Schools and IT Hardware Acquisition

educational-technology__zoom

“Look how hi-tec we are! Look at our techie bling!”

This was the message that thousands of schools were seeking to put out to the public around 7-10 years ago when they bought and installed interactive white boards. Some even felt the need to put massive display boards outside the front of their schools to tell parents, prospective parents and the local community that they had invested in this technology. This should have been a worrying sign to everyone. This hardware wasn’t being acquired and installed for education reasons or reasons that had anything to do with children, their learning or the ability of teachers to enhance that learning.

People were bemused when I was Director at The Shri Ram Schools that in the midst of all this we had still not installed any of these boards. This wasn’t motivated by being tight-fisted or unwilling to invest. Rather, each year we would carry out an assessment and concluded that installing the boards would actually be an obstacle to the changes we were seeking to bring about in teaching approaches and methods. The technology would have become a hiding place for teachers who were reluctant to make real internal changes and step out of their comfort zones. The result – more investment in training and a strong focus on supporting our teachers through their changes led to better implementation of personalised learning, differentiation and new and more effective teaching methods.

And for all those other schools? Sadly, all the evidence shows that the fears that I and my TSRS team had were well founded.  Those schools installed the hardware, paraded it to people as a reason to believe that their schools were something special, but their presence changed little about the way teaching was done (meaning they had very little, if any, effect on student learning).

The negative position was even confirmed in some research in late 2017 that I was personally involved with. It showed that even in schools where there were high proportions of teachers trained with PGCE and with a great deal of experience, over 80% of the teachers used the interactive white boards for nothing more than ‘showing pictures and video’.

Now, I have some radical news for you – you can do all of that with a large flat screen TV in the classroom and a) the picture quality is miles better, and b) the cost is only about 60% of the overall cost of all the classroom hardware and software for an interactive white board. So, as a result, it doesn’t make education or financial sense to keep putting these boards in every classroom in new schools, or replacing them all when they reach the end of their productive lives.

Now, I’m not saying all was bad. There were still around 20% of teachers who were using these boards as they were designed and they were contributing to some great learning. Most often, these tended to be in early years classrooms where the interactivty and participative nature of the learning suits the children, their ages and the material being learned and in science and maths fields for some topics where they can be really useful to convey and manipulate complex data, graphs or 3-D graphic models of body systems etc. So, I still believe there should be some installed in some rooms of a school – where specific good reason can justify!

But, think what schools could do with the surplus funds freed up.  School Heads will always have good uses for such freed up funds.

White boards

Another area on which I’ve continued to be baffled is with regard to creating, setting up and equipping computer labs. Why do schools keep doing it blindly, without questioning or challenging what they’re doing – especially when setting up a new school? From an owner/ promoter’s perspective in the most simple terms, a computer lab is a pure cost centre. Children leave a classroom empty and unitilised to go and occupy the computer lab for a period of time. If that room wasn’t a lab it would be a more standard learning space, so it becomes income generating (you can accommodate a certain number of students in that room at whatever are the fees of the school. This may often be more than the typical revenue from one standard class of students as these rooms are often designed to be double the size of a normal classroom.

My principle reason for saying this is that in the world we live in today IT is ubiquitous and it comes to us. The days when we physically moved to a space for the purpose of using IT is long past. There are a whole variety of arrangements that schools can use – trolleys for charging and moving tablets or laptops, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) schemes, loan and buy back personal devices arrangements etc. The reality is that we don’t really need labs for anything except high end programming and CADCAM type work (so, just one lab even for a very large school. Of course, if you’re in India, you will still have to have at least one lab – because the examination board insists you must! Such is life, huh.

After attending a couple of big conferences in India and Malaysia in the last 4 months that included exhibitions, I fear we’re destined to prove we learned little from those past experiences with the interactive white boards. I felt a sense of deja vu.  Except, where in the past every second or third exhibitor was peddling electronic white boards their 2019 avatars are extolling the amazing and stunning benefits of hardware for Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) or Robotics. But, again, all the clues are there – this seems too often to be at least as much about school marketing and impressing parents than about bringing in new and radical changes to student learning   It’s more bling to show off, to prove credentials of modernity and progressive nature in the school, where the approaches to teaching and the underlying ideological approach to education, its purpose and methodologies haven’t really changed.

Before a school introduces new technology there’s a need for a ‘warts and all’ deep and searching internal audit and self-assessment that needs to start right from – what do we exist for, what are our purposes? The next question is, why are we considering buying this technology and how does it figure within the context of our current approaches to teaching and learning? What would need to change if we are to harness the learning potential of this technology and how much confidence should we have that those changes are possible and likely? This analysis gives clues about whether it does or doesn’t make sense to go ahead to bring the technology in (and the timing).

I hope i’m wrong. Because, if i’m right there are very real risks that instead of such technology becoming tools to progress the changes in education that our young people need, they either contribute nothing, or worse, get in the way and become an excuse not to change or innovate. This is not the time to allow blockages and inhibitions to get in the way of education reform and change. With a world pace of change accelerating beyond anything we’ve ever experienced before, we have to have an education system that is open, ready to change, flexible and responsive. otherwise, we will fail to do our duty by young people and society at large.

 

Rex Karmaveer Education Change Champions – Reflections

A couple of weeks ago it was such a pleasure to see the Rex Karmaveer Education Change Champions event come together after long discussion and lots of work behind the scenes by the Rex Karmaveer team, especially by Eitu Vij Chopra.

Now that a couple of weeks have elapsed, I wanted to capture my thoughts and reflections from the conference and awards ceremony.

1. My Mojo
I never really had any doubts, but being part of the discussions and interactions over this day reinforced in my mind that my enthusiasm and drive to bring about significant change in education is every bit as strong as it ever was.
I’m brimming with ideas and, if anything, my biggest challenge I have to deal with now is I can’t be all things to all people at the same time and have to pick and choose the projects that i’m going to take forward. One of my biggest criteria will be the level of potential impact from those actions.

2. I’m a Bit Rusty
Years ago I really wasn’t very good at speaking or engaging with audiences. But, I wanted to be and was determined to get good. So, I grabbed every opportunity I could, including engaging in debating competitions all the way up to winning at national level in UK.
However, as i prepared for my keynote session on the morning of this one day event, I recalled that I had basically only spoken in front of one audience in the previous 18 months or so. This made me way more apprehensive than I would normally have been for such an occasion.
And, I realised the next day, that affected my preparation – I over-prepared and tried to be too rigid over the content, my notes etc.
And it showed. I was not as fluid as i would want to be – plain and simple I was rusty. Just like riding the proverbial bike, you don’t forget how to do these things, but it takes time and some practice to get back up to speed and return to past performance levels (so as to then work to go beyond those past levels).
So, the task at hand is to find every opportunity I can to engage with audiences, big or small (already grabbed one opportunity last week, that benefited from being a short impromptu involvement). I will get back up to speed asap.

3. Great Work Going On
The seventy five or so schools that were represented at the event were curated and hand-picked as the founding group. And, I have to say, very well curated – these were people and schools that were worthy of recognition. In future years schools will be challenged to prove that they merit lining up alongside these schools. They represented the whole spectrum of K-12 education in India, from across the whole country and the whole spectrum from elite private schools to government aided schools working at grass roots levels in rural and deprived inner city areas.
What was clear was that there is a lot of great, innovative work happening where schools are giving their pupils the opportunity to give back, to contribute to their communities and to the wider society.  Lots of children are getting the benefits that come in life from being a go-giver, recognising that they gain when they contribute to making the lives of others better.

4. Choices
One of my pleas on the day to all the schools concerned was to widen the choices available to students. Too often I see situations where a single school project for community action is agreed upon and then all in the school are asked to engage in it. This is a problem and challenge for students whose own drives and energy don’t align with the chosen project.
There are almost infinite possibilities for what can be done and if there is enough choice available that means something to ignite the passion in every pupil. For those schools that are smaller or lack resources, then collaboration has to be the way forward to increase the variety of giving opportunities for pupils. That can be collaboration with other schools or colleges or even collaboration with local companies and their CSR engagement activities.

5. Fear of Bold Change
  Educators remain largely fearful of making bold changes. In India, particularly, the last 12-15 years have seen appreciable changes in approaches to primary education. Classrooms look different, the pedagogy has changed and the atmosphere is very different. However, there’s an incongruence that stands out where educators seek to convince parents and other observers that they believe in progressive child-centred, whole child educational methodologies, but then flip the switch when children move from primary to secondary school – where the same old teacher-centric, rote based, content driving methods are still used to drill pupils for exam success.
At that point, anything else becomes peripheral and bolted on usually as extra-curricular activities. The reality is that in secondary schools where students are getting opportunities to develop what are colloquially known as soft skills (or Industry 4.0 skills) is not in their standard core classes, but in the extra curricular bolted-on parts of the school programme.
Then, as educators we wonder why we’re not always taken seriously as a profession.

6. Courage of Convictions
  When a speaker made the point that schools should have potential at the core, not performance, there were audible responses from across the audience regarding expectations of parents and other stakeholders when it comes to the focus on exam success and how it’s meant to be achieved.
However, if this is the case, I would ask those educators to reflect on how they currently select their schools’ sports teams? Are those selected on performance or potential basis? Would they have the courage of their convictions to choose their sports teams on the basis of grit, drive, passion and enthusiasm rather than outright talent and performance, even if that meant less trophies in their cabinet?
I don’t have the right, or the temerity,  to walk in to my doctor’s surgery and state – I have this condition, so please write me a prescription for medicine X immediately. Instead, respecting that the doctor is the professional expert in his/ her field I tell them of my symptoms, answer their questions about the nature of my malady and then receive their diagnosis, followed by their prescription for what can solve my issue. That is because i look at them as a professional.
However, as educators, we want to be seen as professionals, and yet see no inconsistency when we pander to the ‘patient’ telling us what the treatment is going to be for their condition. If educators are to be seen as the experts in the room, as the professionals, then we must be willing to learn, develop our professional beliefs (and evolve them over time as new knowledge becomes available) , understand the needs and prescribe accordingly.
One very important factor in this is that our professional views must come from a place of competence, congruence and consistency. That includes educators within an institute having invested enough time to build common views as to what they believe and what they practice. If leadership and teachers are singing different tunes we shouldn’t be surprised when parents and pupils doubt their credibility. If we’ve researched and understood where we want to go, worked on common language to describe the journey and articulate is consistently and clearly, we can bring change and educate parents to want what they need for their children.

In conclusion, a great day, a lot of excellent interactions, met up with some old friends after a long time and made some new friends. Those most committed and with the courage  to commit to excellence and innovation in education need to find each other and have these opportunities to mix, exchange ideas and renew their enthusiasm for the challenges.

New Beginnings

Disruptive education roundtable

As much as we may want to believe that we can plan and map out our lives and that things like goal setting put us in control of our own destiny, fate can often have other plans for us. personally, i don’t believe that means we should stop making plans, having a future focus or taking actions towards our determined purpose. I think the more we do that, the greater our ability to refocus, adapt and strike out on a new path when fate does intervene.

The personal events in my life in early 2018 impacted every aspect of my life in every way possible. Professionally, it meant a period away from work. International Schools Partnership (ISP) had only just completed the acquisition of Tenby Schools around 6 weeks before and we should have been fully immersed in integration at that time. When it was time for me to re-engage I had undertaken a new role for ISP focusing on business development.  This wasn’t necessarily a route i would have automatically pursued, but actually gave me a lot of interesting learning which will be invaluable in the future. However, it wasn’t necessarily a career route that i would naturally have chosen. However, one thing it did give me was space and time, along with the inputs and guidance of a London based outplacement consultant to really get some clarity of thought on what i want to do. I hope that I still have 15-20 years to contribute professionally to the world!

What has been clear to me throughout the process has been that i remain as passionate, committed and dedicated as I ever was to bringing about change and reform in education that more closely aligns the learning experiences of young people with their needs to flourish, excel and fulfil their potential in a world that changes ever more rapidly. In order for that to happen for young people requires that schools become better places to work where the creative talents of teachers can be honed and released. This, in turn requires major upgrade in the support and development for those who take up leadership roles and positions in education.

I’ve concluded that i cannot make the impact I want or challenge entrenched orthodoxy as much as i might wish whilst employed by any single school or schooling organisation. So, whilst still potentially open to business development opportunities for ISP, I am setting out on the road less traveled as an independent education consultant, coach, trainer, writer and with the freedom to take up projects alone or in collaboration with others that excite me and where i believe real impact can be achieved.

I cannot thank enough ISP, my former colleagues and team at Tenby (especially the Principals and the Central Office team) and particularly Charles Robinson, ISP Group Business Development Director for their support and help in what were, at times, challenging and dark months.

Reinventing yourself professionally is an amazing experience. One part fear, one part excitement it challenged me to question so much about myself. There are those who say it’s wrong for people to define and identify themselves so greatly with who they are professionally. However, it’s something i always knew and accepted about myself – I am what i do and I will always assess myself on the basis of the extent to which i believe I’m making a difference in education.

In the last few weeks I’ve attended events that reinforced imy beliefs that this is right for me now. One of them I’ll be writing about in a separate post. Yesterday, I attended a Roundtable meeting in Kuala Lumpur entitled “Disruptive Education.” 50 or so people from all sorts of areas associated with education, both public and private sector. A few present wanted to challenge the use of the word “disruptive” as being overly negative. It’s understandable that many will want to believe that all we need to do is a bit of evolutionary change, incremental tweaking around the edges. However, I’m even more convinced than ever that we need significant change and we have to rapidly increase the pace at which we bring those changes.

I’ve decided to keep my base in Kuala Lumpur. Over three years here I’ve come to love the place and the people. It’s also got all the strategic accessibility of Singapore with a fraction of the cost of living! I did consider a move back to India, but sad to tell all my Indian friends that with the history of my lungs a permanent move there just would never have worked. The air quality was bad when I left 6 years ago, but it’s way worse now. However, from here I believe I can work across a large swathe of Asia, and that will undoubtedly include India.

In terms of exactly what I’ll be offering, that will emerge over the next few weeks and I will be writing more with some of my plans. However, in the meantime, I am very much available to anyone who wants to reach out for discussions. There are already some interesting and very exciting ideas under discussion. I know life won’t be getting boring any time soon.

For anyone who does want to reach out to me to discuss projects or ideas, please, for now, do so on my personal email address: markp.india@gmail.com

 

Tidying the Toys in the Sandpit

sandpit

It’s very rare that you can bring together a room full of educators to talk about where we should be going in education without pretty universal agreement that the status quo is not acceptable. All will agree – things must change! In such circumstances you then really have to wonder why so little really does change.

When there is change, I would argue that almost all of it really amounts to little more than twiddling at the edges. Somehow, despite the voiced acknowledgement of the need for significant changes, we just really haven’t changed anything very much. I find this the equivalent of lining up the toys in the sandpit. It’s still the same sandpit and the same toys and it can only be a matter of moments before those toys are thrown all over the sandpit just like before, with no evidence remaining of how tidy they were.

99% of change and reform in schools and in education is pretty much the same.  Incrementalism is the norm. So, a teacher or group of teachers take a process or a policy. Debate it to death. Tweak it a bit and then move on to the next thing. If enough of these little tweaks happen in a school, then the school gets tagged with the label ‘progressive.’ To some, that’s praise – to some, an insult implying that they just leave well alone.

Often these initiatives are so fragile and minimal that a change of personnel and the phrase, “this is how we used to do it,” can be enough to make them disappear leaving no evidence – just like the toys in the sandpit. The response from parents and students is often a rolling of the eyes and phrases like, “I wish they’d make up their minds what they’re doing.”

Attempts to reform, bring real change or to get people to look at education in different ways also come up against big challenges. I have noticed an invidious process whereby something new gets attacked with the challenge, “prove it works.” This leads to paralysis by data and supposed research. One striking recent example is in relation to Grit. This was a concept expounded on particularly by Angela Duckworth and expanded in her book:

Angela Duckworth – Grit

I found this book very thought provoking and intuitively felt that the ideas in it were valuable and had a real place in education. However, subsequently, since that book was published there seem to have been a whole bunch of ‘experts’ who have been hell-bent on refuting the key points behind the ideas. Their tools are to “teach” the principles of Grit to children and then “Test” to see what impact that has on students’ achievements. To me, this is just awful science, little to do with education and also deliberately distorts the intentions behind the original ideas. For example, if Grit gets built in to the values and principles in a school and that results in a pupil sticking through tough times in a job or a marriage 25 years later  – how can you have tested for that? How do you put a value on that? Also, what exactly are you testing for? Whether children produce higher/ better academic outcomes because this particular material was taught? I’m really not sure that was ever the idea.

Something is not only valid because you can do it, then test for it and prove some outcome in the traditional tests that have always been a part of the academic system. I would really want to see a far more optimistic, open and positive attitude towards change and new ideas.

In these circumstances, it’s easy to see how all real change can get closed down by narrow blinkered testing for ‘proof of impact.’ Then, that tempts people to focus only on the little incremental changes, the little tweaks.

I want to see us being far more bold, challenging and questioning big issues. In the coming weeks i have a whole bunch of these where I want to raise the questions. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but hope that I can stimulate debates and discussions that will shift the needle. I would also love to hear from readers with your ideas for the big things in education and schooling that we can and should challenge or question. Let’s bring forward the debates on these issues.

 

Recruit the Restless

As Seth Godin points out in the blog post link below – change is never going to come from those who signed up for the status quo, for certainty, for an environment within which getting everything right is the expected norm.

Seth Godin Blog Post – In Search of Familiarity

In fact, worse, it’s not enough to just recruit good people who believe that they are ‘safe hands’ to educate children. Not only will these people not initiate change, they will resist it by every means at their disposal. They’ll demand data and evidence in bucketloads. And, even when you produce evidence they’ll have to refute it, doubt it and ultimately fall back on, “my way has served well in the past.”

This is almost certainly the reason why we’ve gone so many years since Dr Ken Robinson spoke up in the first TED conference about what needed to change in education if we were to avoid short changing a generation of youngsters in their preparation for a vastly different world, yet we have really seen so very little change. In fact, when we see the obsessive zeal applied to the gathering and endless tweaking of data, we have to suspect that people have inadvertently set about entrenching and solidifying the existing ways of doing things. Too many have convinced themselves that the old way is perfect, provided we can just measure more, gather more data and carry out more assessment.

Instead of humanising an education of curiosity, creativity and engagement with thew world around, we’ve sought incremental improvements in the existing systems by focusing on turning children in to so many data points to be graphed and mapped through to academic success.

The curious, the challengers, the restless – they do show their faces in the education world, but too often in programmes like Teach for America, Teach for India, Teach for Malaysia. They stay for a couple of years, but too often see that they’re never really going to change the system, so treat it as an interesting experience before they head off to other fields where change is more accepted.

We have to figure out how to get more restless people in to our profession, and then keep them here long enough to make a difference.

Schools of Possibility and Hope

The Schools We Don’t Want

There are plenty of people ready to speak out about the type of schooling we no longer want, the industrial model education of yesterday that gets perpetuated in slightly altered forms despite the weight of voices to speak out against it. I’m as guilty as the next man for this. Prominent people who’ve stressed the need to get away from this model include Seth Godin, Sir Ken Robinson and now George Monbiot, British writer on politics and society;

The Guardian – George Monbiot – In the Age of Robots, Our Schools Are Teaching Our Children to be Redundant

George Monbiot is a respected writer on society, politics and a prominent columnist on important issues. In the article, with perfect justification, he attacks the industrial model of education, the gaps between what’s going on in too many schools today and the skills young people need to really flourish in the Twenty First Century and the relevance and applicability of much of the knowledge being crammed in to children. He also does a reasonable job of highlighting some of the reasons why, despite all the protests, little changes.

However, it’s when Monbiot, like many other commentators before him, comes to the alternatives that we see one of the reasons why change is so difficult. He gives a number of examples – giving students ipads, taking them out in to nature, imaginary project tasks, Reggio Emilia but for many educators, parents and even the politicians the sheer variety of these different options seems to be what daunts them and eventually causes them to settle for little tweaks around the edge of the existing industrial paradigm model.

For example – if we take the ‘getting back to nature’ idea, I know plenty of urban brought up children for whom this would be a minor form of hell. They would be uncomfortable with dirt, uncertainty, potential dangers and risks. Some might also be unsettled by the uncertainty of purpose, with the result that their learning in that environment is very limited and they just count off the time until they can get back inside a building.

Taking the artificially constructed projects idea, I was recently intrigued by the ideas developed by Marc Prensky (the man who came up with the terms – digital natives and digital immigrants) in his book – “Education to Better Their World.” He sees a future where a great deal of children’s school time is spent on real projects with real implications and real impacts. I don’t think anyone knows exactly how such an approach would work, yet. But, it’s going to be fascinating to follow through on those ideas.

At one point, Monbiot’s article becomes more about teachers than children. I’m afraid i don’t buy in to his ideas that if you just leave teachers to do whatever they wish and go individually in whatever direction they choose, this will deliver the answers. With justification, parents and society cannot accept that the educational outcomes for an individual child become a mere lottery and a game of chance determined by who happens to be their teacher. We also cannot be naive that teaching is ‘a calling’ and a passion for every teacher in every classroom. For an enormous number it’s a job choice out of a variety. In such circumstances, we need clarity in our expectations, we need accountability and a strong commitment to supporting the learning and continuous improvement of the educators.

I don’t claim that I’ve got all the answers any more than anyone else as to exactly how a the most ideal school education programme should look going forward. However, I believe for all of us collaboratively, the answers lie in developing our understanding of the world our children are growing up in, their needs for the future; emotionally, socially, economically and spiritually (in the broadest sense). The child and their interrelationship with their world now in the future should drive our decision making.