Another dot in the blogosphere?

Earlier this month, @tucksoon tweeted this CNA article about fake news.

I turn the question on teachers and rephrase it slightly. Do teachers know how to spot bad theory and practice?

Do they know why they should question:

  • Learning styles?
  • Homework?
  • Assessment practices?
  • Digital distinctions?

If not, I share what I have written and curated on:

Some self-serving proclamations from “edtech” vendors make me do my version of gymnastics — my eyes roll and my stomach turns.

Recently I read how one claimed that it could “make learning more engaging, personalised and accessible”. I did my flips and then I felt nauseous.

Why should something that seems positive be so repulsive to me? Let’s break the claim down element by element.

First, the rhetoric of engagement. The premise for this rhetoric might read: I need to stimulate you, and if I do not, you do not learn. There is some merit to this based on what we know about cognition. If you do not get first attention, then subsequent stimuli are not likely to register.

However, the assumption here is that the stimulus is external. Students are taught to expect to be entertained or switched on instead of nurtured to be independent and self-driving.

Leaders in education and edtech have already started writing and speaking about learner agency and empowerment. This means that learners should not be treated only as consumers, but also as creators of content.

“Engaging” learners with extrinsic motivations is old school and futile in the long run. Empowering them to make, teach, and share is the new order of the day.

Vendors know that policymakers and teachers like to hear about engagement. It feels powerful to be able to engage. However, this does not guarantee students learn powerfully and meaningfully.

Vendors also know that the students must remain consumers and teachers or policymakers must remain buyers. If students and teachers learn to DIY and share openly, then vendors go out of business.

Second, personalised learning is not when it focuses on instruction. Teaching is not the same act as learning. Teaching does not guarantee learning in the same way that talking is not the same as listening.

Let’s assume that the personalisation of learning has three main requirements:

  1. Meeting students where they are.
  2. Letting students progress at their own rate.
  3. Offering students rich and relevant learning experiences.

The reality of “personalised learning” by vendors is often the opposite. Students to go where the vendor is (platforms, logins, access policies, etc.) Students may also need to meet prerequisites to earn the right to “personalise” their learning the vendor’s way.

Resources expire or are locked away if someone else decides the learners do not need them or should not see them. The same entity also dictates an access duration and period.

Sometimes what vendors actually mean by “rich and relevant learning” is actually individualised or customised instruction. They would like you to believe that they can provide choices for your students. For reasons pragmatic and financial, these choices are finite, predetermined, and locked behind a paywall.

Meanwhile learners young and old are already “personalising their learning” by a) not calling it that, b) Googling, c) using YouTube, and d) relying on social connections.

In other words, learners of today are already taking agency and empowering themselves to make their own decisions.

Teaching is neat. Learning is messy.

Teaching is neat while learning is messy. Personalisation is also messy, and no vendor can or should promise neat packages.

Third, “accessible” is not as broad as it should be. The vendor might mean online and reachable 24×7 (barring maintenance, which coincidentally, will always mess with your schedule). It could also refer to online resources being available on desktop, laptop, slate, or phone.

Such a claim of being accessible is the lowest of the low-hanging fruit. Consider if the resource is available if the learner is at level 5 but needs to access level 4 or 6 work. In most cases, the learner will not have such access.

Now consider if the learners are disabled is some way (mentally, physically, socially) or disenfranchised (financially, culturally). How more broadly accessible are the resources to these learners?

The vendors might call me fussy. I might call them dishonest. You decide whose interests I have in mind and heart.

Last week, my wife and I visited my son’s school for a series of parent-teacher meetings.

I liked how the school had an online booking system to schedule meetings with teachers. This prevented a chaotic free-for-all.

I also liked how my son had to accompany us to take an active part in the meetings. The was an excellent way for him to take ownership of his learning.

It is not enough to tell students how to make improvements; it is just as important to listen to what they have to say. Listening allows us to determine how they have processed the discussion and if they have thoughts of their own.
Quantitative grading ends learning. Quality feedback sustains learning.
But I am concerned about the state of teacher assessment literacy of a few of my son’s teachers. To be clear, these are just anecdotes from a convenience sample of teachers I had discussions with.

The issues were:

  1. Irregular use of rubrics for formative feedback.
  2. Placing the curricular race before remediation.
  3. Testing what was not taught or modelled explicitly.
  4. Not aligning the quantitative with the qualitative.


Irregular use of rubrics for formative feedback
I liked how one teacher used an essay rubric as a feedback tool.

Students should be given a rubric not as a crutch or checklist, but for them to rise above the noise. My son’s essay was marked up so that it was impossible to tell that he had one main area to improve on. The rubric was a way to not miss the forest for the trees.

I asked the teacher if rubric-based feedback was a regular practice. She replied that it was a rare occurrence. Its use seemed tied to the mid-year exam, but it could have been part of weekly, fortnightly, or monthly exercises before the exam.

Think of this another way: No one throws a novice into a tennis tournament to provide feedback on how to improve a serve or footwork. Such feedback happens during regular practice.

Rubric use must be regular and strategic. Its use was rare and the feedback came after an exam and right before a month-long school vacation. There was no room for remediation and corrective action.

The rubric was used in summative assessment (the mid-year exam). It could have been better employed in formative assessment during the learning, not after it.

Placing the curricular race before remediation
I learnt that another teacher’s strategy was to teach difficult topics in the first half of the year followed by easier ones. This might be a good strategy if the goal was to provide time for learners to catch up with the difficult topics later in the year.

After being shown the curriculum topics for the year, I asked if there was a way for students to revisit the difficult topics. The teacher gave a standard reply: Curricular time was tight and they moved on to the next flavour of the week.

I wonder if teachers realise this is one reason why parents and students resort to remedial tuition. If the school and their teachers barrel along, parents and students will find alternatives for remediation. Ask enough good tuition teachers why they are passionate about what they do and they will probably say that it is to help kids who fall through the cracks.

Now this is not to say that my son’s teacher was uncaring. Like most teachers, he made it clear that my son could make an appointment to consult him.

One purpose of assessment is to provide feedback. What should immediately follow is remediation. What should not happen is ignoring the problem by moving on to the next topic.

If a group of runners falls down and get injured during a race, the coach should not insist they keep running. The coach and able runners around them should stop to help the injured. It is important to finish the race, but it is more important to take care of the runners first.

The wellbeing of the racers is more important than the race itself.

Testing what was not taught or modelled explicitly
Weeks before the parent-teacher meeting, my son told me about a test question he could not answer. I asked him if the teacher had taught the topic and he replied that the teacher had not.

At the parent-teacher meeting, I found out that the teacher actually left clues like a scavenger hunt over a series of separate events. His rationale was that students needed to make the connections.

While I applaud his attempt to promote higher order thinking, I wonder if he made this expectation clear and if he modelled this strategy explicitly for his students.

Cognition and metacognition are related but separated. Much of everyday teaching and learning is about cognition: I tell you, I find out if you understand.

The ability to make connections between seemingly separate events is about metacognition. It is about choosing different thinking strategies to make those connections. If students do not see a model of metacognition and do not practice those skills, they cannot be expected to operate this way.

I do not mean that students need to be spoon-fed and hand-held all the way. Metacognition is thinking about thinking and it is supposed to be challenging. But when a teacher is transitioning kids to be metacognitively aware, it helps to be methodical and to provide scaffolds.

The purpose of a test should not be to scare students. It should be about showing you care about their cognition and metacognition. So you should not test was what not taught or modelled explicitly.

Not aligning the quantitative with the qualitative
As we received a qualitative progress report before quantitative scores were released, we made appointments with teachers based on the former.

We found out only after the scores were released that the qualitative and the quantitative were not always aligned. By then, it was too late to make changes to the online system because the appointments were locked.

One might argue that the qualitative comments were more about teachers’ impressions and feedback that was is not captured by a test. One example is everyday behaviour and general attitude during lessons.

However, given that the comments focused largely on academics, there should be some alignment between a teacher’s observations and actual performance. If not, one might doubt the teacher’s attention to each learner and their evaluations of them.

This just boils down to numbers and statements making sense. If a student is doing well (or not) test-wise and the comments are aligned, the quantitative and the qualitative match up. If they do not, they confuse both child and parent.

Closing thoughts
I might come across as being overly critical of the teachers I had discussions with. Know this: Both my wife and I are educators, so we not only intuitively understand my son’s teachers, we also have insights that other parents might not.

As a teacher educator, I have additional insights that I share because I care for the teaching profession. Some of the things I write about may be difficult to read, but they come from an honest and informed place.

If you asked me what the most important trait is for teachers, I would say: Being a reflective practitioner. Nipping on the heels of that is the ability to provide clear and actionable feedback to learners.

All four of my critiques are linked to feedback for learning. This, in turn, is a function of a teacher’s assessment literacy. My feedback to teachers is this: Keep on learning about assessment, evaluation, and feedback. These are core to effective teaching and meaningful learning.

When I reflect every day on this blog, I focus on my professional interests. Today, I share a personal one.

Two years ago, I blogged this: A personal note: 13+13=26.

I shared how on this day in 2015, my wife and I celebrated our 13th wedding anniversary. We got married after 13 previous years as a couple.

Last year was significant in that we were a married couple longer than we were an unmarried one: 13+14=27.

This year we marked our 15th anniversary by hunting down a gemstone for a new ring. The 15th year is celebrated with a blue stone.

It took visits to several stores, and as we are wont to do, we visited the less conventional  ones for a unique look.

We eventually decided on a helical ring. It houses a stone that reminds us of the Millennium Falcon. It has personality that is both beautiful and quirky.

It is easy to look at an anniversary as a number. It is certainly easy to label the ring with a wallet-lightening number. The ring represents more than just our years together. The ring is a key that unlocks our life stories.

Here’s to more years and stories!

Teachers want video games that focus on content and vendor-developers try to deliver.

They are both barking up the wrong tree. They are trying to do the same thing (deliver content) differently (getting students to play video games). And they are doing this more expensively and laboriously.

Video game development takes a long time and costs a lot of money. Once developed and published, you typically cannot change content easily. The content also becomes irrelevant quickly, possibly when the game is released.

So what are video games good for? How might educators integrate them or leverage on them? This resource and video provide some clues.

Video source

With video games, we should be:

  • Focusing on nurturing positive and lasting values.
  • Developing thinking and communication skills.
  • Taking advantage of what games do differently and better than classrooms, books, and conventional teaching.
  • Leveraging on how they provide context and immersion.

Well-designed games reach simultaneously into the lizard and human parts of our brains for dopamine fixes and intrinsic motivation. Well-designed games do not just engage, they empower.

Such games are often not designed for schooling or education because they do not follow all the old school rules.

  • Gone are stating objectives first.
  • Instructions and directions are often missing.
  • Testing happens early and continuously.
  • Games encourage uncovering, discovering, risk-taking, and learning from mistakes.
  • Cheating, modding, collaborating, and teaching one another are essential if one is to progress.

If educators want to take advantage of games, they must know how games work and adapt to those rules, not the other way around. To do otherwise is to try to do the same thing differently and students will see through that immediately.

Recently I tweeted this blog post from George Couros.

Couros outlined three misconceptions about innovation in education. Briefly the misconceptions he mentioned are:

  1. Innovation is about how you use technology.
  2. Innovation is reserved for the few.
  3. Innovation is solely a “product”.

There are even more misconceptions. I suggest that people make at least three more mistakes about innovation in education.

Innovation — and its precursor, creativity — can somehow be taught or transmitted. It must be modelled and caught.

Creativity cannot be taught as a skill, but it can be killed -- Yong Zhao.

Innovation is not about having plenty of resources. You need to be at your most creative (thought) and innovative (action) when times are bad and resources are thin.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then creativity is the father.

Innovation is not doing the same things differently. If the same things are being done, how exactly is that being innovative?

Doing things differently does not always mean doing things better. But doing things better always means doing things differently. -- Hank McKinnell (Former CEO of Pfizer)

Have you ever stood in front of a mirror and said a word (any word) out loud over and over again? That word starts to lose its meaning and it might start to sound funny.

The video below explains why.

Video source

So how does meaninglessness result from repetition?

Psychologically, it stems from semantic satiation.

Neurologically, it is dues to to reactive inhibition.

Pedagogically, it can be called drill and practice. Or most homework.

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