Another dot in the blogosphere?

Critiquing an SLS opinion piece (Part 1)

Posted on: September 21, 2017

If you see or smell something, say something. This applies to an abandoned parcel in a public space as much as a fishy opinion piece in a local newspaper.

The article was about the upcoming Student Learning Space (SLS) and had this byline:

A new e-learning portal to be introduced next year promises to make lessons more engaging. Experts say it can even be an education leveller, giving the same quality resources to all students, regardless of their home background.

I have five main critiques of the article: It

  1. made vague reference to unnamed “observers”
  2. perpetuated the rhetoric of engagement over empowerment
  3. stated that students “will be learning what is expected of them”
  4. claimed that the SLS can be a social leveller in education
  5. quoted “learning styles” and cited “best practices”

I share my thoughts on the first three point today (Part 1) and the rest tomorrow (Part 2).

Vague reference to observers

observers agree that learning has to be made more engaging, particularly for the younger ones, to keep them interested

Who were these observers? What were their backgrounds, areas of expertise, and biases? Did they all share the same observations?

The article dropped a few names and quotes later on, but it was not clear if these were the same observers. The quotes were about students actively getting getting feedback, not merely “engaging” with resources.

I am an observer who has been in education for almost 30 years and half of that time was as a critical advocate for educational technology. My views are plain to see as I blog openly. One of my consistent messages is this: I disagree with the current and dominant rhetoric of engagement.

The rhetoric of engagement
I understand the appeal of citing engagement. It is basic educational psychology to say that you must first pay attention to learn. Without that receptive channel, there cannot be inputs of information, much less the recreation of knowledge.

The type of motivation that the writer focused on was extrinsic. Following this logic, teachers need to make the lessons fun or interesting, and move away from — get ready for another cliche — chalk and talk.

Half of that reference is outdated. There is no more chalk in our classrooms, but there is still a lot of teacher-centric talk. Is “engagement” with content supposed to deal with the other half?

If so, the argument is incomplete. Extrinsically fueled engagement is only half the story. Motivation also comes from within. While extrinsic motivation is the low-hanging fruit offered by shiny bells and whistles, intrinsic motivation is more difficult to nurture. However, that internal drive is what creates habits of learning over the long run.

No portal, as good as it promises to be, can spark, identify, or nurture this intrinsic motivation. Only the learner and others around him/her can do that.

Focusing on short-term gains has a negative long-term consequence. Always providing “engaging” resources teaches students to be spoon-fed in a different way. Previously it was tell us what we need to know for the test and students would respond with the garbage in-garbage out strategy of superficial learning.

Now it might be show me, give me, tell me albeit in an engaging way. That is fine if the instructional design of the resources is based on principles solidified by rigorous research and critical practice.

But no matter how well-designed, providing a go-to portal creates dependence. It teaches students to eat processed fish fingers or to shoot fish in a barrel. Students do not learn how to actually fish (search) or decide on the quality of their catch (evaluate).

What is expected

Currently, the portal’s resources, produced and curated by MOE, are based on the national curriculum, which means students will be learning what is expected of them.

There is nothing wrong with having high standards for content. We take pride in being Number One is so many things that we expect these standards to be the norm.

However, it is presumptuous to limit our children to learn only “what is expected of them”. Do we have a future-proof crystal ball? Is the e-learning portal also one that peers into the future?

What happened to the other rhetoric about the VUCA world? How about even more rhetoric about being future-ready (an impossible state if you think about it)?

I am not against providing resources. I am against spoon-feeding by another name and method.

What should be expected is not just to consume, but to also to create. What should be expected is to not work in isolation, but also to collaborate authentically and meaningfully. What should be expected is not to be spoon-fed, but to also find and prepare your own food.

I find myself turning into a curmudgeonly old man as I write this. So I end Part 1 and seethe over Part 2 tomorrow.

1 Response to "Critiquing an SLS opinion piece (Part 1)"

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