Another dot in the blogosphere?

This week I read a good critique of the way some science teachers in Singapore design test questions and grade them. The issues were a misplaced emphasis on rote learning (instead of inquiry) and the poor use of language (English and scientific) in setting test questions.

A parent wrote in to the ST Forum with a suggestion:

There seems to be something inherently wrong with how science is taught in primary schools today. Perhaps the time is ripe for a systemic review of the curriculum to address all these concerns.

This suggestion will not work alone. Curricular reviews and revisions tend to focus on content. That is only one piece of the jigsaw puzzle.

To see the whole picture, one needs to also factor in how teachers teach an academic subject (which is a function of pedagogy), and how they unlearn old habits in favour of learning new ones (professional development, leadership, incentives, and more).

A seemingly superficial or simple problem like stupid test questions or stubborn teacher behaviour has complex roots. The layperson does not dig as far and is not expected to. The real problem is when some schools, their leaders, and/or their teachers are not aware that they need to dig deep too.

Yesterday I ranted about about the problems with over-simplification or glossing over details by painting with broad strokes.

Today I illustrate how they not only misrepresent, they also perpetuate mistakes.

One of Clint Eastwood’s iconic movie lines was “Do you feel lucky, punk?”

Video source

The problem is that he did not say that. He actually said, “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do you, punk?”

It does not roll off the tongue nor is it concise as the misquote. It is an attempt to combine the two sentences into one and seems to capture the essence of the threat.

Here is another example. I like collecting memorable quotes from famous people. As I do, I have discovered that quite a number of the quotable quotes were never said by those people.

A 2011 NYT article, Falser Words Were Never Spoken, highlighted how Gandhi’s did not actually say “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

it turns out there is no reliable documentary evidence for the quotation. The closest verifiable remark we have from Gandhi is this: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

Again, the shorter misquotation seems to capture the essence of what was said. So what is the harm in perpetuating the spirit of a phenomenon or concept seemingly correctly even it is was presented wrongly?

Ethically speaking, everything. It is a misrepresentation.

Pedagogically speaking, it perpetuates the wrong thing, does not encourage critical thinking (promotes blind acceptance), and removes context.

Simplification tends to happen when there is a curricular race to run and too much content to consume. It seems to be the efficient thing to do.

The problem is that it is not the effective thing to do. Most humans are not machines that can be programmed with information.

I reflected before about the problem with rote and how it is confused with memorization. We do not remember things simply by repetition or by force. Not all learning and evidence of learning needs to a result of rote or over-simplification.

Content is not king. Context is. To get to context, it is important to tell and relate to stories. Stories that fill paragraphs, pages, or books. Stories that stir emotions and build personal relevance.

It is human nature to attempt to simplify complex concepts or phenomena. That is how our minds work, there is only so much we can remember, and it is more efficient.

However, such over-simplification, or broad strokes as I like to call them, can be problematic. Over-simplifications, generalizations, and convenient categorization ultimately lead to undesirable traits like racism (you are all like that), insularism (we are like this), and popularism (everyone seems to think like X).

The paragraph above is itself an over-simplification of many complex concepts. From an educational point of view, it can serve as a provocative hook to start a journey or a reference point for critique, revision, or reinforcement.

But a recent set of #edsg conversations* led me to reflect on how it might be better to close with broad strokes instead of beginning with them.

On Tuesday, a wide-ranging conversation on #edsg* included how ex-teachers became tuition teachers or started tuition centres, and the apparent divide between local and international school teachers.

In both conversations, I tweeted caution: Do not apply broad strokes to either scenario.

Tuition centres are not borne of nor filled with ex-teachers no matter how they seem to be. What actually frightens me is the number of centres led by individuals or groups who have no teaching qualifications. Equally frightening is the thinking that tuition has only one flavour and does more harm than good.

The conversation on local and international teachers hinted at an “us” and “them” mentality. This is understandable if the two groups do not have regular and open conversations. But this is unforgivable if the two meet and do not realize how they are more alike than different.

I have these perspectives simply because I have interacted with and listened to people from the entire spectrum in the tuition and schooling continuums. I do not rely solely on my or public perceptions.

Perceptions are deceptive. They are influenced not by what we see, but by how we want to see things. Used uncritically and non-reflectively, starting with a broad stroke can potentially narrow perspectives and learning possibilities.

There is simplification to create concepts and over-simplication that paints unnecessarily broad strokes. The former embraces detail and richness and the takeaway is an attempt to crystallize something that can be reconstituted later as the situation requires. The latter is uncritical and even lazy thinking. This could be a product of schooling (spoon-feeding, teach-to-the-test, model answers, curriculum-centred teaching).

Broad strokes might be better painted at the end of a long learning journey or serve as sign posts (markers) of learning during a journey. These are attempts to reflect and to take away important lessons.

*If you were part of that conversation and read my reflection, try to consume and think deeply about it with the spirit that it was intended, not the perspective you may have. Mine is one of critical reflection and a need to nurture critical thinkers and doers.

The trigger for this reflection was a newspaper article that reported Singapore employers’ reactions to embed learners in workplaces for authentic experiences.

One employer, citing support from government subsidies, said this: “The subsidies can also go towards helping us to create self-learning tools such as online learning programmes”.

If you have a decent idea on how “online learning programmes” are practised in industry and even in higher education, you know that they are far from desirable or ideal.

I know because a significant amount of my work life revolved around online and e-learning. Heck, I was in charge of a centre for e-learning not too long ago.

I have seen more bad practices than good ones. When designing or assigning online learning, the worst ones were and still are:

  • Starting with a perspective that there is no difference between online teaching and online learning
  • Attempts to simply but unsuccessfully replicate face-to-face presence
  • Not blending and dedicating face time with co-learners and/or more knowledgeable others
  • Using online learning as a blunt tool to solve all ills
  • Not questioning the one-size-fits-all approach
  • Assuming a fire-and-forget mentality
  • Not connecting the online with the offline or larger purpose

The mistakes are repeated because people do not learn from them. Sometimes they do not learn from them because they do not think that they have made mistakes.

I have listed a few from a host of many mistakes. These are the sort of mistakes that are not worth making because they keep administrators and instructors thinking they have done their jobs while leaving learners frustrated.

I read this tweet conversation on this week’s #asiaED slow chat with some concern. Click here to see the whole conversation if only the first tweet appears.

The chat focused on the issue of homework and opinions flew left, right, and centre. It was good, it was bad, it depended on context, it could be flipped, it could be renamed, it should be redesigned, etc.

The conversation I highlighted was a bit different in that it implied that homework had a bad name and needed good “public relations” or a better public perception.

What immediately sprang to my mind was homework as chocolate-covered broccoli.

Broccoli is actually good for you, so the imagery was not quite apt. Perhaps most traditional and uncritically assigned homework is better described as rotten chocolate-covered broccoli.

Say “homework” to teachers and the majority will:

  • not question it
  • view and practice it as they experienced it as students
  • not factor research on the impact of homework on learning
  • not reconsider the practice and design of homework

Not many will associate homework with rotten chocolate-covered broccoli. As a result, not many will associate homework with a challenge to change mindsets and behaviours.

Homework is rotten chocolate-covered broccoli when:

  • it is the thing to do (it is in your formal or informal job description)
  • you dish it out because someone else (a superior or a parent) expects you to
  • it is no different from what you experienced as a student despite the differences in contexts
  • it keeps everyone busy for business sake
  • it does not reinforce or enable learning
  • it does not provide meaningful and spaced practice

Is there an alternative to rotten chocolate-covered broccoli? Yes, it is called NONE: No Other Non-critical Extras. Learn instead to GAME: Generate Authentic and Meaningful Experiences.

If homework is a knee-jerk response instead of a well thought out and designed activity, leave it out. If the practice of homework is not informed by context, good educational research, and concern for learners, leave it out.

When in doubt, leave it out.

There should be no doubt that there is homework that is useful or powerful. There should also be no doubt that homework is work and can be difficult. Anything worth doing or learning takes effort. But it does not have to be dreary, dreaded work.

Games are difficult, but they are fun. They are fun because they are difficult. But do not gamify homework; that is creating a contest for eating rotten chocolate-covered broccoli. Unpack a game to determine good design principles for homework: Relevance and reach, reward, returns, rapid response.

The redesign of homework is not a superficial change in moniker or the reinvention of something old. It is the opportunity to innovate and change. That is your homework!

What can you remember from ten years ago? What were you doing then?

I was in the USA working on my Ph.D. dissertation while bouncing my son on my knee. YouTube was just a baby and not yet able to entertain and educate my son like it does now.

Video source

It would be difficult to put ten years of content into a single video, but this curator offered his perspective.

My perspective is that we live in an incredible time. Never have traditional production and broadcast media been so threatened by online video.

Never has schooling as well in the area of content delivery. There are instructional, how-to, demonstration, flipped, and a whole range of other videos that contribute to the oft (and over) used “information at your fingertips” phrase.

All this happened without an overall architect. Now public and private agencies are curating and creating to offer concerted efforts and better quality videos. I cannot wait to see what the next decade brings!

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This announcement is about a week late, but better late than never!

#edsg is not just a Twitter hashtag shared by an assortment of stakeholders. #edsg is an online community whose official birthday is 15 Feb 2012.

We were formed the year before, but we did not document it or tie it to a particular event. I guess you could say that we got our birth certificate a bit late. That might explain why we look a bit older than we claim!

Here is some of its motley crew in a more recent photo.

#edsg broke the sequence of forming, storming, and norming. It was formed online and was normed offline with tweetups. But we are still storming like any modern community. Membership is loose and not worn like a badge. It is utilitarian.

Not many of such online communities can say they have a staying power of three years. But like practically all communities that persist, we do so thanks to a core group.

We do not yet know what we will become when we grow up, but that does not matter. We have a lot more exploring and learning to do.

As we look forward, it is important to look back so that we do not walk into the mistakes of the past. Here is a selection of my musings on #edsg:

If you are not a member of #edsg, join us!

If you are, pour yourself a drink, pat yourself on your back, and toast to the good health of #edsg. Yam seng! Now get off your butt and share something with #edsg!

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