Archive for the ‘Innovators’ Category

A level playing field

There are calls for fundamental changes to be made to the funding and regulation of Vocational and Educational Training (VET) in Australia.  In today’s Sydney Morning Herald, the Federal Education Minister said he wants to boost the status of VET  so ‘students don’t feel they have to go to university to have a good career.’

It reflects the need to radically rethink VET in a knowledge age and the importance of sectors working together to ensure a consistent approach and coherent framework for providing students with optimal opportunities.

It’s interesting that the new Education Minister calls VET the ‘forgotten’ education sector.  The established view is that VET is somehow less rigorous than an academic pathway to learning.  VET is a balance between the demands of work and study as well as integrating theory with practice.  Students learn the work by doing the work. VET actually provides for a level of personalised and independent learning not always evident in traditional subjects.

We have seen VET as the alternative to an academic pathway and while there are multiple pathways to learning (made more evident by technology), there is still one external credential (Higher School Certificate (HSC) in NSW).  This has been the gateway into university and for many, the path to a more rewarding and successful working life.

The view that university is the only option can’t be sustained in a knowledge age.  It is something the new Federal Minister wants to challenge.  It needs to be challenged at  policy level as well as at university and school sector level.

The vocational choices of students should be influenced by passion not process.  The challenge for schools is how we can, as Yong Zhao says entirely personalise not nationally or globally standardise education.  We need to level the playing field by allowing students the opportunity to draw from diverse areas of knowledge and skills.  It means allowing students to map their own curriculum based on individual interests and passions.

South Korea has effectively de-skilled a generation because of a cultural drive for students to be university educated.  While graduates compete for limited jobs, there is a growing gap for trades that have to be filled by overseas workers.

The knowledge age has created an even greater need for a level playing field in education.

Edward de Bono describes the current model of schooling like a pyramid where the bottom 80% are taught so that the top 20% can go onto university.  His view is that traditional subjects and universities may have very little to do with real life.  Interestingly, he asks why there are no exams in schools in ‘practical thinking’ and ‘value creation’?

de Bono argues that every student be taught what he calls ‘life skills’ such as critical thinking etc. The more academically inclined students take additional subjects that prepare them for university while the more practical and entrepreneurial minded students take additional subjects preparing them for work.

de Bono says this would be ‘the equivalent to teaching everyone to walk and then giving special coaching to those who showed an ability to run.  This is different from the current system of coaching everyone to run and then neglecting those who are not good at running.’ 

Not every student wants to be a runner nor should they be.  The biggest hurdle for schools and learners is the way
in which assessment is currently mandated and reported.  Meaning, we are still preparing all students to run the marathon by sitting the HSC.

As Professor Patrick Griffin from the University of Melbourne said recently, we will never get away from comparative measures (how good is my child compared to their class, state etc) but the focus has to be on where students are going (year after year) not on where they have been.

The most effective forms of assessments are those that support learning and inform teaching not control learning and narrow the curriculum.  Until we get on with the task of re-thinking assessment based on personalising the learning, we continue to neglect those who don’t want to be runners.





Improvement is no longer the challenge

I have just returned from two days at the third annual Leadership for School Improvement Colloquium.  The passion and pride for Catholic education is always evident at these gatherings; it reinforces the importance of taking time to reflect collectively on the how and the why.

I have to say however I left feeling a little flat and disappointed in the scope of thinking and models presented. There was nothing new, no stretch and certainly no innovative thinking or practice.  Unfortunately this seems to be consistent with most large education conferences.

If we look at other industry sectors we seem a much different approach. Businesses have shelved improvement because in this rapidly changing world of work, lifestyle and technology, they recognise the urgent need to transform themselves into something different.  Business communities across the globe are now responding to the challenge of the ‘Internet of Things‘.  These businesses are turning their backs on the improvement agenda because it’s no longer the challenge today.  I think this shift opens up a whole new perspective especially for education.

There is no better example of this than Apple. Up until 2001, Apple branded itself as a technology company within a manufacturing model (we see ourselves as contemporary schools operating within an industrial model). Steve Jobs and his team saw there was no future in the manufacturing space as it moved offshore.  Rather than improve an outdated model, Jobs announced that Apple was now in the lifestyle business.  This simple decision shifted the goal posts.

A Harvard Business Review article has examined how more businesses are moving away from improving old models to responding to the changing needs of consumers (and employees) within the context of a rapidly changing world.  In addition, real time data has helped to create a whole new paradigm for doing things differently, thinking creatively and responding immediately.

On the flip side, education is still wedded to the improvement model; looking for enhanced solutions to old problems. We operate on the assumption that we can control the variables, link performance to accountability measures and tighten up processes. Where are the innovative solutions?

Improvement is no longer the challenge so let’s use educational conferences and colloquiums to focus on how we change the system not how we fix it. As Sir Ken Robinson says the challenge is not to reform but to transform.




A seismic shift

Despite the increasing democratisation of information arising from access to the internet, the tightly-controlled mainstream media continues to fuel a narrow view of the world professing the need for education to return to the good old days.  Isn’t it bad enough that we have climate change deniers in the face of mounting scientific evidence; but to have educational change deniers, the likes of Kevin Donnelly, being given an unopposed platform is a source of frustration for educators trying to make a difference to student learning.  We are being fed a negative and polarising view of schooling which does nothing to respond to the growing evidence in support of a radical transformation in education.  If the good old days were so good, why, for the last 40 years, have we been spending more and more money on improving a failing system?

Emeritus Professor Patrick Griffin

Thankfully last night reason and rationality won out.  We had our faith restored after listening to Emeritus Professor Patrick Griffin deliver the 2015 Ann D Clark lecture. Patrick has spent four decades deeply immersed in the work of good theory, practice and evidence.  He is a leading educational thinker and believes we have a prime opportunity to do something disruptive when it comes to student assessment at a national level.

The digital reality of today’s world cannot be ignored despite many educational institutions and government resisting disruptive change.  Yet as Patrick told us last night, change must be systemic and seismic if students are to learn the skills needed to transition from factory to office to internet.  The new literates are the ones who will be able to challenge the traditional producers of information (Murdoch, Turner et al). They will have the 21st century skills (4Cs – creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinker) that are critical to respond successfully to a changing work, social and technological environment.

The tendency has been to focus exclusively on literacy and numeracy to the detriment of the other skills.  The internet has paved the way for new ways of assessing skills like collaborative problem-solving even though more work needs to be done on how we assess creativity.

Patrick has been involved in the assessment of children’s cognitive and social skills while playing online video games. He also cited changes to NAPLAN testing in 2017 with the replacement of the single test to short tests that will be able to match the ability of the student to the difficulty of the task.

The theory behind this derives from the work of Danish mathematician Georg Rasch who developed an algorithm to predict the probability of a student’s ability and success; American educational psychologist Robert Glaser who looked at the increasing stages of development and the stage in which a student stalls in their performance and Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development.

As Patrick explained there are massive changes in technology available for assessing student learning and if we can link it to every child’s zone of proximal development, we have the capability at a classroom level to move every child forward every year.   We really are at a watershed moment in how we assess and teach these 21st century skills but the revolution must come from within.

Patrick encourages all educators to become the new Karl Marx of the 21st century; to become the new literates that embrace disruptive activity.  Unchaining the inherent curiosity of children through increasingly complex tasks can be done by empowering teachers with the resources and strategies to identify where students are in terms of their progressive/proximal development and working with them to move students forward.

Patrick’s work and message is more persuasive than the purveyors of an old paradigm.  It is up to the teaching profession to develop a new narrative and a new framework for interpreting growth in today’s world.  It is up to the profession to educate parents and challenge the deeply regressive narratives around schooling in a knowledge age.

Beyond the limits of our own perspective

A few weeks back I had the opportunity to present to a group of Singaporean educators via video conferencing.

A decade ago we didn’t have the capabilities to do this so easily. As part of the discussion, I mentioned that social media needed to be part of a teachers’ toolkit in today’s world. Without it, we face irrelevancy because for many of our learners, it is where they live, communicate and learn.  Understanding where they are and what they are doing with the tools helps us to deliver more personalised learning experiences; to deepen the learning.

One of the questions I was asked in the conference was ‘how can teachers make time to use the tools?’ Since we can’t add any more hours to the day we need to demonstrate to teachers how and where the tools fit within a contemporary understanding of learning and teaching.

I understand there will always be an element of fear associated with using new tools.  People burnt books in protest of the printing press.  However, we are in the business of learning and if any profession should embrace social media, I believe it is ours.

We have a growing body of research investigating the impact of social media on teacher education as more and more teachers begin using these channels to deepen their professional learning and practice.  The very nature of social media reflects the way we learn, which isn’t linear but interactive, iterative and complex.

Respected educators like Will Richardson and George Couros have been writing about the relevancy of social media in classrooms for many years. These are powerful tools for connecting educators to students but importantly for connecting educators to other educators around the globe.

My fear in a rapidly changing world is not that technology is changing so rapidly, it’s what will happen to those educators who don’t see social media as relevant to learning. As Alvin Toffler famously said the “illiterate of the 21st century will be those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” How can we find ways of bringing colleagues not already using social media on the journey – to teach, share, demonstrate and present alternatives?

Educator and poet, Robert John Meehan wrote,”The most valuable resource that all teachers have is each other. Without collaboration our growth is limited to our own perspectives.”

Social media provides a powerful argument for moving beyond the limits of our own perspective.


Rethinking the beginning

Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) CEO Geoff Masters, recently identified some of the challenges we face in closing the achievement gaps in schools. He writes:

Schools continue to be organised on traditional lines with students being assigned to year groups, and teachers delivering the curriculum specified for each year group. If teachers treat all students in the same year of school as equally ready for the same curriculum, then some lower-achieving students are likely to be left behind and some higher-achieving students are unlikely to be challenged and extended.

While every attempt to personalise learning is made, schools remain hamstrung by traditional structures. As Masters writes we ‘prejudge students’ learning needs based on their age or year group’.  We continue to process students through the factory model and it is no more obvious than in Kindergarten when students are assessed and categorised.

What if in deconstructing these traditional lines and structures of schooling, we re-conceptualise Kindergarten based on what we now know about the importance of play, the diversity of learning needs, backgrounds and interests of each child in the context of today’s world.

Teachers will often say children can’t sequence when they start school but if they can toast bread, then they can already sequence. What if the first year of ‘formal’ schooling was focussed not on what students couldn’t do but what they had already achieved?  What if we could slow Kindergarten down by extending it across two years?

This would certainly provide more opportunities to explore, play and create and for children to build their confidence as learners.  It would also give teachers more time to connect with and understand each learner, to develop trust, encourage curiosity and foster deeper relationships.

Rethinking Kindergarten is the tip of the iceberg in what needs to be a larger debate on the whole pre to post schooling experience.  As Geoff Masters says, one way we may close the achievement gap is to move away from the group-think and group-solutions that have influenced schooling for more than a century.




Lessons from Sesame Street

For those who grew up watching Sesame Street in the seventies, there is research suggesting the much-loved show led to improved early educational outcomes for children.

sesame street

A new study has found that US children who had greater access to Sesame Street when it first aired experienced positive learning outcomes throughout primary school.  Boys and black, non-Hispanic children experienced the greatest benefits.

The authors noted that “Sesame Street may be the biggest and most affordable early childhood intervention out there, with benefits that can last several years. These findings raise the exciting possibility that TV and electronic media more generally can be leveraged to address income and racial gaps in children’s school readiness.”

Created in the late 1960s, the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) was considered an experiment. However, if you watch the pitch reel for Sesame Street, you’ll see this wasn’t an experiment at all.  The show’s rationale was to take the best theory and practice in early learning and apply it to a contemporary context – TV.  Behind Ernie and Bert, Big Bird and Count Dracula was a carefully crafted learning experience designed to engage, enable and empower young learners.  It was achieved by:

  • operating from the fundamental premise that every child could learn no matter what their background
  • integrating various techniques to engage children through song, animation, conversation and puppetry
  • meeting young learners where they were (at home) by locating the show outside a house on Sesame Street
  • giving children control over their learning and TV viewing (which is why it was aired in the mid-morning when older siblings were at school)
  • creating an awareness of the child as an individual and the world around them
  • making learning fun and recognising diversity as the norm

That Sesame Street is still broadcast forty five years on is testament to its core values and principles. The context may have changed but the principles remain.  According to the study’s authors Sesame Street acted as the first Massive Open Online Course of its time, aimed at delivering free educational content to a mass audience.

Sesame Street began with the belief that every child can learn. Its success and longevity globally can be attributed to professionals working and planning together and continually evaluating the impact of their work by seeking regular feedback from children.

UK educational leader and speaker Richard Gerver (quoted in Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools) says educators today need to find the best early learning facilities and spend time learning about what they do.  Sesame Street has taught millions of children valuable lessons over the past four decades and there are valuable lessons educators can learn from Sesame Street.









Remixing schooling

If you’ve been watching the series Redesign My Brain with Todd Sampson, you’ll be familiar with the work of neuroscientist Dr Michael Merzenich.  Dr Merzenich is a world authority on brain plasticity – the idea that the brain can continually re-wire itself.  Hence, the term ‘soft-wired’.

Sam Seidel, author of Hip Hop Genius: Remixing High School Education also believes that understanding how minds work and how people learn is critical to the current discussions on innovation and education. Re-wiring or as Sam posits ‘remixing’ education is the ability to take what already exists and create something new and relevant for learners.  He uses the example of hip-hop because it illustrates how young people re-mixed creative elements to create a dominant music culture in the US.  Sam argues that innovative education is the remixing of ideas, practices and data points collected by teachers to create a personalised and relevant learning experience for students.

Since his appearance at PBL World Australia in 2013, Sam has been working with Students Design for Education (SD4E) which is leading a group of Rhode Island students through the design process to create a new ‘student-centred’ school.  According to Sam, human-centred design or design thinking is the next wave in education because it aims at empowering students and teachers to drive change from within by becoming ‘designers’ of the learning space and learning experience.

Sam was in Sydney recently to work with students and teachers at Parramatta Marist High and to talk about the student-designed school project.  He said that design thinking demands the same skills as project based learning (PBL): think critically, work collaboratively and communicate creatively.  Sam was impressed with how quickly younger students (Years 7 and 8) at Parramatta Marist adapted to new learning experiences as a result of the skills they’ve acquired through their PBL work.

Reflecting on the critical skills and qualities needed by teachers in today’s world, Sam believes resourcefulness is important along with compassionate listening, thorough planning and adaptability. These are the cornerstones of design thinking – an organic process requiring empathy, insight, flexibility and experiment. Teaching is essentially human-centred design work – creating something  for students and with them.

Remixing schooling is about continually re-designing learning and teaching. That’s what distinguishes a soft-wired experience of schooling from a hard-wired one.













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