The teaching and learning disconnect

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Signs of learning?

The words teaching and learning are used interchangeably. They convey the idea of going to school, or some kind of educational institution and, getting an education. Being taught. Learning something. But in order to critique the education system effectively it is necessary to see that, despite the appearance of the words teaching and learning conveying the same meaning, the reality can be quite different.

It’s possible that while teaching is taking place, learning may or not be happening as intended. It is possible that a correlation between the two does not actually exist despite the expectation or intention that it should. This reality has been previously referred to on this site in a variety of different ways. Phrases such as “evidence-based teaching”, “learning growth” and “know your impact” come to mind. It is the desire to determine and measure this correlation that drives the possibility of improvement in learning outcomes for students.

For me, evidence of the disconnection between teaching and learning became more pronounced during the Covid-19 lockdown. All learning institutions, including schools and universities were required to be closed for an extended period. Education was forced to go online. Technology became the medium. Of course, for online learning to be successful all students need to have access to a device, an internet connection, the school may need a suitable system in place and the users need to be familiar with how it works. Those financial and technical barriers automatically exclude many from even participating.

But even for those who were able to connect online, it was a tough sell getting those students to engage. The teaching and learning disconnect that I describe above is a hidden barrier. To learn, you need to be prepared to engage with the teaching that is on offer. What is on offer needs to be relevant and engaging. And it’s fair to say that if a student is not engaged in the teaching on offer while in the classroom, it is unlikely that said student will be jumping out of bed in the morning to complete the day’s online teaching. No amount of cajoling will be sufficient.

Students voted with their feet during the lockdown, in a way they can’t do when they are face to face with a teacher in the classroom. Only the curious, the most capable, the motivated, the ones aspiring to enter tertiary study or with specific career aspirations will make a successful transition to online learning. When lessons moved online, teachers no longer had the “stick” with which to motivate students. This reveals the problem with the system we have. It relies on threats and punishment to motivate. That is contradictory to what the science tells us about motivation.

This would suggest that universities fared the best during the lockdown. Universities have been offering access to lectures via online means for some time already. University students are used to not attending lectures face to face. And, university students typically fit the student profiles listed above. The engagement factor is not so critical for university students. Study is optional. University students want to be there. If they don’t, they drop out. These students have aced the school system. They are smart and motivated. To those students, their chosen course of study will be relevant and engaging for them or they have sufficient academic capacity to pass the course regardless.

The problem is that this teaching model, the one that works at tertiary level, is generally the same model being applied in all education settings. Achieving effective learning is about more than delivery of content regardless of whether it is taking place online or face to face. As well as having sufficient content knowledge, teachers need to be able to design learning that promotes engagement and motivation. Teachers need to understand that providing content to students is not a guarantee that learning is taking place. They need to be adept at capturing and measuring the impact their teaching is having on student learning. They need to be invited to experiment with this process and share their findings. For effective learning to be happening, there needs to be more dialogue than monologue. A dialogue that is responsive and in which the student is fully engaged with.

The failure of the prevailing education model falls most heavily on those on the outside; the poor and the non-compliant. It is a model that lacks responsiveness to the actual needs of the bulk of students and fails to engage with them effectively to promote learning. This model may not be perfect for university students either but at least the consequences of failure for those at that end of the education spectrum has less impact.

Can the Covid-19 crisis be an opportunity for reimagining and remaking of the education system? It is through observing the impact of this pandemic on education and how schools and institutions have responded that we can get a real sense of where the faults lie within the system. The lessons are there for us to learn, but will we? Systems are entrenched and are difficult to budge.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Teaching computer programming to 5-6 year old children

Botley

Teaching computer programming to children with Botley, the programmable robot.

Teaching computer programming

There is a lot of great technology available these days to teach computer programming to children. In the past I have had success with an iPad app called Kodable. More recently I have used Botley the programmable robot to introduce the concept of computer programming to young children.

Based on my experience, I am no longer amazed at how quickly 5 and 6 year old students can master coding. This observation has led me to appreciate that the current teaching model tends to act as a ceiling on learning – the teacher as “gatekeeper” rather than “catalyst”. This new appreciation has inspired me to modify and be more reflective of my teaching practice.

I’d like to describe how I approached the introduction of computer programming into the classroom. Initially, I introduced Botley to the whole class. Of course there was a lot of curiosity and enthusiasm for Botley so I had to figure out a way to give every student an opportunity to have a go. I decided the best approach was to bring Botley out during the “student-led” time of the day. This meant that I would be free to work uninterrupted with small groups at a time working with Botley.

The effective teaching and learning model

As well as being the “gatekeeper” in terms of allocation of opportunity it meant I could give explicit instruction and observe which students were showing the greatest competence. Needless to say, displays of high levels of curiosity and enthusiasm did not always translate into competence. But by working in this way I could persevere until I found a student or students who grasped the concept the quickest. I could then use these students to replace me as the teacher/model. This is what I interpret Hattie to mean when he describes the most effective teaching and learning model as being, “teachers as learners and students as teachers”.

I find this to be the most effective teaching and learning model. This model can now be seen operating throughout all my teaching practice. I describe it as the “student-sensitive, teacher-led” teaching model. It means that I always start with some form of direct teaching and modeling to students of the content that I know:-

a). they need to learn (such as literacy or numeracy) or,

b). will be of high interest, and generate lots of curiosity and enthusiasm (such as science topics like computer programming).

I then observe the impact of that teaching input on the students and then make further teaching inputs based on those observations.

In the video below you can hear the interactions between the “teacher” and the “student” and the self-talk.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Technology, creativity, and computer led creative destruction.

Music has become an increasingly large part of our daily routine in the classroom. Music sets the scene. It’s a part of what creates our learning culture. We dance to it. Sing along to it. Transition to it. Much of the music in the class now comes from a streaming website played through a computer or other device. I have an iPad full of recorded songs of a colleague playing the guitar. I got rid of the CD player a while ago. Superfluous. I shudder when I think of the clunkiness of cassette tapes and before that, vinyl.

I believe technology has been a wonderful enhancement to how I provide an effective learning programme. Music and dance are both a primal instinct. They help connect us to others and make us happy. Having music and dance in the classroom is a way of creating that essential happy and human learning environment. And we also know from Hattie’s research that technology per se, will not create effective learning. For technology to be really effective it needs to be used as more than just a replacement for pencils and paper or to give the students access to the latest apps to respond passively to. Creativity is a human endeavour first and foremost. Technology is at its most effective when it is used to amplify creative thinking. Creativity needs to be fostered and encouraged. Providing access to a computer will not be a guarantee of a pathway to creativity. Ken Robinson goes one step further by suggesting that schools are actually doing a good job at killing student creativity.

Out in the real world, beyond the silos and echo chambers that schools tend to be, technology is wreaking havoc on the economy and job market. Computers are hollowing out the mid-range jobs; those clerical and production line type positions. That’s because computers are now better at doing jobs that can be broken down into explicit procedures. At the same time, there is growth in jobs that don’t require high levels of education but are difficult to automate; low paid, service type jobs, like hospitality.

Fortunately, we teachers are in a lucky position. We are in a profession that computers will not make redundant. Even though computers may now be able to do a better job than teachers at delivering content, they can’t be trained up in the very human skills of creative thinking, cognitive flexibility, abstract reasoning, problem solving and empathy. But unfortunately, it is difficult to see these skills being embraced in the education sector in any serious way.

Even though it is not in my job description, I have embraced the reality of computer led creative destruction and applied those skills that can’t be learned by a computer, to my own learning journey. I read widely; beyond the field of education, that is. I apply those new discoveries in my classroom. I take on the task of being a problem solver very seriously. Even in the face of opposition. And while I don’t believe that teachers alone can solve the problems that technology led creative destruction bring, I do believe that we need to do better at preparing our students for the world beyond the classroom. I do believe that teachers would do well to look up from their lesson plans and check out the world around them a little more often and start to embrace their human qualities.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Reframing educational outcomes – counting what counts

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Look what I made. Now let tell the world about it.

There are times that I have to remind myself of the purpose of this blog. To “inform, illuminate and inspire” was my original intent. I hope I am doing that. Documenting my thoughts and observations of the learning journey taking place in my classroom has certainly been valuable for me. There are also times when I am reminded of why I love my role in the classroom so much. It wasn’t always like that though. It has taken a lot of reflection and determination.

The current education model wants to count everything and hold everyone to account. It’s a model that stifles creativity and discriminates against many students.

I have also been inspired by the marvelous research that keeps prompting my curiosity and validating my experience. My journey, has in fact, been about breathing life into that research. It’s easy to read it and agree with it. But it’s another thing entirely to put it into practice. What I am aspiring to achieve looks and feels very different to what we typically see. There really is an confirmation bias towards maintaining the habits that keeps us wedded to the status quo, even though it’s not really working. It seems easier to stick to the status quo rather than venture into the unknown. To do so would require a significant leap of faith to get better answers to the questions,

  • What will good education outcomes looks like?
  • Will children really learn?
  • What will the learning environment look like?

Yong Zhao is a source of inspiration and validation.  He speaks about the danger of standardised testing (ie National Standards) and the need to reframe a discussion around educational outcomes. He is the editor of a new book on education called Counting What Counts. The current education model wants to count everything and hold everyone to account, according to Yong Zhao. It is too narrow, too impersonal, too linear, too focussed on the short term. It’s a model that stifles creativity and discriminates against many students.

The use of technology to deliver content means that teachers will be freed up to be more human and to help children develop socially and psychologically.

He describes the current model of teaching as a deficit one. Rather than the 3 R’s being the foundation of learning, they have become the ceiling. We need a model that allows individuals to flourish. A system that motivates and engages students. A system that works for all students equally. Teachers are still seeing themselves as deliverers of information. But that approach is should be redundant. We now have the technology to do that. Technology needs to be used to allow students to be creators rather than consumers. The real value in technology is its ability to amplify the learning, to enable it to be shared and invite collaboration.

I agree with Yong Zhao when he says that technology will not replace teachers but it will play a key role in delivering information. And this is the part that I like the most. It is the raison d’etre of this site. The use of technology to deliver content means that teachers will be freed up to be more human and to help children develop socially and psychologically. Sound familiar? These are all topics that I have already discussed on this blog in previous posts.

Fortunately, I have seen both of the education environments that he describes. I know which one the little people in our classroom would prefer. And I know the one that would really allow them to thrive.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

An interview with Yong Zhao can be found below.

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