Tags: curriculum, technology and education
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from Jane Hunter
A recent education report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said, among many other things, young people first “need to be equipped with basic literacy and numeracy skills so they can participate fully in the hyper-connected, digitized society of the 21st Century”. It went on to make tenuous links between too much technology and falling literacy and numeracy, but first warned, quite early in the report, that “the findings must not lead to despair”.
That was all it took. What followed was a media frenzy, here and overseas, which produced a range of very negative stories. For example: “Are iPads a waste of money? OECD report says yes” stated The Age; in the Huffington Post in the United States: “Putting more technology in schools may not make kids smarter: OECD Report“; and in the United Kingdom the title of a BBC News story “Computers ‘do not improve pupils results says OECD“.
If you look closely at the report Students, Computers and Learning, which uses results from the 2012 PISA computer-based assessment of ICT literacy of students aged 15 in 31 countries across the globe, it is saying there is much good news. The leaps of logic in the interpretation and application of findings in the report picked up by various media outlets are considerable and unfortunate.
The examples I gave are just three of at least twelve damaging stories I read after the report’s release. They show how complex education issues in schools, and for principals, teachers, students and jurisdictions are increasingly reduced to the ‘education sound bite’. This kind of reportage serves as click bait for online readers.
Politicians may then take what reporters say as ‘gospel’. However, far more insidious, is the harmful effect such headlines have on teacher morale and the public’s view of education and schools more generally.
The real story about technology in Australian schools
In 2015 teachers’ work in technology-enhanced learning in classrooms in NSW is exciting. I have carried out research in a number of Australian primary and high schools since 2011 and my research shows there is good progress with technology enhanced learning and the pace is hastening. This research is ongoing.
Students are doing tech well in many Australian schools. They are stepping up to embrace the challenges that learning effectively with technologies demands. Results in student assessment in these schools show this. However connectivity in many schools is still far from ideal and even within major cities it is variable.
I agree with the OECD report where it states, “young people do want to be taught how to search more effectively”. My recent research indicates that. It also demonstrates that in some high schools in particular classrooms, students want teachers to leave behind the industrial model of “talking at them”, using “mindless work sheets” and “copying endless notes off the board”. Students desire many more opportunities to problem solve, work in teams, carry out long-term real-world projects, create films/animations, and use inquiry and project-based learning. The OECD report says this too.
I know from first hand experience that technology inequities exist in our schools and the “digital divide” is real. I also understand most schools make provisions for providing computers and other mobile devices to students who cannot afford them.
Something that has not been reported widely is that groundbreaking programs like the Digital Education Revolution (DER) meant for the first time every student from Year 9 onwards in an Australian public school had access to a small technological device. The program was not perfect but what it did do effectively (and there are evaluations that show this) is it placed technology in the hands of students who could not normally afford it. DER served to ‘whet the appetite’ of technological things to come, like educational apps, augmented reality, 3D printing, maker labs, geo spatial technologies, code and digital games. It enabled tech-savvy ‘early adopter teachers’ to play with technology, to see how it changed core concepts and how learning inside classrooms could be more engaging and motivating for young people, whose ‘digital bedrooms’ at home were a parallel universe to their lives at school.
Technology hardware and software is expensive. Governments must replace outdated equipment. Provide more time for professional development. This is vital investment that will allow teachers, as the OECD report contends, to become “active agents of change”.
I am about to start teaching a digital technologies course in a doctoral program for teachers in the School of Education at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia in the United States. This is relevant because yesterday the school received a $5.6M gift from an alumnus. The donor, who wanted to remain anonymous, hopes the philanthropic commitment will inspire others. “Without properly trained teachers, our country would not have an educated population. Teachers are critical if we want a strong and vibrant society,” said the donor.
We need the Australian public and politicians to understand, and actively support, what is going on in our schools and in teacher education in universities, but how can we do this when complex issues are reduced to the lowest common denominator in the media? We are doing all educators a disservice when stories about technology in schools are hijacked as ‘click bait’.
This post was recently published on the blog of the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE), EduResearch Matters.
Postscript (Nov. 19th, 2015)
This week ACARA has released the 2014 NAP – ICT literacy report. It shows: “a decline in ICT literacy in Year 6 and 10”. Predictably it has been reported in the Australian media using headlines like “Texting isn’t enough: Australian students’ computer skills drop, new report shows” and in The Conversation on 18 November “ICT literacy is failing in schools. Here’s why”.
In this latest ACARA test more than 10,500 students were assessed in 2014 on their ICT knowledge, understanding and skills. The report shows that 55% of students in year 6 achieved the expected standards, and 52% of students in year 10 completed ‘challenging but reasonable’ tasks, for example, the creation of tables and charts, sorting data in a spreadsheet and editing graphics and text.
Dr Mike Phillips, lecturer in Digital Technologies at Monash University, author of The Conversation piece says: “this equates to a 6% and 13% decrease for years 6 and 10 respectively over the last three years”. Four reasons are cited for the decline: “late introduction of the digital technologies curriculum, teachers not equipped with the skills they need, too much choice in the range of available digital tools, and outdated examination of technology skills in ACARA’s ICT test/s”.
I agree in principle with the reasons mentioned to explain why this might be occurring – however I urge caution around concluding that technology enhanced learning and Australian students’ digital skills are in decline more generally.
In my research in many NSW public primary and high schools this year I do not see evidence (forthcoming series of research papers) of this marked decline. What I am seeing in many primary schools are huge shifts in teachers’ technology enhanced learning practices, and often it’s how teachers support very young students to develop their digital skills using a range of devices. In high schools, the picture is less rosy. But it’s improving. For example, in one study and this is supported by findings from two others, Year 10 students want more support to know how to search effectively for information, they require clear scaffolds to complete open-ended/project-based tasks and students also want to know how to take efficient notes using their mobile devices.
As stated previously, until connectivity improves, technology enhanced learning in schools remains hard. In many NSW public schools, even within the Sydney CBD access is poor. Reliable, fast internet must be a standard requirement for education in all Australian schools. It is coming … but not quickly enough.
The current NAP test in ICT is limited in what it tests in years 6 and 10 and this goes to the nature of national testing in this country more generally (as identified in recent publication by Lingard, Thompson and Sellar in National testing in schools: an Australian assessment, 2016).
ACARA’s new Digital Technologies curriculum and remember these latest NAP – ICT literacy results were a response to an ‘old curriculum’ that encouraged teachers to approach using technology isolated from its pedagogical and content potential in classroom learning. For instance, knowing how to do use an excel spreadsheet does not translate into students demonstrating higher order thinking skills in Science.
In a series of timely papers on Revisiting the Digital Education Revolution in Point and Counterpoint in Curriculum Perspectives, September 2015, 35(2): Kathryn Moyle (Guest Editor) reflects upon what progress has been made towards the aims of the DER; the series includes a paper by a school student who was a beneficiary of one of the DER computers, a teacher who worked in schools during the time of the DER, a state-based policy officer and another officer who worked at the national level of DER implementation. The papers are well worth a read. In summary they conclude that time and further research are needed to really understand the impact of DER, as long term commitment by government was not prioritized around policy on infrastructure and connectivity.
Having just spent the past three months in a number of US schools in three states examining technology-enhanced learning in classrooms I can but concur that these two factors are the most important baseline requirements. Ongoing professional learning, and giving teachers ‘time to play’ with new tools are also critical. As Wagner and Dintersmith (2015) conclude in Most Likely to Succeed – and this applies equally to the Australian education context, it is time to re-imagine our schools.
Dr Jane Hunter teaches pre-service teachers in curriculum, pedagogy and technology enhanced learning in the School of Education at Western Sydney University. She is a researcher in the Centre for Educational Research at the same institution. Jane is the author of Technology integration and High Possibility Classrooms: Building from TPACK, New York: Routledge published earlier this year. In March 2016 she is a keynote speaker at the Future Schools Conference in Sydney.
The need for flexible, personalised and responsive curriculum September 13, 2015Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
Tags: creativity, curriculum, exemplary teachers, NAPLAN, personalised learning
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from Steve Wilson
Imagine you had promised your friend or partner that you would go with them to watch a movie each week for a full year.
Imagine then, having made this commitment, that your friend or partner did not consult with you about which movies to watch – they simply selected the movie each week, irrespective of your own preferences or tastes, and expected you to come along.
You might put up with it for awhile. You would likely develop resentment about the situation. Eventually, as an adult, you might confront your friend and explain your feelings and try to change things. If they didn’t change, in all likelihood, you would simply stop going to the movies with them.
For children and young people in schools, the school curriculum is like being forced to go to the movies, to see things they often don’t like or can’t see the point of, but where they do not have the adult prerogative, legally at least, of simply not going to school. Trapped in schools with an unresponsive curriculum, feelings amongst young people towards school can and frequently do include resentment, apathy and disengagement. Every teacher commonly experiences these feelings amongst their children, and not just amongst the children who are the lowest academic achievers.
We should not underestimate the power of an unexplained and unresponsive curriculum as a factor in child and youth disengagement from school. Nor should it be underestimated as an explanation for any perceived decline in international education standards among western nations where, in most facets of life, young people influence and exercise considerable choice in most other areas of their lives expect in school.
In writing this piece I am assuming curriculum as a broad entity, ranging from the documents comprising the Australian curriculum and the range of state-based adaptations to it, through to the formal and informal learning experiences of children in classrooms and schools, structured and developed under the auspices of each school.
Curriculum is the key. A cynic might say that curriculum is what education systems DO to learners in schools. A greater cycnic might say that what is done to learners is also being done to teachers. If our curriculum is not carefully thought through and structured, it can act as a straitjacket on teachers and learners, undermining their capacity to explore and engage through education. If the curriculum is over burdened in content areas, over prescribed with mandated teaching points, over tested, over regulated, then it robs learners and teachers of the potential to engage in education with imagination, personal investment, and joy. Learning becomes a chore, for learners and teachers alike. And, often, they disengage as a result. They simply stop trying.
In my many years as a teacher and teacher educator, I have always believed that teaching is among the most creative of professions. There is nothing more satisfying for a teacher than to develop learning experiences that enable children to understand concepts, develop skills and values, develop confidence, and enjoy their learning. The act of conceiving of and creating these learning experiences, ones that you know will bring out the best in your learners, then seeing your creative, intellectual efforts work in the classroom, and seeing children grow and want to keep learning as a result, is the key reward for the teacher.
To achieve this, curriculum needs to be freed up, becoming a crucible for fostering creative imagination rather than a straitjacket encouraging disengagement. We need a flexible curriculum, far less prescriptive than we generally have now, which encourages teachers to engage with and be responsive to the personalities of their students, and which enables young people to become involved with and take responsibility for their learning.
How to do this? We have plenty of evidence that current curricula are generally overcrowded and too prescriptive, so a good first step would be to identify a set of genuinely necessary core competencies, skills, values and content, which are limited and restrained, and which are essential for the social and economic wellbeing of individuals (and through them, the nation). The remainder and bulk of the curriculum should take the form of flexible guidelines which teachers can respond to with imagination and creativity, thereby inspiring their children to become involved and to strive to excel. This is a strength of the current curriculum in Finland, which has been considered the global ‘gold standard’ over the last decade.
We used to have in Australia, in the 1970s and 80s, strong and successful state-based cultures around school-based curriculum development – ones which enabled schools and their teachers to craft engaging and relevant curriculum developed from a clear but limited systemic curriculum framework.
These cultures (like the culture currently emphasised in Finland) had strong expectations of teachers as highly responsible, creative and professional individuals, based on high levels of trust of teachers. Unfortunately, later neo-liberal political ideologies and governance (from both sides of state and federal politics) gradually eroded these cultures. Examining and re-valuing the strengths of these previous curriculum cultures in Australia might be a good place to begin in conceiving how a less centralised, less crowded and more responsive curriculum would work for learners and their teachers.
Secondly, we have plenty of examples of thinking about curriculum, learner motivation and pedagogical approaches which respect the role of learners in learning, and teach us how to be inclusive of the tastes, preferences, talents and humanity that learners bring to their learning and their schools. People who have provided conceptual and practical clarity in their related writings include John Ainley, James Beane, Garth Boomer, John Dewey, Jacquelynne Eccles, Michael Fullan, William Glasser, Susan Groundwater-Smith, Roger Holdsworth, Stephen Kemmis, Tony Knight, Carl Rogers and R.E. Young amongst many others.
These contributions assist us in conceiving of more responsive, dynamic, shared and inclusive learning environments and communities, and of how to create effective and positive relationships between teachers and learners. They show us how these approaches can benefit and stimulate ALL learners – not just the most academically capable.
This, the ‘how’ of curriculum, is just as important as the content it contains. The ‘how’ of curriculum, the way we enable young people to engage in learning, must encourage young learners to make an intellectual and emotional investment in their learning by having input into how it is designed and conducted. That is the real beginning point to their engagement – enabling their committed buy-in to the process of formal learning.
Thirdly, in our teacher professional learning and development opportunities, in both the pre-service and in-service career stages, we need to continually emphasise the role of teachers as professional, imaginative and creative transactors and facilitators of learning. My own suspicion is that too many of our teachers may have come to regard teaching as having become de-professionalised – a profession in which they are simply expected to teach to the dot points the syllabus or school program contains, and to teach to the test.
Those teachers who do feel this way are being quite realistic – an over-crowded, over-mandated, over-tested (and often politically driven and destabilised) curriculum is de-professionalising. We need to give back to our teachers the opportunities and curriculum development skills to create curriculum and learning experiences that capture the hearts and imaginations of our children and young people.
Clearly, some of the above solutions to curriculum may require agitation by the profession and community, leading to macro, politically-endorsed reforms. In the absence of these, there are still very positive things that can be created by schools and classroom teachers from an over-prescriptive curriculum. Many formal curriculum and syllabus documents are not, on a closer reading, necessarily as prescriptive and confining as they first appear. Many mandated themes, topics or teaching points can be interpreted and adapted by the teacher, who can choose what to emphasise within particular topics, how much time should be allotted, what teaching approaches, activities or approaches to assessment might be used, and what opportunities there are to provide students with learning choices. With imagination and creativity, flexibility, personalisation of learning and responsiveness can often be crafted from curriculum documents which may initially seem too prescriptive and unforgiving.
Teachers who do manage to find this flexibility have the opportunity to create spaces in the curriculum into which they can invite their young learners to discuss, craft and conduct learning activities and the content they focus on. These teachers often feel great personal and professional fulfilment when they do engage with their students around their personal learning preferences, and achieve great learning motivation and improved academic outcomes with their learners – even on tests like the NAPLAN (without them having to emphasise the practising of the test).
Let’s return to my opening movie analogy. Imagine instead a classroom in which children and young people are continually participating by suggesting things to learn, and ways to learn, activities to do, ways to assess their learning, and in which they help their teachers to drive learning and learning outcomes. Imagine the creative energy that might drive the group, and the outcomes that might be achieved. Unlike the movies you are forced, unwillingly, to see, this is learning where you see the point, and want to engage, because it is in some ways your curriculum – as a learner (or a movie goer), you help to own the choices. Our curriculum design must be smart enough to enable learning to be personalised, flexible and responsive. Anything less risks more teachers feeling de-professionalised, and more learners in our schools choosing to disengage.