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You are never too old to learn from the past, and to invent and inspire the future.

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You are never to old to learn from what is current and to create based on what you have now.

I read this article, Sesame Workshop and IBM team up to test a new A.I.-powered teaching method, with critical optimism.

After reading the article, I still wondered if the AI was actually adapting to how kids learn or if it was learning how to teach as an adult would. The former focuses on learning while the latter is about teaching.

Teaching and learning are not synonymous. Ideally and intentionally, effective teaching should lead to meaningful learning. However, teaching does not guarantee learning. Let me illustrate.

The article claimed that:

kindergarteners learned words like “arachnid,” “amplify,” “camouflage,” and “applause,” which are typically considered above their grade level.

Kids were taught these words, but did they really learn to use these words in contexts that were meaningful to them? Will they retain and use the words appropriately in future?

My son learnt “chela” and “carapace” in kindergarten. I only learnt these as a Biology major in university. Today he cannot recall those terms or even learning them. However, those terms are etched in my memory even though I have not taught Biology in over 20 years.

I argue that my son was taught those terms, but only I learnt them. It is one thing to teach for short-term gain and retention. It is entirely another to design for long-term and meaningful learning.

If we teach AI the wrong way, then artificial intelligence will have another meaning. It will be about “learning” that is meaningless, superficial, and fleeting.

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.

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.

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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.

Sir Ken Robinson tweeted this recently.

He urged his Twitter followers and others who stumbled on his tweet to discuss this statement: Most of what kids currently learn at school will probably be irrelevant by the time they are 40.

There are so many ways to approach this statement.

One might be to point out that if schools still operate as dispensers of content, they are bound to be irrelevant.

Such content does not have to just be useless for work or life after 40 years. It can also be irrelevant immediately if it is not meaningful to the learner right there and then. Content does not need 40 years to be irrelevant; it can take just 40 seconds.

Schooling and education should also be about changing thinking, values, attitudes, and behaviours. All these take an extended period to happen, and they might retain their currency for much longer too.

However, such qualities might still lose relevance in the future. For example, cultures that value unquestioned compliance are not likely to nurture critical or creative thinkers. If you are taught more to listen and obey than to talk and take action, then you will tend to do just that.

All this is just opinion. The premise of the article that sparked SKR’s “discuss” seemed to be that algorithms and artificial intelligence threaten to take jobs and create a “useless class” in the future.

The article outlined how the processing of information and content, quick and focused algorithmic thinking, and slow-responding schools might contribute to an unemployable group of people.

One part of the article focused on the role of schooling and education:

Since we do not know how the job market would look in 2030 or 2040, today we have no idea what to teach our kids. Most of what they currently learn at school will probably be irrelevant by the time they are 40. Traditionally, life has been divided into two main parts: a period of learning, followed by a period of working. Very soon this traditional model will become utterly obsolete, and the only way for humans to stay in the game will be to keep learning throughout their lives and to reinvent themselves repeatedly. Many, if not most, humans may be unable to do so.

Industrialised and modern countries might have policies in place to promote “lifelong learning”. For example, Singapore has SkillsFuture.

Aside from some teething problems and unsavoury practices, the effort seems like a stop-gap measure. It deals with the symptoms (like retrenchment, unemployment, growing irrelevance) instead of underlying issues (changing expectations, more fluid and connected work, managing information).

If current workers were schooled to think and operate narrowly, they are unlikely to see the need for continuous and constant learning. Their mindsets might read like this: I am done with school, why force me to go back?

Values are more CAUGHT than they are TAUGHT.

To avoid the problem of being irrelevant at 40, all learners, young and old, need to learn and practice what some might call a growth mindset. Some of this might be taught, the rest — I would wager a large part — is caught.

So schools need teachers as models of such a mindset. But here is the Catch-22: Are schools the best place to find such models?

Whether you read about it, Google it, or ask an expert, you will probably get definitions of blended learning that are actually about blended instruction. The definitions are also likely to be flat and one-dimensional because they focus on the modes — offline and online — of instruction.

I use the term blending to refer to how both teaching and learning can be designed and driven. I take care to separate teaching and learning because they are not the same set of processes.

Poor blending can lead to the teaching of content that does not result in desired learning outcomes. On the other hand, carefully designed and skilfully implemented blending is more likely to lead to powerful and meaningful learning.

Today I condense my scattered thoughts on good blended instruction. I might share a story on blended learning in a another blog entry.

Three Dimensions of Blending.

I offer a model of blended instruction that borrows from instructional design principles and TPACK. While the common definitions of blending are flat, I share one that has at least three dimensions to give it shape and form.

The dimensions of blending are mode, content, and pedagogy. The dimensions are broad design considerations that are shaped by instructional contexts. These elements are represented in the diagram above. I describe each dimension and provide examples to illustrate them.

Three Dimensions of Blending - Mode.

The mode of instruction is the first dimension and is essentially the same as most definitions of blending. In blended forms of instruction, an educator teaches and facilitates both offline and online.

The educator does this by leveraging on the strengths and suitability of each mode. The educator’s ability to do this depends on his or her experience, depth of knowledge of technology and content (second dimension), and range of pedagogical know-how (third dimension).

Three Dimensions of Blending - Content.

The second dimension is the ability to blend content knowledge. This is a multi-faceted element that accounts for the motivation for learning content and subsequent application of that content.

One way to start thinking about blending content knowledge is how one topic links seamlessly and logically to another. This should be considered not just from an expert’s perspective, but more critically the learner’s frame of mind. The learner should be taught in a manner so that the seemingly separate elements become part of a coherent whole.

Another way of understanding this dimension is to consider how information becomes knowledge, and how that knowledge is used. Meaningful learning is rarely decontextualised or standalone; if there is no context for application, there is unlikely to be any long-term learning. For example, the delivery of a mathematical concept or a new operating standard for work is empty if it is not embedded in why it needs to be learnt as well as how and when it can be used.

Such learning embraces complexity. Whether the content is the black-or-white variety (e.g., compliance standards, emergency drills) or many shades of grey (e.g., ethics in any field, geopolitics), learners often need to combine hard skills with soft ones; draw from different resources from other fields; and factor in their own prior experiences.

Yet another form of content blending is cross-or multi-displinary learning. By this I do not mean that English is the language for the delivery of game programming principles. I am referring to the fact that programming projects need proposals, timelines, budgets, presentations, and more. Peripheral processes and soft skills could be taught with central processes and hard skills.

In short, the blending of content recognises that what the teacher knows needs to be combined with other content areas, social learning processes, and meaningful contexts.

Three Dimensions of Blending - Pedagogy.

The third dimension of blending is pedagogy. This is partly the skilful application of x-based approaches as the content and context require, and as the technology allows. Some examples of x: Problem, case, scenario, team, game, mobile, social media, station, outdoor, etc.

The pedagogical dimension should also include the ability to design and implement suitable forms of assessment and evaluation, provide feedback, and draw out learner reflection.

The three dimensions of blending are dictated by contextual considerations which are often limiting factors. For example, budget, policy changes, sector (schooling, higher education, military, private), etc.

Three Dimensions of Blending - Context.

The context often determines the extent and quality of blending. For example, a paltry budget often leads to a one-dimensional, mode-only blending. There is content offline and online, and while this might look good on paper, it is not meaningful to learners if it does not have sufficient authenticity and complexity, or include timely interaction with content, peers, or experts.

Alternatively, budget or policy might dictate that instruction is separate from assessment. For example, when money is no object, the one who teaches might not be the same as the person who assesses. When budgets are tight or if there is policy to try automation or trial “analytics”, learners might be subject to low-level quizzes that are not aligned to performance outcomes.

Three Dimensions of Blending - Sweet Spot.

My ideal model of blending requires that all three major design elements — mode, content, and pedagogy — are factored into the context of instruction and application. Well-designed blending is the sweet spot that marries critical practice and rigorous research on blending.

However, reality bites hard. Practical realities and unquestioned practice might have led to one-dimensional implementation of blended learning. While such teaching practices might be efficient or even impressive on paper, it might not be as effective in terms of learning.

Instructional designers, educators, managers, and decision makers need to honestly evaluate their existing designs and processes for blending. They could start with a simple models like the three dimensions of blending.

I am distilling some wisdoms on blended learning for a possible webinar next month.

The ingredients are that blended learning:

  • is not one catch-all concept, strategy, or practice
  • is about providing seamless experiences
  • should not be confused with blended teaching
  • should focus on the learner and learning
  • is not always a cost-saver
  • is about the long tail, not the short game

There is a “secret” sauce of blended learning. It should be designed first on principles of educational psychology, not administrative efficiency.

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