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Formative feedback: It is a pillar that upholds learning. Without it a student gets grades and the learning stops. Why? The student does not know what exactly went wrong or right, and why. As a result, that student does not reflect and change strategies.

Ideally the feedback is meaningful and timely. For feedback to be meaningful, the student needs to know: Why is this important? How do I make sense of it? For it to be timely, the student wants to know: How soon can you give it to me? Am I ready to receive it?

Trying to provide feedback that answers these questions is a big problem for any educator. The problem has a bad side and a good one.

The first thing an expert forgets is what is it like to struggle with learning.

Feedback is often given from the point of view of an expert who cannot remember what it was like to struggle with learning. This creates a disconnect.

An educator trying to provide good feedback will also realise that quality soon leads to quantity. This could be in terms of time spent with individuals, or the amount of written or otherwise recorded feedback.

Both these problems stem from the fact that traditional grading and feedback depends on an audience of one — the teacher. The students write for one person, and that person has to be director, manager, applauding audience member, performance critic, publicist, and popcorn seller.

There is far too much for one person to do and too little time to do it in. So what is an educator to do?

Some might point to the future of artificial intelligence (AI). Already some AI can fool very educated academics into thinking that another expert gave them feedback.

However, most teachers need solutions now. Not solutions like robots that scan bubble sheets or testing programmes that tally answers. Those tend to be summative, relatively quick, and as they involve grades, may not focus on learning.

Current technologies for providing feedback in written work (like Google Docs, Kaizena, JoeZoo) or performances (like video capture and annotation) require an investment in time.

Again, there is far too much for one person to do and too little to do it in. So what is an educator to do?

The problem presents opportunities. These are good problems and I present them as questions.

  • How might our learners be more peer-driven and collaborative?
  • How can we be more open so that other experts contribute to the process?
  • How might the tasks be more authentic or otherwise more representative of the wider world?
  • How do we filter noise from signal?

If there is power in peer teaching, then the same could be said about peer assessment. While learners do not have the same content expertise or thinking ability as an expert, they are cognitively closer to each other than the teacher is to them. They will use language and examples in ways that a teacher cannot.

Opening up assessments to a wider audience also places peer pressure on learners. The wider audience could include other educators and experts in the field.

If your students are sharing their work with the world, they want it to be good. If they are sharing it with you, they want it to be good enough.

So far the suggestions operate in the classroom and academic bubble. Step outside of it and consider what happens in social media and YouTube: Feedback is constant, brief, brutally honest, occasionally pleasant, but always real. It can be messy and the learner has to decide what is important to take in and what to ignore.

Even before a student leaves school or university, he or she is already operating outside that bubble. When they eventually leave, they will spend even more time there. They are learning how to operate in the social media and YouTube world largely without the benefit of the teacher. Their audience of potentially many is missing that audience of one.

Why are we not using strategies that already work outside our bubble? What is holding some of us back from embracing the new normal in the wider world? What is more important: Our fears or our learners?

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I have written previously about how games like Pokémon Go might be used to teach attitudes and thinking skills instead of content.

The game does not lend itself directly to curricula or standards, so some teachers tend to use the game peripherally. Students do not get to actually play the game during a lesson and teachers use the social phenomenon to bring in Pokémon as examples or quiz items. Teachers say this motivates learners and it might, but this is superficial use of the game. Students soon tire of this method like they would with a drill-and-practice math “game”.

Teachers might also use the misconceptions introduced in the game to teach correct concepts and model critical thinking. For example, Pokémon can be “evolved” in the game. The actual equivalent process in real life is metamorphosis. The “evolution” sold in the game is similar to a layperson’s misunderstanding of evolution, e.g., ape to man, when the process is actually a transformation, e.g., caterpillar to butterfly.

If a teacher focuses on content, then the misconception of evolution could be illustrated by the transformation of a Magikarp (fish) to a Gyrados (a dragon-like creature). A better example of metamorphosis could be represented by the transformation of Weedle (larva) to Kakuna (pupa) to Beedrill (adult form).

Such content is limited by the design elements of the game. However, the opportunities to model and teach thinking skills are rich. My reflection is an example of critiquing superficial use of the game for teaching that focuses on content.

The YouTube videos below provide more examples of critical thinking.


Video source

The video above deconstructs weak aspects of the game and suggests improvements. For example, the narrator points out that the gamified elements of the badges and stars do not do anything beyond providing milestones. This does not add value to game-play because the gamer cannot actually benefit from collecting better badges and more stars. If the game company, Niantic, addressed this critique, gamers might enjoy richer game-play and be inclined to stay longer.


Video source

The same narrator projected that other game developers might be tempted to create more location-aware and augmented reality games. He also suggested that future games include safety elements.

He critiqued Pokémon Go for not incorporating in-game features to prevent accidents. While people should be on the lookout for obstacles or dangers in real life, a good game draws the user in. No amount of warnings like “Be aware of your surroundings” are going to change what an outsider sees as distracted behaviour. So the narrator suggested in-game affordances like the ability to socially crowdsource dangerous spots.

The videos are examples of critical thinking using the game-play as content. They are analyses of game elements and phenomena, evaluation of game-play, and the creation of new content.

The videos can be used as models of critical thinking and examples of how teachers might get learners to create content that showcases their ability to think critically and creatively.

 
Facilitating a course at a university means there are assignments to grade and provide feedback on.

The assignments I grade are cumulative — #1 is the foundation of #2 which leads to #3 — so they increase in complexity. They take longer to process too.

However, some semesters are interrupted by breaks and holidays so that a cohort is effectively divided into two. This was one of them. Two batches were separated by about two weeks, so the teaching and grading got a bit confusing.

Some weeks ago I was facilitating module 1 for two classes and module 3 for another set. The facilitators also swop classes so we get to see almost everyone, but this might be confusing for the learners as well.

This week I also have assignments crossing lanes and piling up because of that.

Educators worth their salt know how important it is to give timely feedback, so our group of facilitators gave itself a rough target of a week between electronic submission and electronic markup plus feedback.

Any educator honest enough will also tell you how easy it is to get worked up while doing some serious grading. So it was nice to receive and recall some bouquets out of the blue. For example, one email query ended with a bouquet like this:

Email bouquet.

At the end of my sessions, I use the one-minute paper strategy in Padlet so my learners can express what they will take away. I give them the option of leaving feedback as well. Here are a few from the semester so far:

Padlet one-minute paper.

Padlet one-minute paper.

Padlet one-minute paper.

As I receive these rose petals, I am aware that the feedback that I provide might look like thorns.

I make the effort to highlight what is good about what I read in the assignments. After all, if positive feedback feels good and energises me, it will do the same to my learners. However, there are two things I watch out for.

One, if the feedback is positive but not specific, it might have a feel good factor but it goes nowhere. Two, the positive feedback must be deserving, not given for its own sake.

Every rose has its thorns. If you are going to pick roses, be prepare to get pricked. My feedback might feel thorny, but I am being cruel to be kind. If I do not highlight mistakes now, my learners will carry them forward and accumulate them.

As my learners’ final assessment is performance-based, I chose to be strict with their drafts and “scripts”. Better to hear the tough words and listen to the unpleasant music now than to be booed on stage later when it matters.

Today’s reflection starts as a contrast to yesterday’s Apple sales chat experience. But I bring it back to a critique of teaching and schooling as we still know today.

Over the last year or so, several McDonald’s fast food restaurants here saw the introduction of self-order kiosks.

McDonald's self-order kiosks.

The demand for these kiosks might stem from efficiency studies or a reduction in manpower.

After collecting data or conducting a study, McDonald’s might have concluded that letting people order and pay for their food without the help of a cashier was more efficient. Without access to data, that is my best guess.

Removing a few human cashiers might also address the problem of a smaller worker population or allow better deployment of existing staff.

Both are often part of the rationale of replacing people with machines. Though this example (machines replacing people) starts differently from yesterday’s example (people replacing machines), the theme is the same: Let people do what people might do best; let machines do what machines do better.

Computers, machines, robots, and other forms of automation replacing people is not new. We did this since we became sapient and found that tools were more efficient or effective than blunt mass force.

Initially people might feel sore about being replaced because they are robbed of their livelihoods. However, we eventually get over it because we realise how much better things can be.

For example, if all cabs and buses become self-driving, there would likely be a riot from drivers at first. But when people realise that the drivers can provide speciality services or do something else, and the roads are much safer and public transport more reliable, a new normal will set in.

McDonald's self-order kiosks.

What does the kiosks replacing people have to do with teaching? Sometimes the change is a good thing, but most times teachers struggle with the transition until they take ownership of the change. Still other times the change does not happen because teachers hang on to old practices.

The emerging self-help culture among some of today’s students and a small proportion of teachers means that both groups do not need traditional schooling and professional development as much as before. This is a good thing as this is more efficient and effective; it is a bad thing for schools and vendors.

The people who do not like the McDonald’s kiosks might complain that using the devices is slower than joining a normal queue. After all, the kiosks create two queues instead of one. Before the kiosks, you joined one queue to order, pay, and collect your food. Now you join one queue to order and pay, and another queue to collect your food.

Teachers, like the anti-kiosk patrons, need to take ownership of the do-it-yourself or help yourself movement. This is a trend now, but it might become a culture later. How soon this happens depends on when both parties embrace technology.

What prevents anti-kiosk patrons and teachers from doing this is McDonald’s and school authorities maintaining old systems alongside new ones. McDonald’s still has the old queue system just in case; schools still operate with industrial age machinery in an information age. There is little incentive to jump from the old ship because it is kept afloat.

Yesterday I concluded that we should not get in the way of either people or technology unless one enables the other to do and be better. The introduction of McDonald’s kiosks is a change that does not appear help us do better. Likewise the changes in curricular, assessment, and educational technology policies may threaten a shakeup. But teachers can comfortably ignore those policies if they do not appear to be effective. They would rather go to McDonald’s to enjoy some fries with that shake.

After standing on the sidelines for a bit, I decided to replace my old iPhone with a new iPhone 7.

I made the order via online chat because that was one way to get on the 0%-interest installment plan. The other option was to call a service line.

I chose the lesser of two evils. I was also at a public library at the time, so I could not talk.

I summed up the experience in these two tweets.

I bought every major piece of Apple hardware I own (and have owned) online. The online chat process was very inefficient by comparison.

With my user information already in Apple’s databases, ordering a new phone online without an installment plan would have taken about a minute or two. To get on the special scheme, I had to wait for a representative to attend to me and type information that Apple already had into the chat boxes. The chat log told me this took almost 17 minutes.

Screenshot of partial chat log.

A voice-based call would probably have taken longer with wait time and the need to verbally deliver and verify information.

I also had to wait for a follow-up call from a bank representative and I was informed that it would take up to two business days for this to happen. Thankfully that call happened within the hour.

I know that Apple is more than capable of providing an efficient online shopping experience. The inefficiency and dissatisfaction stem from the bank’s need to do things old school.

For whatever reason, the bank decided that it was better to include humans in the purchasing chain and forced unnecessary social interaction. Anyone who has experienced online shopping and e-commerce knows that what the bank required could have been automated. It felt like a step backwards in time.
 

 
As most things go, I thought about how this was like the state of most teaching.

Teaching has not gone as far as letting the learner choose the way Apple online lets customers choose: They decide what they want, and when or how they get it.

Like the banking link, there is forced social interaction that is unnecessary and inefficient. This is like focusing on social interaction for the purpose of delivering and verifying information. This goes at the pace of the teacher and in the way that makes sense to the teacher. What the learner feels or needs is almost irrelevant.

If there is any social interaction in teaching — be it in person or online — it should be to facilitate important processes like feedback, mentoring, or coaching. That is, anything that contributes to the personal learning by the learner. An empowered learner who decides what, when, and how.

Apple wants to push its iPads, Macbooks, and apps into classrooms. But it offers those of us in schooling and education an accidental but more important lesson in edtech: Let the technology do what it is good at, let people do what they are good at. Do not get in the way of either unless one enables the other to do and be better.

I spotted this while trying to find a cafe in Tiong Bahru.

Thoughtful Innovations for Thoughtful Experiences.

The tagline “Thoughtful Innovations for Thoughtful Experiences” was on the wall of what looked like a condominium construction site. I had to take the photo from the side as someone thoughtlessly left scaffolding in front of the word “experiences”.

It was an unusual slogan for a construction site. I would have expected to see it on the website or wall of a teaching and learning centre of a university, an edtech startup, a progressively-missioned school, or even our own Ministry of Education.

Even though the phrase was not suitable for a construction site, it was suitable for reflection. For example, when providing conditions for learning:

  • Who or what are our innovations for?
  • How thoughtful are our innovations? How well researched are they?
  • How much do we identify with the problems and perspectives of learners?

I doubt that the construction workers think about the tagline as they sweat under our sun. But if we see ourselves as progressive educators, “Thoughtful Innovations for Thoughtful Experiences” could be a mantra to remind ourselves of what is important.

Addendum: I found out that this choice phrase was used in a publication that looked back at 50 years of construction in Singapore. It was attributed to Tan Swee Yiow.


Video source

This video outlines four aspects of student-centred learning. I like what it has to say and how it says it, but it is nowhere complete nor without its flaws. So I ask some questions and fill in a few blanks.

I restate the main points of the video about student-centred learning and then share my perspective.

Learning is personalised. This is a misnomer. It is an attempt to make individual learning more meaningful by the efforts of the teacher, LMS administrator, instructional designer, i.e., anyone other than the learner. This is not wrong, of course, but these people are not the learner.

How about the learning being being personal instead? For a distinction between personalised and personal learning, read these curated resources.

Learning is competency-based. Is the focus just on content? How about thinking skills and values? One might be able to gauge sets of thinking skills as competencies, but how about values?

Learning happens anytime, anywhere. It can, it should, especially if you live in a modern and mobile-connected world. Now consider this: If so much can and already happens outside the classroom, why is the classroom still the standard for “learning”?

How do I know that the classroom is still the reference point? It is the use of “student-centred” instead of “learner-centred”. This is not just about semantics. This is about mindsets put into practice.

Students take ownership. Most definitely, yes! But only if students are first empowered, and given choice, time, and space. This more likely happens outside the classroom bubble than in it.

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