Children Who Fly Below the School Radar

bell-curve-math-is-fun

Six years ago, when I was based in the UAE,  I was invited to share my thoughts on key educational issues through a series of seven articles that I wrote. I recently read back through those articles and was especially worried to find them still so relevant today, the issues raised still largely unaddressed. When it comes to reforming and changing education there has to be atime when we stop debating what needs to change and get on and make it happen. To do that, we have to sometimes ask some tough and uncomfortable questions about who benefits from maintenance of the status quo and what needs to happen to break down those entrenched positions.

Here, below is the first of those articles that dealt with education’s obsessive interest with the ‘outliers’ and non-conforming students (under and over-achievers) that meant that little was happening to ensure that the children in the middle get a fair and reasonable, personalised learning experience.

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(Click on the two links above to open the two paged article in pdf form. it should open as a separate tab or page in your browser)

Lifelong Learning – How Are We Doing?

Lifelong Learning

These days it seems that almost every school, new or established, mentions in its mission, vision, values or some other important statement that lifelong learning is a major priority of the school. School Heads, Principals and Directors talk a lot about lifelong learning in major events and gatherings with students and/ or parents.

This has now been the case for a few years, so it’s worthwhile to pause and ask – How are we doing? Has all this attention on lifelong learning changed anything?

Well, first of all, where did it come from and why did people start to think it mattered? Around 10-15 years ago more and more evidence was emerging that pointed to the likelihood that young people in school were going to grow up in to a world and environment where they would not simply have multiple jobs, but multiple careers. It was clear that the pace of change in the world, especially technological, was accelerating and the best prospects for the future would lie with those people who through continuous learning were most capable of reinventing themselves, shedding their existing knowledge and taking on the right new learning.

I believe that if we look at the tertiary sector first, quite a lot has changed in response to the recognition of the need to support lifelong learning.  We have seen quite a rapid increase in the availability of online learning options that support adults in processes of continuous learning. There are also many brick and mortar institutions that have supplemented their traditional learning programmes with more modular offerings, sometimes offered as hybrids that are conducted part face to face and part online, with scope for people to learn more at their own pace to fit in with the fact that they’re often still working full time.

There is a definite break away from the idea that formal and informal learning are completely separate, or that formal learning all takes place in a purely linear fashion, to be completed in the earliest part of ones life by the age of about 21 – 25. We see Universities and colleges questioning what they should look like when it comes to physical infrastructure. It’s costly to create physical places of learning and therefore there must be a justification to create the physical infrastructure. Then, there are considerations about how specialised or general the learning spaces within those buildings should be in order to best support modern and effective learning practices.

Too often I see these debates happening when new institutions are being created, or where major construction is due. There are still arguably too many institutions (especially in developing countries) that look to purely and simply replicate the traditional models of the past, more intent on churning out young people with bits of paper than focused on enabling learning.

In developing countries, universities and colleges have not gone far enough to place the focus on self-directed, self-driven learning, owned by the learner. There are all sorts of arcane rules about attendance, rigid generalist course structures with whole cohorts progressing through at the same time, at the same pace, subject to strict rules, hierarchies, even uniforms. They look little different to traditional schools for overgrown children.

So, overall, worldwide i might be inclined to give the tertiary sector about a 5 out of 10 for progress towards playing their part in a world of lifelong learning.

And what of the K-12 schools?

Firstly, what is the role of K-12 schools towards lifelong learning?

I believe it’s twofold;

a) To equip young people, in age appropriate ways with the tools and skills to be effective self-directed lifelong learners. 
b) To ensure that pupils have the motivation to be self-directed lifelong learners

Every baby and infant is a highly self-directed, highly motivated learner. They don’t wait for anyone to come with a syllabus or a curriculum. They don’t wait for permission to learn or to be instructed. They don’t go out of their way to take short cuts to learning so that they can spend their time idly. So, we’d do well to question ourselves about how our schools stifle these natural inclinations that ought to be the perfect foundation to grow and develop tomorrow’s motivated lifelong learners.

I believe that one of the biggest problems with point b) is related to teachers. If, as an adult and potential role model for lifelong learning it would be fair to expect;
(i) Teachers admit to their own learning and talk about it openly.
(ii) Focus on potential more than performance, both related to themselves as well as their pupils,
(iii) Shed their focus on competence, in favour of vulnerability and the ambiguity of openly being a learner. If a teacher has to be the ‘fully complete expert’ in the classroom, then by implication their learning process is complete and they no longer need to be learners,
(iv) Teachers would be open about how they drive their own personal learning curriculum. They would openly talk about things they’re not expert in.  They would reveal to their pupils the things they’re learning. They would even be open to learn from the pupils in areas where they have more knowledge (such as IT).
(v) Teachers would not say things like, “Yes, I believe in lifelong learning. I’m always looking to learn from everyone around me.”
That’s a cop-out, an excuse for not pursuing real, hard learning. Instead, it implies that this lifelong learning is just another name for a dab of responsiveness and listening to others around – not something like real learning that involves investment of real time and effort in risk, vulnerability and deep dives in to new and varied areas of learning directly or even slightly linked to their work.

Our schools and school leaders still behave as if learning is something that is done to pupils, not something they do for themselves. The assumption built in to the culture of schools in dozens of ways big and small is that pupils would not learn unless made to do so. And, we have to say that the way most of the learning  in schools is still done, it’s no surprise that it will only happen under duress. It’s one-way, one size fits all (that it’s not personalised despite all the talk of personalisation I’ll save for another post).

Turning to point a)  a school/ learning environment that really cares about development of lifelong learning would place at least as much emphasis on process as outcomes. And our schools don’t. Schools would be places where children are encouraged and motivated to pursue deep and broad learning according to personal interests. They would be helped to understand HOW to learn most effectively.

This would bring in opportunities for children to learn and understand how their minds work, how memory works, how motivation impacts learning. They would not simply learn to read, but would be equipped with opportunities to acquire skills to read in different ways for different purposes. Children would be learning effective ways of note taking and how to work out the learning techniques and methods that work best for them.

An open climate based on common growth mindset, the presence of healthy grit to push through when learning is challenging, to seek out one’s own sources, to discern between the quality of different sources etc.

So, in conclusion – is it really fair and honest for schools to be telling the world that one of their core values is the development of lifelong learning? Are the school leadership really doing the introspection about every aspect of their school’s practices, habits, methods and whether they take their pupils towards or away from lifelong learning?

Are pupils walking out of the school gates the day after graduation saying  – “that’s all over and nobody’s doing that learning stuff to me any more,” or “Ok, I’m ready – where’s the next great learning that i want to bring on for me?” Are they seeing learning as a pull rather than a push process?

If not, then K-12 certainly isn’t at five out of ten. It might not yet even be at two out of ten.

A long road ahead and lots of work to do. And we won’t enable lifelong learning for pupils until we embrace it for ourselves.

That easy!

Connected Learning

This was such an inspiring set of short profiles of innovative and exciting learning – examples of where connected IT related learning tools are changing the nature and opportunities of learning.

Digital Promise – What Powerful Learning Looks Like – Students Share Their Stories 

What I really liked about the videos was the extent to which student agency is expanding, past stereotypes are being challenged and questions of student motivation are not even required.

These are children who have a strong sense of ownership of their own learning, are pursuing learning for its own purpose, because of genuine desire to learn and not because it’s on the syllabus or a teacher says that’s what they must learn. There’s scope within the examples for the students to make choices about where they’ve taken their learning and where they might take it in the future.

The examples here challenge past narrow thinking about things like girls in STEM, how old a child needs to be before they have a voice worth hearing and even what’s worth learning (and how).

Some might watch these videos and just think of them as exceptional kids who, by accident of opportunity have found a passion and been supported to pursue it. However, I believe it says far more to us about what education has the potential to be for a bigger proportion of children. ICT

 

Every Child Unique

It was around 6 or 7 years ago when I talked (and wrote) about the lessons that so called ‘mainstream’ teachers could learn from those who taught children categorized as ‘special needs’. The big take-away I argued was that they already worked out of a paradigm of seeing and treating each child as an individual, meeting their learning needs individualistically instead of as batched cohorts.

One question I was asking was, “Why can’t every single child in a school have an Individual Learning Plan, like the SEN kids?”. I also suggested that as we embrace technology in the education domain this becomes more and more possible, more practical and doable.

So, I’m particularly pleased whenever I come across evidence that progress is being made in this direction – that, however slowly, things are happening. Here’s a nice article in which the writer advocates for the kind of design of schools that enables personalization of experience for every student;

Nobody is average, every student deserves personalized learning

Here also is Todd Rose’s TED talk on the Myth of Average:

The article also provides some great links to other articles and materials to broaden knowledge and understanding in this area.

Sir Ken’s New Book

The educator’s educator has a new book out – another to go on to my ‘To Read’ list.

This is an informative interview with Sir Ken where, amongst other things he talks extensively about ‘standardisation’, favouring personalization and a move away from trying to treat pupils as data points and to get the rampant ‘testing’ machine under control.

Edweek – Q & A with Sir Ken Robinson

He also has some very interesting things to say about dismantling the hierarchy of subjects within education, particularly giving due importance to vocational learning. This was an ironic one for me to hear as it mirrored a conversation with a parent just yesterday.

In the interview, he also touches upon issues such as teacher selection and training.

Well worth a listen – and I’m sure will inspire some like me to look out for the new book.

Kunskapsskolan in New York

Here’s a short video on the ‘Innovate Manhattan’ school in New York that gives a little flavour of the philosophy we’re bringing to India through the first flagship Kunskapsskolan, Gurgaon School opening in April 2013.

Personalising Learning

Picture the scene. 30 8-year old children file in to their classroom after morning break for a Maths lesson. The teacher enters the room, distributes books from homework collected in the day before. She spends 5 minutes responding to questions about the marks given for the homework and things like “But, Maam, that was only a little mistake, why did you cut one whole mark” or “maam, my answer is the same as his, but you gave him half a mark and me nothing.”

Eventually, there’s enough calm, everyone is facing the front and the teacher starts her lesson. She begins to explain a new concept, with examples on the board. She’s a teacher in a good school, considered to be a good teacher, so she doesn’t just do all the talking/ explaining. She calls children to the board at times to answer practice questions, she asks the whole class questions to test and check the extent to which they’re understanding the concept.

After ten minutes, if you could go inside the heads of all 30 children sitting in the room, you might find 6, 8, maybe 10 whose thoughts approximate to, “Ok, thanks, teacher. I’ve got it. Can we move on now, please.” However, of course – in the one size fits all, industrial model of education teacher can’t move on at this point.

Different teachers try different things to meet the needs of that group of children; more advanced worksheets, involving them in peer teaching and other differentiation techniques. Regrettably, too many teachers are ill-equipped to help these children so they leave them to fend for themselves, ignore their needs or cobble solutions together. One mother recently told me how her daughter has been asked to bring her own book to school so she can read when she starts to feel bored!

let’s now fast forward to the end of the lesson. if the teacher has planned well she uses the last few minutes of the class period to summarise the concepts and lesson content. However, as she gathers he papers to leave the room there’s a good chance that, at least at the back of her mind, is the nagging doubt that there’s a group of children out of the 30 (however small) who still didn’t ‘get it’, who needed something more, something different if they were to get real value from the lesson. However, if the teacher is to keep doing her job with motivation she can’t dwell on this too much. she has another class to go to.

So, what happens to those children? The lesson’s over but they still don’t have solid understanding. Well, the first port of call may be a parent to try to help the child fill the gap. If that doesn’t work, the gap might not be immediately apparent until it hampers learning of later concepts. Then, possibly, ‘remediation’ will rear its head. However it’s dressed up it’s likely to feel like a punishment to the child. It might involve staying on late after school or it might mean missing a much loved lesson such as Art, Music, Drama or Physical Education.

When we paint the scenario like this, can anyone really wonder why so many doubt the industrial model ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to education? I believe the solution lies in strategies that truly personalise learning, that accept and acknowledge (even embrace) the fact that everyone is different and everyone learns differently. I believe that we’re on the cusp of a revolution in personalised learning, facilitated by information technology. This is the approach at Kunskapsskolan and one of my biggest motivations for joining this exciting new venture, in India for the first time.

In later posts I’ll write more about the Kunskapsskolan way of personalising and how it represents a refreshing new opportunity for children’s learning. In the meantime, I would love to get people’s views on methods for personalisation, accepting that there will be other effective models and ways to achieve this desired end.