Monday, July 25, 2011

How to win the "best schools" competition - don't play the game!

A week ago my knowledge of the education system of Finland was, to be honest,  almost non-existent.   I knew that they were consistently ranked number one of all “Western” countries in PISA testing but had no idea how they did it.  Then, last weekend, I attended a keynote address by Professor Teemu Leinonen, Professor of New Media Design and Learning at the Media Lab of Aalto University in Helsinki.   Teemu informed the audience that Finland is the source country of Nokia, of Linux, and perhaps even more importantly, the mobile app “Angry Birds”.  Almost as an aside he mentioned that Finland does not have any formal systemic educational testing until the final year of schooling.
My ears picked up – no formal testing?
Professor Leinonen indicated that there was evaluation – but this was left to the teachers for the purpose of assisting their teaching,  not for any evaluation or ranking of students or teachers or schools.  So here is a country with essentially no formal testing until the final year of schooling that is consistently outperforming every country in the Western world that is test driven.  This flies counter to one of the major pillars of conservative school reformists and system administrators in other parts of the world.   It should be said that educators such as Alfie Kohn have been lamenting the revered status of test scores for many years now – but sometimes it seems he is an almost lone voice against  a massed choir of test advocates.  Some further investigation was called for.
As it happened American  broadcaster and blogger David Sirota recently interviewed Harvard Professor Dr. Tony Wagner on his radio program – which, thanks to the wonders of the internet, is accessible to anyone in the world.  Wagner is the  the author of a book with the unwieldy title of “The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills our Children Need” .  He is also the narrator of the recently produced documentary “The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the world’s most surprising school system”.  In the interview Wagner confirms Leinonen’s comments and makes some further observations:
·         There is no “high stakes” testing in schools in Finland.
·         Teachers must have a Masters degree.
·         Teaching is highly esteemed – only 10% of initial applicants make it through to teach in a classroom.
·         Teachers work collaboratively  - Wagner states that “...isolation is the enemy of innovation and improvement.”
·         The curriculum is designed to promote thinking – not memorisation.
·         The performance difference between the top and bottom schools in Finland is only 4%.

Much of the interview is spent addressing (and effectively debunking) the usual claims of “you can’t compare us to Finland...”

It is dangerous to make interpretations based on another’s observations – but, whilst acknowledging this,  there seem to be a number of implications for other education systems in the Finnish experience.     Obviously, large credit for the success of the Finish education system must go to the selection, preparation and performance of the teachers – and the collaboration embedded in their system. 

However, the absence of formal testing must be considered as a factor in their success.  Not only would this approach “free up” time for genuine teaching, but it would also remove the mindset of scores and test performance as indicators of student learning.  Mastery of concepts when performing authentic tasks in meaningful contexts would become the basis for student development.  We know that summative testing does not lead to sustained improvement in student performance – rather than cite Alfie Kohn yet again I will cite Dr. Dylan William of the University of London who claims that 4000 studies have confirmed that informative feedback consistently produces better student learning than  summative assessment – 4000 studies.  (To investigate this further click here to access the  Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow Today background document.   This should be compulsory reading for anyone involved in education.  The figure used here can be found on page 25.) 

As has been said, rather colourfully, by others, “You don’t fatten a pig by weighing it.”  It would appear that, on the basis of Williams’s research and the Finnish experience,  if we want to improve our schools ... we need to concentrate on teaching well rather than to the test.

Sirota’s blog provides a summary of the interview here   and also link to the relevant audio archive.     (The interview is towards the end of the show – I recommend downloading the mp3 file rather than listening online, then use the slider to fast forward to the 24:03 mark and listen from there.  Don’t be put off by a section in the middle where Sirota advertises the next guest – he does return to the Wagner interview.)

Flag graphic:

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Forward... to 1960 - Marshall McLuhan

It is common when blogging  to re-post video that is current, up to date, modern.  I’m breaking with that trend on this post by linking to a clip dating from 1960.
 Marshall McLuhan was a key thinker in the early days of electric  media – when television and radio were emerging forces.  He achieved near guru status with his concept of “The Global Village”.   The fascinating thing about this speech is that, with a simple substitution of terms, this interview could have been recorded today.  Replace McLuhan’s “tribal man” with  Marc Prensky’s “digital native” and you wouldn’t be too far wrong.  McLuhan speaks of “modern” media as being a “continually sounding tribal drum” – echoes of the Internet and media saturation.
Interestingly, in terminology from the 60s,  he speaks of young people being “with it” and people who are still stuck in the world of the book as being “away from it”. (This is not to suggest that McLuhan decries the book; far from it – he acknowledges the book as “the first learning machine”.)  “With it” and “Away from it” – could not these terms describe the gulf between  social media users and those that choose to avoid them?
Amongst the things that struck me when I saw this clip for the first time recently was how perceptive McLuhan was.  Apart from the simple substitutions such as the ones alluded to above and despite being more than 50 years old, the concepts in this interview are as modern as tomorrow.  But, the second thing that struck me was – how is this possible?  How is it possible that, after more than 50 years we are STILL predicting the demise of  static text, books etc.  How is it possible that, after 50 years of technological innovation and the tsunami of the internet and the microprocessor,  the debate is still recognisably the same?  What roadblocks are reducing  the digital revolution to device  evolution?
It strikes me that the issue is not really one of technology at all – but one of mind set.  To borrow another metaphor usually attributed to McLuhan – we are like drivers of a car looking forward ...but  staring into the rear view mirror – so, in effect, we end up looking at where we’ve come from.  The effect of this is that we use technology to re-create the things we have always done.  It makes sense to continue with the status quo if, but only if, doing so serves a valid and relevant purpose. 
 If education is to take advantage of technology we need to stop, consider the possibilities created by the digital revolution and move forward - otherwise people in 2060 will still be marvelling at how perceptive and prophetic McLuhan was.
Access the video here or watch above.

Original concept – thanks to keynote speech by Professor Teemu Leinonen  (Aalto University – Helsinki) delivered at AADES2011 – Australasian Association of Distance Education Schools annual conference, Hobart, Tasmania, July 2011 for showing the clip during his presentation.
Photo of McLuhan:
McLuhan interview:

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

TARGETS - School reform in three minutes

My marathon is over....
I have been privileged of late to have time to read; to read, to watch, to listen – and to think. Much of this precious time has been has been spent devouring material relating to school reform and exploring one simple question - how do we respond to the challenges and opportunities provided by the digital revolution to improve our schools? The concept of “school” as we know it is well over a century old – and was obviously developed before the digital revolution. The model of teacher / text book as the sole source of knowledge available to students is clearly no longer applicable – at any grade level. So how can schools respond appropriately to the new realities?
There is an abundance of material in the field – much of it very good; some based on research, some based on values, some based on bias ... and some seemingly not based on anything other than opinion or tradition. Sorting the “fact from the fiction” has taken time and the result, on one level at least, is disappointing. Predictably, there are no easy answers, there are no “silver bullets” – the area is simply too complex. However, there are significant and realistic principles for school reform that have been found to engage students, which are relevant to them and which also enable schools to meet the requirements and expectations of society in general. The problem is not that there are no worthy approaches, the problem is just the opposite – there are so many worthy ideas that will improve our schools.
How can the sheer volume of material relating to school reform be distilled into a “bite sized” chunk that educators can remember – and then apply? That was the task I set myself – to condense the research into a simple, easily remembered model that encapsulates progressive approaches to schooling. The result is TARGETS – presented here in a video of just under three minutes. It may take three minutes to view – but will take the rest of my career to implement. The hope is that educators can remember the mnemonic model, implement the principles contained – and reform education in the process.

TARGETS is a mnemonic that highlights important overarching principles that can guide school reform. The model is mine – but the research, reflection, wisdom and insight upon which it is based comes from the global community of educators. The tail end of the TARGETS video acknowledges some of the major influences on the development of the TARGETS model. All are easily accessible on the internet (indeed, that was one of the criteria for my research). Those wishing to develop their own understandings further (or perhaps see why the nominated initiatives are included) would be well advised to consult  "The MILE guide" – Parnership for 21st Century Skills and Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow Today – but all the identified influencers are worthy of genuine study.
So, the TARGETS model has been developed. Now comes the task of applying the model in “the real world”.
My marathon has just begun...

Source material:
MILE guide:
Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow – Today:
TARGETS video = original. Those wanting a static or portable version of the TARGETS presentation should click here.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Is 8% a big number?

Is 8% a big number? To some extent it depends on context but most of us would agree that it is usually a significant number. Who would turn down a pay increase of 8%?
A major study (cost = $12 000 000 USD) of twins in Australia and the United States has found that variations in student performance that is attributable to classroom factors such as teacher behaviours is of the order of 8% in literacy performance in the first three years of schooling (“Teacher Effects” in Early Literacy Development:Evidence from a Study of Twins, Byrne, B., Coventry, W., et al, 2010).
You may want to read that last paragraph again – yes, that’s right – “they” spent twelve million dollars to determine that different teachers produce different results – and that difference in results is around eight per cent.
Eight per cent.
Is that all? Other studies have put the figure as being in the order of 30% - 40% (Teacher – September 2009, p. 20). What might account for the difference? Apart from the staggering cost of the study, what makes the new figure interesting is that it was conducted using twins in different classes. As identical twins have virtually the same biology and essentially the same home environment it was felt that they provided a good indication about the impact of different teachers. We know that we are all unique – but twins, especially ones raised together, have a lot in common. Any difference in school performance is likely to be due to different experiences in the different classrooms. The study goes to some lengths to acknowledge that the experience in a classroom may not be entirely due to the teacher – but in broad terms, much of what goes on in a classroom is under the control of the teacher. In simple terms, twins taught by the same teacher showed minimal variation in performance, but twins taught by different teachers did – and after the statistical contortions were performed this figure was revealed to be a difference of eight per cent.
Now – it doesn’t take a mathematician to spot that 8% is a significantly less than 30% - and much less than 40%. How to explain the differences? It appears that the “twin study” is as statistically robust as can be realistically achieved – does that mean that it is right? Were there errors in the previous studies – or is the difference in the sample populations so significant as to make comparison difficult? But does it really matter – except to the people who provided the $12 000 000 of course? What matters, and what is confirmed by both studies, is that differences in teachers lead to a difference in student outcomes. Interestingly, even a $12 000 000 study does not actually identify the exact behaviours that make the difference. (An online report of the study can be accessed here. )
So, what does this study really tell us? Surely “they” did not need to spend all that money to discover that teachers are not all the same and that some achieve better results than others – as measured by the performance of their pupils? Surely, even relatively casual acquaintance with the realities of school would indicate this. Or does it simply reveal the pernicious growth of the measurement myth – the notion that everything can be measured and given a distinct number?
Does 8% tell us anything of genuine significance? No. Would a confirmation of the 30 or 40% figure tell us more? No. In a sense the numbers are irrelevant. What the numbers tell us is simply this – that some teachers are more effective than others. I doubt we needed this study to tell us that. Teachers, all teachers, have an obligation to their students to be the best teacher that they can – to give 100% to every lesson every day. We owe it to our charges to continually improve – to be a better teacher at the end of the year than we were at the start. In short, teachers need to learners – not necessarily students, but definitely learners.

Teacher, September, 2009, “Study questions “teacher effects”.
“Teacher Effects” in Early Literacy Development: evidence from a Study of Twins, Byrne, B., Coventry, W., et al, in J Educational Psychol. 2010 February 1; 102(1): 32-42.
Teacher image:

The online student – not even a face in the crowd?

I wish I had never seen the video posted below.

Prior to seeing it my academic world was a comfortable place. As a secondee working at university as an associate lecturer in education life was great – after decades of working in schools to be in a place that genuinely respected learning was hugely refreshing. Learning was valued. Resources were plentiful – certainly compared to the schools in which I had taught. The technology available to use to present tutorials was far in advance of anything available in schools. Dealing with adult learners, most of whom were keen to learn, was such a joy after trying to coax disengaged high school students into anything resembling academic activity. I was free to explore the possibilities open to the connected educator. The crippling load of marking was the only negative – and compared to my previous workload in schools it was manageable. Teaching was great again.

My load was a mixture of face to face work and online work. I was comfortable with this. The technology made life easier for students and there was research to support the notion that online learning was at least as effective as face to face learning. This meant that, although I didn’t actually see my students, I was comfortable that “the process” was a valid one for them. (For further reading in this area see this USA Department of Education report “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning “ , September 2010.)

It seemed that all over the globe students were voting with their fingers and opting for online courses. In the USA double digit growth in the percentage of students studying online seemed to vouch for this fact – an estimated 4.6 MILLION students were studying online in America alone.

In Australia online studies were proving so popular that face to face classes in some universities were suffering a significant fall in numbers. One report suggested that up to 44% of students rarely see the inside of a university lecture room. Surely,I thought, such a popular learning platform must be good for all concerned?

And then I saw this video.

The world changed.

The potentially crushing experience of students being alone with minimal genuine contact with teaching staff is made painfully clear in this very simple, very clever production.

Online learning requires a new repertoire of learning skills. It also requires new teaching skills. It requires a significant effort to ensure that the digital student is first and foremost a person. No technology, no matter how powerful, should ever be allowed to change that.

Monday, July 4, 2011

“The more I practice the luckier I get.” Mindset and Carol Dweck

Psychologist Carol Dweck has given the educational community one of the most positive educational concepts yet to be developed – mindset. Like many good ideas it is deceptively simple – but the implications for schools are profound. Quite simply, mindset is the belief that ability is not fixed – that people can acquire new skills through targeted effort and practice. Simple.
We accept this belief in sport all the time – we are all familiar with the story of basketball hero Michael Jordan who was dropped from his high school varsity team and wasn’t recruited by his first choice basketball college. So he practised ... and practised...and practised...until he became Michael Jordan – rated on the NBA website as the greatest basketball player of all time. The history of sport abounds with such stories. Not everyone becomes a Michael Jordan – but all can improve beyond their initial modest abilities. We expect our athletes to spend hours in training and practice in order to improve. Yet when it comes to mental potential and abilities we adopt a different view.
Despite the fact that I.Q. is a largely discredited concept, many children are labelled with a number or evaluation term – often the result of a single test. This label tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy . That score dictates the way we see the student – and, worse, often comes to be seen as an accurate reflection by the student himself. This attitude is often expressed by students as “I’m smart” or “I’m not as clever as...”. According to Dweck this attitude is simply wrong. Within reason, mental ability is not fixed – just like sporting abilities and physical skills, mental aptitude can be improved.
“People are, to a large extent, in charge of their own intelligence. Being smart – and staying smart – is not just a gift, not just a product of their genetic good fortune. It is very much a product of what they put into it.” – Carol Dweck. (To see a brief interview with Dweck who explains the theory and provides some of the evidence for it click here.) Dweck contrasts “growth” mindset with “fixed” mindset. The two world views differ significantly in the way that they respond to the world. This unattributed graphic provides a quick overview:

The notion that intelligence itself is not fixed, that it can be improved by effective teaching and that a growth mindset can result in significant improvement in performance by students, should be celebrated by both educators and students. Central to Dweck’s concept is that schools should stop concentrating on achievement (ignoring the huge side issue of exactly how that achievement should be measured in the first placed) and concentrate on identifying the actual learning that has taken place – and then attributing that learning, not to genetics, but to effort. (So, you scored 87% on the maths test? Did you work hard? No? Well, where is the credit in that? So you scored 58% on the maths test – when you often fail such tests. Great – you must have worked hard. Where specifically do you think you can continue to improve?) According to Dweck teachers need to emphasise the effort made by students and concentrate on the improvements that they make rather than their grades if we want to promote self-motivated learners with resilience and self-confidence. (This echoes the writing of the iconoclastic Alfie Kohn who is scathing about the inappropriate measures of success endorsed by schools- usually done with good intentions. Kohn maintains that traditional “grading” of student work actually limits student performance – including that of the high achievers. See the article section of his website for further readings .)
For teachers in the classroom it is reasonably easy to implement the “growth mindset” approach in the classroom. Dweck’s book and website ( offer ideas on how this can be done – but really, it isn’t that difficult – once you are in the right mindset yourself.
So, it seems that it doesn’t matter if it is on the basketball court or in the classroom – student performance level is NOT fixed – students can all get better at virtually anything – with effort, persistence and self belief. As the saying goes... “The harder I practice the luckier I get.”
The quotation used as a title for this blog is attributed to many people – but, after a little research, it seems most often attributed to champion golfer Gary Player. However, there is an even earlier attribution, ironically to another golfer - to 1961 PGA golf tournament winner Gerry Barber.