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Posts Tagged ‘critique

I LOL’d when I saw this tweet. It was a moment of truth and connection. Ask adults around you and you might get similar anecdotes of this shared experience.

But however humorous, the observation is superficial. It is probably what drove people like Prensky to create the concept of the digital native, i.e., kids born with technology are savvy with it because they are wired differently.

What proponents of the digital native narrative ignore is that we are first wired to play and explore. Our instinct is to learn.

If the available technology was a stick and mud, a child as a curious learning machine would use it. Some mud and even the stick might end up in their face or mouth.

Today the technology might be the computer or phone. A child is the same curious learning machine and the computers or phones stick as well. That child is no more a digital native than the previous one was an analogue native.

I often tell adult participants of my seminars or workshops that they are sometimes more native with some technologies than their students and children.

Take the use of Facebook for instance. Most adults and parents my age started using Facebook before they had kids or before their kids started using it. The adults are more aware of the usage, nuances, and changes in Facebook than younger learners. They might also be wiser about what to share and what not to. The adults are the digital natives in that context.

That is one of the key weaknesses in the false dichotomy that is the digital native-immigrant divide. It does not take into account context of use. A better but less well known theory is the digital visitor and resident continuum by David White.

Whether it takes a comic or some critical reflection, I hope more people read about how the concept of digital natives does more harm than good. After all, we learn not when we reinforce something we already believe in; we learn when we experience dissonance as we play and explore.

Do these statements create dissonance?

  • Schooling is not education.
  • Gamification is not game-based learning.
  • Flipping your classroom does not guarantee flipped learning.
  • The choice to consume different resources is not the same as personalised learning.
  • Teaching objectives do not guarantee learning outcomes.
  • Enhancing lessons with technology is not the same as enabling learning with technology.
  • Engagement is not the same as empowerment.
  • An infographic is not a poster with a collection of graphic elements or snazzy fonts.
  • Learning styles are not a fact. They are a myth.
  • Calling your students digital natives does nothing to change pedagogy and might actually entrench teacher behaviours.
  • Cyber-anything.

Some of our fellow Earthlings in the USA say they should continue to question and critique everything Trump because they do not want time and lethargy to normalise what he says and does.

Likewise, educators should not allow unquestioned practice, outdated research, tradition, or vendors out simply to make money to perpetuate falsehoods.

If we do not listen with an informed ear, we let what they say become acceptable truth. If we do not cast a critical eye on what we read or observe, we normalise what we would normally object to. We owe it to our learners to do better and be better.

Reading an article like the one recently published by the Straits Times (More schools tap tech tools for learning [archive]) should raise critical questions instead of blind acceptance.

For example:

  • How many of the 360 mainstream schools in Singapore do this?
  • How common are such practices? How special are the lessons?
  • How transparent are the tools?
  • How different are they pedagogically and experientially from outdated practices?
  • How effective are such experiences?

The general public should learn to ask these questions to keep schools accountable. These questions matter because they affect our children and use our tax dollars (see this Hechinger report on the overall ICT masterplans; amounts are in US$).

What are markers that might reveal an article to be making a mountain out of a molehill?

When examining the health of, say, a freshwater ecosystem, the marker species are amphibians because they are the most sensitive to changes in the environment. A newspaper article can be more complex because the narrative can fool the casual reader. However, there are the equivalent of sick, missing, or dead frogs.

Future Schools

Nearly a decade ago in 2007, the Ministry of Education (MOE) named five pioneering “schools of the future” under its Future Schools project. These schools, picked as test beds for the use of educational technology, are, according to the MOE, “trailblazers” in engaging in information and communications technology (ICT) projects.

In later years, another three schools joined the initiative.

In the Singapore context, the first dead giveaway is the reference to the Future Schools [PDF]. Cosy up to closed circles and you will hear how this is an experiment that is not working. The model is not scalable because the context of each school is different.

Another barrier is poor communication. It is not as if the Future Schools do not share, it is that they do not share quite nearly enough and on a scale necessary for system-wide change. Hosting visits and dialogues is good; creating community is better but sorely missing.

I am aware of one teacher grassroots effort, a Google Educators Group, that meets regularly. All involved stand to benefit from the community because this strategy relies on buy-in and ownership, not policy and good PR.


The MOE has since observed that more schools – beyond the eight schools selected for the programme – have experimented with technology for learning and teaching. But it did not reveal the number of schools that do so.

Ignore the words like “trailblazers” and take note of phrases like “but it (MOE) did not reveal the number of schools that do so”.

Buzzword: Digital native

Educators told The Straits Times that students, being digital natives, are more involved when technology is used in their learning.

Another phrase that should set off alarm bells is the labelling of students as “digital natives” by any interviewee. This term has been roundly critiqued and criticised for more than 10 years (sample of criticisms). Even the originator of “digital natives”, Marc Prensky, has backed down somewhat and moved on to digital wisdom.

“Digital natives” is artificially divisive (us and them), not entirely based on critical research, populist, and ultimately a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is often used in articles and speeches by people who do not know the history of the phrase nor why it has been rejected by thought leaders and progressive educators.

Buzzword: Engagement

“Many of our students are comfortable with the use of technology even from an early age,” said Dr Victor Lim, deputy director of technologies for learning at the MOE. “Technology can be used not just to increase students’ engagement, but also to… help them learn better.”

“Digital natives” is often used beside phrases like “Many of our students are comfortable with the use of technology even from an early age” and “Technology can be used… to increase students’ engagement”.

Any practitioner worth their salt will know that “comfortable use” of technology is not the same as responsible or effective use of technology. For example, being able to Google something on a mobile phone does not guarantee critical thought.

The use of “engagement” indicates a peripheral and non-critical use of technology. If a teacher needs technology to switch students on, the technology is likely a novelty. It could be bait for a lesson that is not meaningful to the learner.

Stanford don Larry Cuban has come out against the use of “engagement” [article]:

… he says engagement is a “fluffy term” that can slide past critical analysis. And Professor Cuban at Stanford argues that keeping children engaged requires an environment of constant novelty, which cannot be sustained.

“There is very little valid and reliable research that shows the engagement causes or leads to higher academic achievement,” he said.

Here is a list of readings and musings on why engagement is fluffy.

Technology merely to enhance
I am against simple engagement because it is typically used alongside “enhancing” a lesson instead of “enabling” it. A tool that enhances is optional; a tool that enables is essential. Your phone can be optional or essential for your life and work. Guess how the modern worker and current student will describe their mobile devices.

If a tool is essential, a lesson cannot proceed and learning cannot happen without it. When the tools are essential, they are also transparent. No one bats an eyelid about using pens and books in the classroom because they are part of the environment and shape practices. The same should be said about current technologies in the classroom. The must enable, not merely enhance.

Buzzword: Future-ready

He added that the tools help students to achieve “future-ready” competencies, such as thinking critically as well as communicating and collaborating with others.

Another marker is the uncritical use of buzzwords like “future-ready”. What is this really?

Words are important because they hold meaning and are verbal contracts. Can you guarantee this state of being when the future is uncertain?

I have reflected before on why future-ready is a misnomer. Do not take my word for it, take Seymour Papert’s.

Sneak preview of my blog entry on a quote by #seymourpapert.

A post shared by Dr Ashley Tan (@drashleytan) on

Papert did not use the term future-ready. If anything, skills like critical thinking, clear communication, and effective collaboration are needed now. They are meaningful now. They are necessary now. The ability to keep learning variants of such skills starts now. There is no need to qualify them as future-ready.

The usual suspects

If you do not get this reference, you need to watch this movie.

I have nothing against the schools listed in the article. They are doing good work. However, the press does them and MOE a disfavour by citing the same schools over and over again.

To its credit, the press sometimes does include a new school among the usual suspects, preferably a neighbourhood school.

Buzzphrase: Technology is just a tool

“Technology is just a tool,” Dr Lim said. “It is the educators who make the difference.”

There is also harm in perpetuating old narratives like technology is “just a tool”. Technology is not just a tool; they are more like instruments. Instruments require care and constant practice to perform well with them. Technological instruments show the joy, art, and love of learning.

To use “just” is to say they do not have impact on their own and to not recognise that tool use is a socio-technical phenomenon. Marshall McLuhan put it best when he said, “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” One need only pay closer attention to how we walk, talk, and read with our mobile devices to see how our tools shape us.

We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.

A post shared by Dr Ashley Tan (@drashleytan) on

Very few will deny that it is a good teacher that makes the difference. There is no need to placate the fearful by reminding people, teachers included, that teachers are important. What should be said though is this: Any teacher who can be replaced by technology, should.

I return to my pond analogy to point out the markers.

  • The sick frogs are the Future Schools and using phrases like digital natives.
  • The missing frogs are the schools whose educational technology examples and strategies that remain unreported.
  • The dead or dying frogs are the old narrative of buzzwords that attract flies.

It is easier to just accept the news article as is. It is just as easy to ignore the article and this critique. It is more difficult to question the article for the good of the system.

Which have you been taught to do? Which would you rather do? What should you be doing?

I shared this resource recently.

I agree with the three main critiques of flipping: 1) Too much focus on videos, 2) no change or conversations on pedagogy, and 3) sacrificing personal time for curriculum time. I have said the same things in my workshops, seminars (samples), and videos.

But I take issue with the critique being on flipped learning. The problems are really about the superficial shifts and potential harm done in flipped classrooms.

What is the difference between the two?

There are several, but here is the most important. The flipped classroom focuses on what the teacher can do; flipped learning focuses on the learner and the processes of learning. In flipped learning, the focus is not teacher-created videos, and tired and old pedagogy. It is certainly not about creating curriculum time at the expense of learners’ rest, family, entertainment, or social time.

When you flip learning, you nurture more self-directed and independent learners. You do this by giving ownership of the problem-seeking and the problem-solving to learners. You show them how to design outcomes, find resources, and evaluate themselves. You flip the learning by getting them to create content and to teach with it.

While this is not an argument about semantics (“classroom” vs “learning”), words hold powerful meaning in themselves and should not be interpreted or used flippantly. More importantly, the implementation of a flipped classroom is very different from the experiences generated by flipping who the content creator and teacher are.

Note: This might read like a rant. It is actually a reflection of hope and I indicate as such right at the end.

One of the bugbears of freelancers and consultants must be the variety of needless administrative requirements of partners. My pet peeve is old-school practices disguised as new.

I will share just two stories. I do this without naming names and without intent to shame the organizations. I do this to provide a different perspective and highlight blindspots.

Snail in the road by DaveHuth, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License   by  DaveHuth 

One important administrative process is making sure I get paid. While smaller organizations have moved on to better processes, large ones tend to be more conservative.

For example, I have completed forms for electronic payment by many organizations. With smaller organizations and schools, I merely visit their e-portal of choice, submit in e-invoice, and wait to get paid. The e-platform already has my bank account information so the process is seamless.

With one large organization, I had to visit my bank to get endorsement that the bank account was mine and submit a paper-based form by snail mail. Why was this necessary when the electronic processes were faster and no less secure (if not more so)?

To be fair, there is value in verifying one’s banking information. However, the electronic way is much faster. Perhaps I should start charging a WET fee, Wasted Effort and Time, if I am required to enact outdated practices.

Maybe they are worried that I might specify some other bank account that is not mine, a terrorist organization’s perhaps. If that was the case, the trail of evidence is electronic. Merely looking at my face and identification card would do diddley-squat.

Another large organization sent me a similar financial document in the form of an Excel spreadsheet. Unfortunately, it was near impossible to fill in. The default text was white (on white background) and offset so that it did not appear in text boxes.

Such a form was clearly designed by administration wanting to be digital on paper, but not in practice. The form merely replicated what you had to do on paper instead of taking advantage of digital forms.

If I was a productivity consultant, I would recommend getting rid of the old-school managers or policymakers for maintaining this unproductive process. I would also send the administrative staff for professional development, and if they refuse to change, they can join their higher-ups in the unemployment line.

square-peg-round-hole-21 by ePublicist, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  ePublicist 

Story number two. Before working with a partner or collaborator, there is typically a contract document (complete with legalese) to sign. Most people do not read the details or care for them even if they do. I do because I care.

I have processed one-size-fits-all documents, detected missing sections, spotted errors in details like dates, and worse, read clauses that protect only my partner organization, but not me. Partnership? What partnership?

For example, once in a blue moon I receive documents that attempt to take ownership of my products or processes, and/or effectively require me to seek permission from them to use my own work.

Instead of getting angry, I have taken the opportunity to try to educate them about Creative Commons.

I do this at the risk of not getting awarded the contracts. I ask myself if I can live with the consequences. One is a pragmatic consequence: It represents a potential loss of income. The other is philosophical: It stands for what I believe in. I can live with not being awarded a contract and a lucrative pay; I cannot live with an unnecessary compromise.

But all is not lost. There are a few (very few!) individuals who are open to change and working within those systems. Some are just learning that there are alternatives, some are natural change agents. I hope they stick around long enough to make a difference.

This week there were at least two critiques on Horizon Reports following the release of the 2015 Higher Education report. 

Downes and Watters both lamented the poor pattern and continuity of the projections on educational technology. 

There is an underlying assumption that needs to be questioned: That edtech trends can be predicted with certainty of implementation and schedule. This is like saying you know where the horizon is. By the time you get to where you think it is, the horizon has moved. 

The New Media Consortium reports make disclaimers against these of course, but how many people actually read the fine print? My guess is about as many as do the iTunes user agreement.  

The basic methodology might also be misunderstood. The reports are often results of modified Delphi methods. Each set of experts or panels may be independent of another year’s report. These reports are not longitudinal studies, they are snapshots of thoughts. This could explain the lack of continuity.

Each panel is likely to have an agenda or include influential members with agendas. I hinted at this in Singapore’s first (and only?) report two years ago [1] [2]. The main “sponsor” had an e-book agenda and it featured prominently in the report. But e-readers and slates replacing paper and unnecessarily heavy school bags remain a futuristic fantasy in the average Singapore school.

I do not disagree with the critiques Downes and Watters. I hope I have added to the pool of insights and shed a sliver of light on why there does not seem to be continuity. 

These insights are important if Horizon Reports are taken from their descriptive domain and co-opted by administrators or policy makers to prescribe change. This has already happened with PISA scores and rankings. Such studies and reports are not gospel truth; they merely shed spotlights and laser points on large systemic issues.

I am not sure which is worse: Viewing the world through rose-tinted glasses or envying the seemingly greener grass on your neighbour’s lawn.

That was my initial reaction to this tweet and the SMH article linked to it.

If you peer over the fence or put on coloured spectacles, there is a risk that you lose focus on what is important.

Context is important. You cannot simply transplant ideas from one context to another. I mentioned this in a tweet conversation with someone from the UK recently.

Something contextually important is that the Ministry of Education (MOE), Singapore, hires teachers and sends them over to the National Institute of Education (NIE), Singapore, for initial teacher preparation. The supply meets the demand simply because MOE dictates both.

Attributing credit or blame to any other factor like PISA scores, teacher employment, or teacher surplus, in some other context is failing to make a valid comparison.

Basic facts are important. If a reporter cannot get basics right, you start to wonder if the rest of the article is flawed.

For example, SMH cites a Dean in NIE as “the head of Singapore’s teacher training institute”. I left NIE just a few months ago, but I am confident that the Director of NIE is still in charge. (I can hear the jokes and gentle ribbing taking place in certain halls and circles there if the SMH article makes its rounds there.)

Research is important. The reporter and editor might have been in a hurry to publish the article, but there is no excuse for bad research.

The initial figure of “as few as 20 per cent of (teacher) applicants” getting through the interview process might be correct. The starting salaries of our beginning teachers are indeed relatively high [1] [2]. However, entry success and high starting salaries do not mean that we have the “best and brightest” to pick from.

Information on what percentage of top students from a graduating cohort enter teacher preparation can be hard to come by. But they can be found out by conversations with very-important-people or by trawling university sites that might share such data more openly.

As a professional courtesy, I am not going to share what I was provided by way of official statistics and conversations with people that matter. Suffice to say that Singapore’s teacher selection cutoff is no where near Korea’s, particularly among primary/elementary teachers.

The issues of teacher quality and placement should not just revolve around the numbers that administrators and policymakers like. Singapore does not recruit dimwits to be teachers, but we cannot (and do not) claim to lure our brightest either. We take in people with a passion for schooling and educating kids.

Passion is hard to put numbers to. But it is probably the single most important factor that keeps a teacher going no matter the salary or the teaching conditions.

So instead of getting a false impression after rubbernecking a neighbour or reading a tinted newspaper article, I suggest an unfiltered examination of context and a fine-toothed search for facts that actually matter.

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