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Posts Tagged ‘critique

John Hattie’s work on effect sizes and analysis of meta analyses is widely known in most education circles. His recommendations on what makes for effective teaching are probably in many instructor preparation programmes and policy documents. One of his best known works is his book, Visible Learning.

However, his work is not without its flaws and has its share of critics. The latest collection comes courtesy of this blog post.

The main objection seemed to be the questionable statistical methods that Hattie employed in his studies. What seems to have held fast are some of his recommendations on how to improve teaching by focusing on the learner and learning. But any logical person and academic worth their salt will ask if we can accept good conclusions drawn from questionable techniques.

I think such conversations are not missing the forest for the tress. They are trying to burn down the wrong set of trees.

You do not need research to understand and implement the logic of Hattie’s umbrella concept of visible learning. No teacher can read the minds of their students. I have not met any mind-reading teachers, and if they could, they are no longer teachers because that talent is more lucrative elsewhere.

Since we cannot see internal processes in learners, Hattie’s advice is that we externalise them. We start by designing learning outcomes in the cognitive realm that are observable and/or measurable. Then we get learners to demonstrate what they claim to know or be able to do: Perform, create, critique, compare, contrast, etc.

What might be researched instead are the effectiveness of different methods of designing visible learning. Do not burn the forest of visible learning. Clear it of diseased trees or invasive and harmful species with methodical research.

Side note: I have a critique of the critique. The author of the blog post seemed to imply that catering to learning styles is important. He needs to examine the literature and research that establishes learning styles as myth.

No, I am not referring to the SLS that is Sim Lim Square, although that place is worthy of a rant. I am referring to the recently announced rollout of the Student Learning Space.

I cannot critique this article on the SLS in one tweet. Hence this longer critique.

I present segments from the article and share some thoughts.

“The aim is for students to take greater ownership of their learning and to work together with their peers.”

This is a worthwhile aim. However, I wonder if students should actually be exploring and using other already available resources to do this. The fact that such resources are NOT already under one roof, curated, or sanitised is the point. How else better to prepare them for higher education and work?

The path to ownership is paved with learner agency and empowerment. Such characteristics are not found neatly stacked on a shelf or conveniently packaged online.

“learn at their own pace, revisit concepts and read up on other areas of interest”

Uh, one word: YouTube. Another word: Wikipedia.

These words are not neat and tidy like teaching. Instead, they accurately mirror the messiness that is learning.

“developed with industry and external partners to offer real-world context”

Um, another word: Buzzword.

“Real-world” examples and contexts are crucial and sorely missing, so making lessons more real is worthwhile.

I hope that the providers of SLS have learnt from the plethora of examples in YouTube and social media like Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram what to do and what not to.

If not, they are just using a buzzword for effect. The effect is like a firework. It is spectacular when it explodes, but it does not last long and the scene fades back to black.

I still wonder if providing a portal is wise in the long run. Is this not just more elaborate spoonfeeding? Or perhaps the giving and regurgitation of fish?

“rolled out progressively to all schools from next year (2018)”

Starting when next year? After the main exams so students can do cool and fun but not test-relevant things?

The official announcement mentioned 62 trial schools, but no specifics on when. My guess is that you cannot get shot down if you do not hold up timeline targets.

“teachers can share lesson ideas and strategies within and across schools”

Will this be done like the way it was about a decade ago? It was mandatory for some to share resources like test papers in online repositories. The “ideas and strategies within and across schools” was poorly conceived and implemented because competition was stronger than collaboration.

I hope the Ministry officials learnt from this faux pas. It must have the right people to provide that institutional memory and who have the willingness to not be yes-men or women.

I also wonder if the goal is to emulate teachers who already blog, tweet, and create YouTube videos. If so, they must nurture a mindset and culture that embraces openness, humility, interdependence, creativity, critical thinking, and reflectivity.

If not, they might be creating conditions for another mistake. An expensive and very public mistake.

I wonder about articles like this in which “thought leaders” were asked to make predictions about gamification. None tried defining it and distinguishing it from, say, game-based learning or serious gaming.

That is a good strategy because when you are asked to gaze into a crystal ball and make predictions, it helps to be as vague or as general as possible so that something hits the mark.

I also wonder why there seem to be examples of “gamification” from everywhere else except schooling and education. For example, take this article from a site that says it is about e-learning.

The examples were about Dropbox, LinkedIn, Duolingo, Google News, Zappos, and a steel company. Only one example, Duolingo, was about language, but the paragraph was so short it could be covered in two tweets.

To be fair, the very short paragraph linked to a longer review. However, a review of an app and service is not the same as an argumentative article on good and bad examples.

So why are there relatively few examples of gamification in schooling and education? I suggest that their implementations were and continue to be:

  • Unsuccessful
  • Closed
  • Ungeneralisable
  • Not sustainable

Successful implementations tend to get published; failed attempts rarely are. Ask anyone who has tried to do this in educational magazines or academic journals. No one wants to look bad even as they try to look good by learning from failure.

Schools and universities tend to operate in a closed manner, both inwardly and outwardly. This not only is the reason why there are calls for them to be more open to the “real world”, it is also why you do not hear about gamification efforts, if any.

As much as one classroom looks like another, the students and prevailing culture in each school makes it difficult to generalise success or failure factors from one context to another. This is why we cannot have more Finlands and Singapores in the schooling systems of other countries.

Gamification efforts tend to be “lone wolf” efforts. These are driven by individuals with the talent, ideas, and capacity to take risks. The rest are happy with the status quo or unwilling to risk bad results or a dip in student feedback on teaching.

Some from the second group might try something new, but once bitten are twice shy. So efforts like gamification, rightly or wrongly implemented, are not sustainable.

Gamification is not sustainable for at least two more related reasons: Vendor platform and bad design. Edtech vendors need real trials and often seek groups in schools and universities to try something for free or a low fee for a short period. When the trial runs out, so does the patience of an administrator or decision-maker.

Earlier this month, I explained why such vendors take the safe route. In doing so, they offer much of the same disguised as different. For example, getting points and leaderboards simply recreate grades instead of focusing on formative feedback. Since little or nothing changes, the new effort is not sustainable because it is no different from the old method.

So if you wonder why you do not hear gamification news from schools, wonder no more. The efforts there might not have been successful or are not sustainable. If you hear anything, you cannot be sure it is generalisable. If you hear nothing, that is the norm from closed systems.

One of the best reads of 2017 so far is this blog entry simply titled Evaluating Personalization.

Personalised learning is a continuum between non-learner-provided choices and learner-directed agency.

I distill the long read to this takeaway: Personalised learning is a continuum between non-learner-provided choices and learner-directed agency. The non-learner could be the teacher, vendor, or edtech platform.

Or, in the words of the author:

…one end of the continuum is personalization for the learner; the other end is personalization by the learner

Instead of trying to outline the main points of the article, I will try to add value to it by making an observation.

In the era before current technologies like computers and phones, the focus was on providing choice. Today, edtech vendors still tout choice: pacing, content, modes, etc. The personalisation by agency — goals, expectations, strategies, evaluation — is still sorely lacking.

We cannot keep making the excuse that learners do not know what they want. If we teach them to wait to be fed, they will be lazy consumers. If we nurture them to think, they will not just critically consume, they will also skilfully catch and create.

There is another major problem with personalisation-as-choice. The options a vendor or designer provides might not actually be choices. I use an example I have cited before.

StarHub app

My current telco, StarHub, has an app that claims to provide “choices” for some cards that you can display or hide. However, if you deselect them, the app reverts to the selected state upon restart. So you cannot remove the content that is not relevant to you from the app.

While the example is from a commercial entity, edtech vendors and designers of curricula often do the same thing — they provide choices in theory that are not actually choices in practice. So even the provision of choice is not necessarily indicative of personalisation.

Learners need not wait for vendors, designers, or teachers to give them choices. With current open and/or collaborative tools like Google Apps and YouTube, learners can take matters into their own hands and find or make their own choices. In doing so, they move from one end of the spectrum to the other by creating their own agency.

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?

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