Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Alfie Kohn, school reform …and taking the first steps

Alfie Kohn is an educator known for his iconoclastic attitude towards schools and educational systems. Much of his writing challenges conventional attitudes and practices in education. Often his statements are controversial as they challenge “the way we do things”. In his address at the MAAP conference (2011) Kohn revisits some of the key concepts that he suggests for educational reform often found in his writings.

Some of the key items that Kohn suggested include;
Schools should be more concerned with social and emotional education - not only for its own sake, but as an added bonus, it is also linked to higher academic achievement.
Rather than ask “How can I get the kids to do what I want” we should ask “What do these kids need?” He reminds the audience that we all need three things; autonomy, a sense of belonging and a feeling of competence - but that our school system often runs counter to these needs (especially at the high school level where they are perhaps most needed).
As a result, we should look for structural problems at the school level before we blame kids for behaviour.
It is not enough that we have to change schools to do good things - we also have to stop doing bad things. By “bad” Kohn includes anything that places emphasis on competition.
Schools should shift from being “doing to schools” (i.e. traditional schools where the structure of the school places emphasis on compliance to teacher authority which is used to dictate the lesson content required by an external curriculum authority) to “working with schools” where the motivations of the students inform the long term goals and help set the direction of their education).
Teachers should talk less and ask more.
Plus more.

Kohn’s engaging address is delivered with passion and confidence and is well worth watching and reflecting upon. View Alfie Kohn’s address here.

As with many of Kohn’s statements the difficulties arise when we try to visualise the processes by which we could implement his suggestions; for example, what do schools look like when they don’t recognise success via awards and certificates? What would a school look like that did not feature competition? (After some thought, it is simply stunning how much unintended competition there is in our schools.) How do we maintain discipline in an inclusive social institution such as a school if “punishment” destroys the relationships which students often desperately need?

Fortunately Kohn has some ideas and examples as well as brick bats. He has also been remarkably generous with his ideas on his website which features numerous essays on key issues free of charge. If his presentation piques interest it is well worth a visit here
It should be noted that not everyone agrees with Kohn - and not all counter arguments are based on self interest. Follow this link for an alternate view of his work - which also includes a defence by Kohn to the criticisms.

The best thing about Kohn’s work is that he asks questions that challenge our assumptions and often presents research findings that challenge what is commonly accepted as truth.

Practically the only universally accepted notion about “schooling” is that the process needs reforming. The divisions appear when we ask questions such as “What do we change and why?” Viewing Kohn in action or reading his essays is a fair place to begin the process.

The longest journey does not begin with the first step - it begins when we think about taking that first step.

Photo credit:

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The future of schooling? Holograms, robots and “the algorithm” …

There’s not much of a future in making predictions. According to Greek mythology the prophetess Cassandra was cursed by Apollo so that no-one would believe her predictions - despite their unfailing accuracy. For mere mortals without her gift of foresight making predictions is a haphazard business indeed. Hence, I am not making a prediction; I am merely speculating on some apparently unrelated snippets from the recent web.

Item one. A crowd of concert goers in Japan attend a live performance by Miku Hatsune. So?
Miku Hatsune doesn’t exist - “she” is actually a hologram, although her backing band is real and performing on stage. People are going to a concert to see an artist that does not exist perform “live” in front of them. Judging from the concert footage they seem to be enjoying it.

Item two. A South Korean school is trialling the use of a robot teacher aide to teach students English. The article claims that the cost is one half the cost of employing a real life teacher.

Item 3. In America a boy with a severe illness now attends school via robot. This gives him some much needed “social” interaction as well as access to an education.

Item 4. In New York the “School of One” has significantly redesigned education - largely by using technology to take over the planning of student work. “The algorithm”, aka a computer, assesses student performance each day, discerns the extent of their progress and then creates a unique learning program for the following day - complete with access to off-site subject expert tutors and computer assisted learning. This video of the principal of the school, Dominick D’Angelo, giving a speech includes interview footage with teachers and students from the school.

It is undeniably fascinating material.

My question is simply - what happens if (when?) these items combine?

What might a school of the future look like once these technologies become commonplace?

Photo credit =

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The "Crayola Curriculum" continues....

For some years now I have been uncomfortable with the sheer volume of photocopies (worksheets) being used in classrooms. It is very fashionable to want to reduce paper use for ecological reasons – but to be honest, this is not the cause of my concern (albeit that these concerns are valid ones). My concern is that much of the work contained on the majority of photocopied worksheets are low quality or worse – “busy work”. I define “busy work” as work that may well be engaging but does not align to the stated aims of the lesson.

Reading Ben Johnson’s blog at Edutopia recently the issue resurfaced. (Paper and Pencil Curriculum: How much do you rely on it?” Ben is approaching the issue from a slightly different perspective from my concerns but his blog contains a link to Mike Schmoker’s article on the “Crayola-Curriculm”. The link is well worth following in its own right as it makes some worthy points. Mike Schmoker uses the term “Crayola Curriculum” to describe what he has observed in many many school visits – the practice of getting children to “colour in” pictures – ostensibly as a part of the literacy program. Mike makes the point that, to a disturbing degree, often this activity does not relate to the objectives of the lesson.

In his article Schmoker states that school administrators were often not aware of the extent of the issue but that, once they were made aware of it, it was a simple matter for staff to ensure that their classes reflected the stated aim of the lesson and that there was less colouring , cutting, pasting and so forth. This may seem trivial – but by replacing such dubious activities (presumably only when they were not valid extensions of the lesson) some schools achieved a 25 point improvement in (SAT) literacy results in only two years. For maths the improvement was even more striking – up to a 40 point improvement in SAT scores. (The debate as to whether SAT scores are valid ways of assessing student performance will not be entered into here – we only have so much time in one life.) While Schmoker’s original article does not give significant details as to the changes made to programs the general thrust is clear – by aligning the actual work in the classrooms with the official objectives (i.e. no “busy work” and more focussed instruction) classroom teachers achieved a statistically significant improvement in measurable performance. Only a statistician would call the improvements “statistically significant”. The rest of us would call them “fantastic”.

Schmoker’s article is now somewhat dated – despite still resonating strongly. In an effort to determine if “busy work” was still as rife as I suspected I did some research. I wanted to discover what was the “average” amount of photocopying done in schools. It was surprising difficult to find a satisfactory answer. Eventually, after more coffee than was good for me and some increasing bizarre Google searches, I came up with a figure. The educational support office at Beaverton School District, (which, according to Google, is in Washington County, Oregon, USA) has some helpful advice to schools wishing to purchase photocopy machines.  The numbers it cites are based on actual observed usage rates in previous years. They suggest that elementary students would require an average of 120 copies per month, middle school students 130 and high school students 140 a month. Remember, these figures are based on actual previous consumptions in schools. Converting the numbers to a daily figure it would indicate that elementary students in Beaverton are issued, on average, six photocopies a day. Every day.

For the sake of argument let us assume that the Beaverton figures are representative of schools in general. If we assume a school year of 180 days then the “average” annual photocopy consumption per student is 1080. This is slightly more than two reams of paper each. If we keep that figure standard then we arrive at a figure of 10 800 photocopies in ten years – and that is ignoring the increase in photocopies in the older grades. Remember, this is photocopy usage, not total paper use.

Are we to believe that all of these photocopies are genuinely instructive? If we believe that learning is a social activity and that schools should follow constructionist techniques then the use of large numbers of photocopies seems difficult to reconcile with effective pedagogy. It seems incomprehensible that these huge volumes of photocopying can be educationally valid. Perhaps, as Mike Schmoler suggested, we should be paying a lot more attention to controlling the “Crayola Curriculum” and ensure that we align our practice with the official curriculum.

The “Crayola Curriculum” is not a pretty picture – no matter how pretty the colouring.

This blog was prompted by Ben Johnson’s blog at Edutopia – “Paper and Pencil Curriculum: How Much do you Rely on it?”

Mike Schmoker’s article can be found here.

The link to the Beaverton School District photocopy advice can be found here. )

Image of crayons: creative commons