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The local TODAY paper co-opted a NYT article titled Don’t kid yourself: Online lectures are here to stay. It was written by an economist from Cornell. He had this to say:

Quote from NYT article.

His point was that all things being equal (including the cost of both options), most students would probably choose the first option.

He also went on to state that “the average instructor reading from yellowed notes” is more common and dominant. Citing his own book, he argued that the player with the foot first in the door had the advantage.

But I would argue that he presented a false dichotomy. There is not just a choice of different content delivery packages, i.e., by shiny or old-fashioned lectures.

Progressive educators are realising that they cannot rely only on remote instruction. They are creating more choices like cooperative learning, peer teaching, portfolio-based learning, and project-based learning. These are not the work of “Pixar-class animators” and “award-winning documentary film makers”. They are pedagogues whose practice and research is teaching and learning.

So let us not kid ourselves and declare that online lectures are here to stay. They might be mainstay now, but if the disruptions of COVID-19 shut downs have taught us anything, it is that bit players (like Zoom) can become major ones. I hope that bit pedagogues with progressive strategies provide some healthy competition.

This is a reflection on yesterday’s reflection about doing less but better.

I took this photo in the restroom of a London eatery in 2015. It includes an oft cited quote that “less is more”.

Quote on the mirror at Zizzi, Little Venice (London, 2015).

I studied under two notable distance and online educators. One of them liked to say this: Less is less, more is more. It was his way of saying that preparing and conducting online courses was a lot more work than people bargained for.

I agree. I experienced that myself as a designer and creator of online content and as a facilitator of online professional development and courses. The more is more principle was true whether I was operating in the USA or in Singapore.

A low estimate for how long it takes to simply convert an hour-long face-to-face session is about 20 hours. So converting one university in-person class that is three hours long might take about 60 hours of preparatory, facilitative, and follow up work.

Is this 1:20 ratio realistic? Just consider the preparatory work: Planning, re-reading existing material and/or reading new material for relevance, learning new technical skills, creating new artefacts like audio, animations, or video, etc. If you do not do this by yourself, you need to include the time invested by those you work with. The 1:20 ratio might start to look unrealistic only because you need more than 20 hours!

The ratio is just for converting a course so that it is suitable for basic online consumption. Imagine if you want to design and implement something transformative. For example, you might decide that information delivery is not sufficient for adult learners and that leveraging on their experiences matters. Simply finding out what matters to such learners is an investment of time and effort. Now factor in the design and implementation of learning experiences that require sharing, peer teaching, critiquing, etc.

So trying to redesign for simplified remote teaching — doing less but better — takes more work. But the opposite can also happen. Someone who puts in little design effort might create busy work for learners. Busy work is the equivalent of checking off tasks in chores or shopping list instead of participating in meaningful learning and reflective thinking.

The sad fact is that it is easier to do less but worse. And even if you put in a lot of effort, your rewards are not guaranteed. The tweet below illustrates that pictorially.

If there is anything we might learn from emergency remote teaching it is this: We will realise who we are, what we value, and how we respond in a crisis. Some will choose to do as little as possible to the detriment of their stakeholders. Others will put in earnest effort in redesigning and implementing emergency remote lessons, while little actually pans out as expected. Even fewer will learn from those failures or succeed at first try.

That last group will do more in their bid to do less but better or to learn from their mistakes. They are the ones we should appreciate and learn from. Will we?

I was inspired to reflect on this thanks to a tweet by George Couros.

Individuals and organisations have shared useful ideas and frameworks for planning and implementing what amounts to emergency remote teaching. One of the best is this table from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

I share a screenshot of it here with the CC-BY attribution because that is the right thing to do.


Consider the practices under the orange header in column 1. Just like how we might approach a traffic light on amber, we need to be cautious on conducting the same classroom practices under different learning circumstances. Driving on stubbornly does not model critical and creative thinking, and it does not put learning and care for learners at the core.

The green column is for going ahead. It focuses on being flexible, purposeful, and authentic. I love these approaches and present them in a different way.

Principle 1: Simplify. To paraphrase Couros, do less but better.
For example, now is not the time to get hung up on administrative processes like roll calls. While attendance is important, doing this online is not the same as doing it in person. Simplify this by delegating students to monitor each other or use conference tools like gestures to see that everyone is on board.

Focus on what matters. If there is a thinking skill that students need to master, what is the shortest way there? What is the best way under the circumstances for students to show that they have internalised this skill — writing, speaking, performing, etc.? If everything needs to be done online, what are students already doing — using Tik Tok, sharing photos, planning parties — that you can leverage on?

Principle 2: Contextualise. Do not recreate the classroom.
In a classroom, playing a video or grouping students for cooperative work are no brainers. Depending on your conferencing tool and bandwidth, you might not be able to do this in real time. If this is the case, design for asynchronous work, e.g., get students to watch a video individually, record their thoughts with a scaffold, and co-create/critique content on a shared online document.

If you do this, do not set the asynchronous tasks as “homework”. The students are already at home and they have invested time and effort in what is actually classroom work. If the asynchronous work takes 30 minutes and your class is an hour long, then remove that 30 minutes by conducting a 30-minute synchronous session as follow up. If you do not factor student work as class time, you are creating more teacher talk time at their expense. Your students might choose not to put in as much effort the next time you give them work to complete.

Another aspect on contextualising learning is to use the home environment. The table above mentioned helping out at home as tasks for learning. Now consider how meal preparation might not just be a lesson on home economics but also on chemistry, visual design, resource management, and procedural thinking.

Then consider how taking advantage of household chores might ease home tensions by getting students to “Kondo” their rooms. We are all learning to live with less now and embracing what brings us joy, are we not? Now consider how donating our excesses might help those of us who are less privileged.

Principle 3: Ask. Learn about and from the learner.
Video conferencing gives teachers limited but useful insights into what their students lives are like at home. How about creating simple polls with honest questions like:

  • How are you doing?
  • What are you worried about?
  • What ideas do you have for our lessons?

Staying cooped up at home can be stressful because students cannot socialise in-person with their friends. Some students might not have home environments that are not conducive for learning, e.g., fighting parents, abuse, needing to take care of others, etc.

We will not know what difficulties they are facing or get inspiring ideas if we do not ask. If we do not first reach our students, we cannot teach them because they are not receptive.

But above all, I say we learn to do less, focus on what matters, and do these well. If we learn to do this, we will be better teachers and educators on the other side of the COVID-19 curve.

The first time I was formally taught to use “body language“ was probably when I was learning to be a teacher. I wish I had this expert to debunk body language, or more accurately, non-verbals).

Video source

Even though the expert debunked misconceptions about detecting lies and social blocking, this did not discount non-verbals. He pointed out that we can have poker faces but we cannot have a poker bodies. We cannot help but communicate non-verbally.

The content of the next video was new to me. I did not know that there was a type of concrete that was infused with bacteria.

Video source

If the concrete cracked and water seeped in, this would activate the bacteria which would synthesize material that would repair the crack.

Such a technology was possible by crossing different disciplinary silos: Microbiology, chemistry, engineering, mathematics, architecture, design, etc. We cannot claim to have any sort of innovative teaching if content and skills are taught in silos.

Much of schooling is still about expecting one process and a model answer. Just like the question above.

It does not forgive alternatives even though they might be based on reality. Just like the answer to the question above.

Schooling is about making students provide the correct answers. Education is about developing learners who can generate more than one answer.

This is not about creating a false dichotomy because we need both. The problem is not recognising when we need each and how much of it is needed.

I had one concern after reading this new article, Govt can do more to reduce concentration of disadvantaged and privileged students in some schools.

My concern was not what exactly our government was doing or could do. These were summed up in four paragraphs in the article:

The ministry recently improved its financial assistance scheme, which helps students with school fees, textbooks and uniforms, by raising the income eligibility criteria to benefit more of such students.

Under the School Meals Programme, the provision of food has also been raised from seven to 10 meals a week for eligible secondary school students. About 50,000 students from lower-income families are on the scheme, Mr Ong said.

The Government is also investing heavily in pre-school education, with one-third of MOE Kindergarten spots reserved for students from lower-income families.

By 2020, student-care centres will also be in every school to provide students with a conducive environment to study and finish their homework.

My concern was why newspapers pad their articles with extraneous information. Only four out of the 23 paragraphs in the article where about the headline.

One might argue that the other paragraphs provide background information or set the context. I would agree if this was still pre-Internet news. When writing on paper, you could not hyperlink to other articles that provided more background, history, or context.

My expertise is not journalism, but I take this warning to the realms of schooling and education. Are we still still stuck in the paper world of the past or are we also preparing kids for the paperless future? Are we doing more for ourselves and our past, or are we focusing on our children and their futures?

If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow. -- John Dewey

Tomorrow's educational progress cannot be determined by yesterday's successful performance.

I am not a fan of selfies. This is probably only the second one I have taken with a camera phone. I had to in order to capture this quote from Robert Browning.

The quote was on a large mirror at the Zizzi restaurant in Little Venice. I was in London for a family vacation over the one-week school break.

I have lots of photos to share and have already created smaller online albums of that large one [colours] [eats] [lego minifigs] [museums].

But since less is more, I intend to create a summary album of the best bits and perhaps include a few photos I did not upload earlier.

I like that we are different. I celebrate it and design for it and I wish more would do the same.

But sometimes we are more alike than different. I have made a point of pointing this out when I hosted visitors in NIE or when I have extended conversations with people when I am overseas.

In education, we all want the best contextual solutions for our children. We all face the same types of political, administrative, policy and other problems. We all have the same passionate problem-solvers.

So why do we tend to focus on our differences? For example, when visitors come here, they want to find out what we do “differently” in Math or assessment or ICT. Perhaps our visitors think that they will find something of value or out of their box.

It makes sense that if we seem to be doing better at international tests, then what we do differently is likely to be a contributing factor. If we are doing the same thing but the results are different, then the same thing seems unlikely to be the cause.

I think there is a more insidious reason for why we look for differences instead of similarities. I realized this thanks to a seemingly unrelated tweet for help.

I was piqued by the issue and Googled for leads. I found something promising.

I tweeted a link to a library article about an event where the speaker mentioned how authors and publishers were pressured into selling books that emphasized differences instead similarities.

If you were going to read about another culture or travel to another country, you would want to find out about the different food, practices, weather, scenery, etc. You would not want to bore yourself with finding out more about the same or wasting your money to experience what you already have at home.

But the fact of the matter is that when you make that jump and spend a significant enough amount of time in a place, the more likely you are to find out how similar the problems and solutions are.

I think that only focusing on how we are different is a mistake. We are more likely to bring home a different solution without fully understanding its context. If we focus on how we are the same, we are more likely to gain an understanding of that context first. We then understand our differences better and we avoid repeating the same mistakes.

I read an article in TODAY, Teach less, learn more – have we achieved it?

I sighed.

Teach less, learn more?

I would be happy if teachers learnt how to talk less and ensure that their students learnt more.

Even better, test less learn more.

Reducing syllabi or curricula is not going to make a difference if teachers still rely only on the tools of talk in one hand and tests in the other.

It is time to arm them with something else. It is time to have fewer central policies and more ownership. It is time to provide less structure and scaffolding and more professionalism and innovation.

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