly where new principals want to make their mark, and in so doing, squash attempts by students to flex their identity-forming rite of passage as a teenager. This was a monumental error of judgement by that principal. Was there an educational principle that drove this decision? I've no idea and cannot imagine that there was one. To me, viewing this from the outside, it was about power and control. Nothing more, nothing less.

I taught in secondary schools for over 20 years before becoming a teacher educator. If the core business of schools is learning and achievement, what does the persistent thrust of regulating hair and body say about what students learn? What do they come to understand what matters in their school?

Policing students' bodies is slippery territory. The markers of boy/girl are inscribed on these bodies - generally speaking, in secondary schools at least, boys must wear shirts, long or short pants. Girls must wear skirts. For students whose identity doesn't match their gender, what then? And what if the uniform shape doesn't suit some body shapes? Are some students doomed to frump in colours, shapes and designs that do nothing for their esteem?

When my daughter went to Intermediate school, she had to, for the first time, wear a uniform. As a girl, she now had to wear a skirt or dress. Within a day or two, she began wearing her physical education shorts underneath, because otherwise she didn't want to climb on the jungle gym, or do any of the other things she had freely done when at primary school, where, most of the time, she was most comfortable wearing trousers; she was not a dress kind of girl. Instead, by being forced to wear a dress/skirt, she was learning about effects of The Gaze. As a result, she began limiting what kind of physical activity she engaged in, or took steps to make herself feel safe to do so, to avoid boys making comments about seeing her underwear if she played on the climbing bars.

Such is the tyranny of a school uniform.  Instead of helping students focus on striving to be the best they can be and learn as as much as they can, conformity and the suppression of identity appears more important in some contexts. Discipline and punish, squash and suppress. Foucault eloquently argued the trajectory of discipline moving from a public spectacle of disciplining the body, to being inscribed on the body. That is what uniforms do. This discipline controls what the body does in a constant way. It is the exercise of power over, regulating the space, time, movement, and look of that body. The principal of that Rotorua school was exercising this kind of power.

If schools want uniforms, I think they need to answer the following question: Whose interests does a uniform serve? An argument in New Zealand is that it is a socio-economic leveller, but it is perfectly obvious who is well-to-do and who isn't in a school uniform. Another argument I hear often is that it helps build school community and identity. Really? As one principal noted in the Waikato Times' article, a uniform is a way of "identifying ourselves". To be fair, this principal was talking about sports uniforms, not a school uniform, but this is about a school being able to claim its students. Where is the community in that? It sounds like an exertion of power to me. Another principal in the same article argued two important things: that a school uniform "maintains a sense of pride and identity...[and] an aspect of management...".

I could go on, but Dianne and I promised each other not to have posts that were too long. I am really interested in anyone's take on this question. It seldom gets debated. So - please feel free to add a comment.

Friday, 11 July 2014

What does your assessment say about your pedagogy?

At a recent assessment event for our teaching advisory network, colleagues raised a number of thought-provoking questions. Although the session was intended to be about assessment in tertiary education contexts generally, the use of digital tools for assessment purposes was a recurring theme. These include:
  • eportfolios for assessment of artifacts representing learning
  • Google forms for formative feedback from students
  • electronic means of crafting generic feedback related to criteria, which can then be copied, pasted and customised for each student's work
  • Moodle tests
  • Ensuring equivalence of assessment across teaching formats, such as on campus, online, satellite campus.
One question in particular got me thinking. The question was something along the lines of ‘If lecturers are copying and pasting generic feedback onto students’ assignments, and this feedback is the same from one year to the next, what does this say about our pedagogy?’

I decided I needed to respond to this
Firstly, feedback is customised for each student's work, but starts with a common framework which enables the marker (or multiple markers, as is often the case) to work smarter. And it makes good sense because:
  • All student work is assessed in relation to consistent and transparent criteria (criteria that is shared with students in paper outlines, and sometimes negotiated with students as part of assignment preparation)
  • generic feedback is informed by that criteria
  • specific feedback is also informed by those same criteria
  • with large classes, personalising feedback requires us to find ways to manage these sizes. It's an  important factor when considering the practicality and usability of assessment methods 
  • a copy, paste, customise approach is a sensible way to provide valid and reliable assessment
  • it is valid because the feedback references the criteria, and leaves scope for adding specific, targeted feedback to each student rather than being formulated at the whim of the marker
  • it is reliable because the feedback is consistent across markers and across days of marking. Often marking will take up to three weeks as it is interspersed with other tasks and demands. A template helps us to sustain consistency throughout this time.
The colleague who raised this question makes an excellent point – that is, we need to attend to the feedback we are giving our students in order to squeeze out formative information for ourselves, for course development and pedagogical purposes. The feedback we give is not just formative for students; it can also inform our teaching. For example, if we spot common misunderstandings when giving feedback on student work, such as when:

  • first year students need help with APA referencing 
  • any students have difficulty referencing chapter authors in edited texts
  • second years struggle to differentiate between a summary and a critique
  • third years struggle with argumentation
  • post grad students write literature reviews as an annotated bibliography

... I could go on and on... However, patterns of student need are readily apparent in our feedback and can be used proactively to direct teaching and how the paper is adjusted in subsequent iterations. Of course, this is the essence of formative assessment. Our feedback tells us (as well as the students) what the next learning steps are and makes it easier to target these needs. Importantly, it's a mistake to assume that generic feedback remains the same year after year. Indeed, our assessments change frequently over time, as they are informed by student needs, curriculum development, wider influences, and constant innovation. When an assignment changes, criteria change and feedback changes. 

Feedback may also change in response to student feedback about that feedback ;-). That is, when students appraise a paper and the teaching performance of the teaching team, either via TDU or other means, smart teachers use the student feedback to improve the paper. Finally, to return to the question: What does my (copy, paste, customise) approach to feedback say about my pedagogy, it is noteworthy that the feedback I plan to give students is invariably positive. I write the feedback on the assumption that the student's work has met the criteria. For example, in a recent 100 level eportfolio assessment, one criterion reads:

"Entries capture thoughtful consideration of professional issues".

My generic feedback is in the form of a stem, beginning “Thank you for sharing your eportfolio. Your entries capture thoughtful consideration of professional issues, including…”. I then customise the feedback by listing some of the professional issues raised by that student in their eportfolio. So, if a student referred to culturally responsive teaching in mathematics (a subject of recent New Zealand media coverage), and also demonstrated consideration of the class-size debate, I might complete the stem by writing:

“Thank you for sharing your eportfolio. Your entries capture thoughtful consideration of professional issues, including culturally responsive teaching and class sizes.” 

 The eportfolio that did not include consideration of any professional issues of note, would receive a comment like:

“It was expected that your entries would capture thoughtful consideration of professional issues”.

 How does this give useful feedback on student learning? It lets individual students know whether and how their work has met the criteria. Subsequent comments may elaborate further on quality, and suggest how further improvement could be made.

  So, what do others think about assessment with digital tools? Please feel free to offer comments. 

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Dianne and I, as teacher educators, are aware that modelling digital practices that link to thinking and learning are critical to our pedagogical philosophies. As a result, we have embarked on this project of sharing blogging duties about education generally, and digital stuff in particular. 

The title of our blog gives us scope to interrogate our own practices and thinking, and those of others on aspects of education in New Zealand. It may be prompted by a comment someone makes, something we've read, research we undertake, stuff we publish, and anything else that takes our fancy within the brief we have set ourselves. We welcome comments and ideas, and we hope to invite others to contribute posts as the inspiration strikes. Let's see what happens. 

The chocolate fish image pays homage to its iconic status in New Zealand. It's sometimes used in schools as rewards - even for staff!