What are we waiting for?

Recently there have been a spate of articles which are looking at the Internet of Things rapidly moving from being an idea to a reality. People are, almost daily, inventing and developing ways to connect processes to all that the internet has to offer which, like all innovation, is opening the door for even more creativity. It astonishes me that Siri has only been around for four years and yet the advancement that we’ve seen in this type of application has been monumental. People are quick to criticise the lack of certain features, but the fact remains we are able to speak to a little computer that fits in our pockets and it And it does this without needing hours of training first. But enough about that—I’ve spoken about it several times in the past.

What I really want to talk about is how ubiquitous connectivity influences education, or rather, how it should be shaping the way we educate people. I don’t only mean in a world somewhere in the distant future where we’re married to our operating systems, I mean now. Today.

My recollection about Siri’s introduction illustrates the point that technological progress is hurtling forward at an almost unfathomable pace. My Twitter feed is full of news about new wearables, vehicles, hardware and software applications that are changing the face of how we do things. Almost inevitably, much of this information is generally scoffed at by many of the people I speak to about it, but anyone who has been watching developments and trends will know that their dismissal will only be short lived. Many of my colleagues laughed at the prospect of an Apple Watch, and many of those same colleagues are now sporting the very device they ridiculed upon their wrists.

anyone who has been watching developments and trends will know that their dismissal will only be short lived

What does this have to do with education, though? The first answer to this is openness. Education, almost more than any other area of interest is plagued by the spirit of dismissal whenever a new innovation is proposed. I can guarantee that nearly everyone who works in edtech has had people tell them that something won’t work in their classes. ‘Flip the classroom? Whatever for? What kids need is personal interaction and someone showing them what’s what. There’s no way a child is going to self-motivate and study.’ That’s not something I’m making up, it’s an excerpt from a conversation I’ve had with an actual teacher. I should point out that they did not even really give me a chance to explain precisely what flipping the classroom entails. They didn’t care anyway, because they wanted nothing to do with it. My headmaster tells a similar story about a board meeting somewhere in the mid-90s where a group of people spent a few hours debating exactly what they would do with this ‘Fax machine thing’.

Again, there’s little point in me waffling on about the need to change, because I know I’m probably preaching to the converted. What I think is worth pointing our here, though, is what I predict is going to happen in the sphere education fairly soon:

  1. The nature of the classroom is very quickly, and very suddenly, going to have to change fundamentally. Students are simply not going to want to (or even be able to) sit in a room for 45 minutes listening to someone talk at them. On top of that, they’re going to get tired of sitting for almost 8 hours a day (which is an international flight), which is good, because according to this article, sitting is probably the worst thing they could be doing.
  2. The idea of what constitutes fact is going to shift, and again I suspect this is going to be a fairly sudden change. With ubiquitous connection to an up-to-the-second encyclopaedia which contains essentially the gamut of human knowledge, finding, processing and dealing with information is a very different thing to what many of us recall having to do at school.
  3. Work is going to become increasingly more relevant to the real world, or people are going to stop subscribing to it. Nearly every person I speak to will be able to talk about content they learnt at school that now has absolutely no bearing on their life at all. Increasingly, we’re going to see people like Dale Stephens or Logan LaPlant take charge of their education to make it work for them rather than subscribing to the ‘one size fits all’ mentality that most of us decry on a daily basis. If schools want to keep bringing students in, they need to provide them with something they need in their lives, and not just a bunch of information they’re mostly going to forget after the test anyway. Students have to take charge of their own learning or else it simply becomes something that happens to them rather than something they have an active role in moulding.
  4. Assessment is going to need to see a fundamental change. Divergent, creative, ‘out-there’ thinking needs to be encouraged, nurtured and developed (in that order) so that we can help students take advantage of the wonderful innovations which are on offer on an almost daily basis rather than become passive, mindless consumers of them.
  5. A culture of being enthusiastic about embracing new innovations (hopping onto the bandwagon, so to speak) needs to be encultured. Students should have opportunities to work with exciting new products and should be exposed to news ways of approaching the world. Virtual Reality is going to  change the way we interact with the world fundamentally. It is going to do this so significantly that I don’t think many of us can appreciate it. I must reiterate, this is not going to happen in the distant future: the iPad is 6 years old this year, the iPhone is almost 10.

These thoughts are but a scratching of the tip of an iceberg, and it should be exciting us and filling us with anticipation or else the iceberg could well prove to do the same to education as it did to a certain ship some years back…

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Is the Spirit of Inquiry Dead?

Why is it that students stop asking questions about the world in which they live? Why is it socially acceptable not to know something, and not to be the slightest bit interested in finding out the answer? Why does the spirit of inquiry die?

In the centre where I work, we deal with students from Grade 000 right through to Grade 12, and there is a clear trend that can be observed: the younger ones are more interested in engaging with their worlds while the older students are quite content just to sit back and get information spoon-fed to them. Content is probably not the best word to use, because I do not think they are at all contented by being in classes, but they are apathetic enough not to want to engage with the world around them. If something doesn’t influence them directly, then they don’t care.

It’s easy to see why school can seem agonisingly dull to young men and women: it’s slow, it’s repetitive and, for the most part, it involves adults standing in front of them trying to convince them to listen to whatever is being presented attentively, because it’s going to be in a test later. And if you pass that test (which means getting more than 40% in some cases), then we move on. No one asks about the other 60% you missed. There’s no halting to get to the bottom of the content that hasn’t yet been grasped. No. There’s a curriculum to get through, and we’ve covered that section and now we’re moving on. You’ll just have to make up for that 60% at a later stage.

This would be bad enough if this happened once or twice, but the fact is that this is an almost daily routine for high school students. Arrive, be spoken at for 8 hours and then go home to go over the work that was spoken at you only to have the whole thing repeated again the next day. Anyone who has a dislike for international travel will know what it’s like to be stuck on a plane for 5+ hours. It’s awful. And even travel at least offers the promise of an exciting destination at the other side, and there’s food.

Imagine taking an international flight every day for twelve years. I know we’ve all been to school and we got through it, but imagine going back. I know many of us claim that we wish we were back at school without the worries and the stresses of adult life to bring us down. We long for the ease of life school presented.

I don’t. I hated school. I hated the routine, the apparently pointless rules (how can there be a corridor at school where students aren’t allowed to walk?) and I was frustrated in many of my lessons. I look at the loads the students at my school have to balance and I do not wish myself back there for a second. And yet, I am responsible, in part, for perpetuating many of the things I disliked so terribly at school. Somehow in the years since I left school as a student and returned as a teacher, I forgot how awful some of the practices were. I can say with an honesty that makes my stomach churn that in many ways I have become one of those teachers who did the things I hated so much when I was at school

I can start listing excuses about pressures, and deadlines and curricula and being able to measure progress and stress etc., but the fact remains that I am feeding a system with which I fundamentally disagree. In doing this, I am directly responsible for crushing the spirit of inquiry I long to see in my students.

When school becomes all about getting through content and preparing for tests and assignments, when the process of learning is driven by results rather than by a sense of discovery and wonder, when we focus on the things that actually are going to have very little relevance in life beyond school, we kill the desire for knowledge. Students get trained not to care about a task unless it’s for marks, and who can blame them? When you have 8 teachers all giving you assignments on top of sporting, social and family commitments, you need to be practical with the time you have. If something is not going to give you a tangible reward, then it is, effectively, a waste of your time.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point here. What I want to do, which I think is often forgotten in blogs like this, is posit ways that schools need to change if we’re going to start remedying the problem that has been created.

First and foremost, there needs to be a de-emphasis of marks and results. I would love to see terms that are completely assessment free. Work will be done, of course, but marks and quantifiable data will not happen at all. I think that when this starts at first, many students will bow out or become disengaged, because they have been programmed not to care. However, I believe that after a while—and with the right kind of curriculum in place—they will start to buy in. To coin a modern acronym, FOMO (fear of missing out) will settle on some students and they’ll start to participate, not because they have to, but because they want to. And that has to be the most critical element in rekindling a spirit of inquiry. When students are self-motivated to be involved, they can do extraordinary things. I challenge anyone to find a student who supposedly ‘cannot study’ or ‘can’t remember anything’ and ask them about something they have a vested interest in. Get them to tell you the leading goal scorers in the current UEFA season, or to show you how complex their Minecraft world is, or to talk about their favourite music and soon you will see that they definitely can remember things and often with astonishing detail.

Imagine harnessing their field of interest  and channelling it into learning. I don’t believe for one second that this can ever be achieved by giving students the conveyor-belt treatment. We need to take a risk, ditch the assessing and measuring and give students the chance to re-engage because they want to do so.

Secondly, and probably lastly for this blog entry, we need to find a way to boost individual confidence. Something happens between the ages of 10 and 14 that causes many young people to stop believing in themselves. They become self-conscious about their work, how they look, what their voice sounds like or how others perceive them. School needs to make a concerted effort to find ways to celebrate individuals. Telling students that they are unique and they matter has very little consequence if we don’t mirror this in our practice. I think that during the terms where we’re not assessing, we should be giving students the opportunity to be their weird and wonderful selves and to help them celebrate it. Bumbling along through a set curriculum only reinforces the need to fit in or be ostracised. Helping students to find their talents and applauding individuality will not only boost confidence and help creativity, but will encourage community. If this were to happen, I believe we would see students who are more excited to give ideas a go, to explore, to venture opinions and I believe bullying would become a thing of the past. I believe that confidence breeds inquiry, because people will not be scared of being wrong, and others will not victimise people for being wrong, but will try to find solutions together.

Last week I spoke about classrooms being microcosms for the world we want to see and I stand by that opinion. Imagine what the world would be like if the two scenarios I outlined here rippled out into society. A genuine spirit of inquiry, a thirst for knowing more and a sense of confidence to attempt, to try, to probe is what will move civilisation forward. It is the solution to problems that have not even arisen yet and it is, I believe, the only way to start moving towards a more peaceful accepting world.

The sooner we get our students off the production-line, the better.

Talking Politics

The headline for this post might have turned many of you away immediately. It’s one of those established social rules: no talking about religion or politics at the dinner table. I suspect many of you believe that this should extend to other realms too. My apologies, then, for choosing to broach this topic on what is meant to be a place where I talk about matters educational and which I’m sure you may have felt was a sanctuary where you could escape from such matters.

So, why politics then?

Perhaps I should frame this conversation by pointing out that I mean to speak about a very specific topic, or should I say, individual, within politics: Bernie Sanders. Again, this may also prompt a number of you to close the tab, but that’s ok. I need to chat about this, because it’s important to me.

Now, firstly some of you may be wondering what a teacher in a little town in South Africa has to say about a politician running for presidential candidacy in the United States. You may wonder why I care, or perhaps you’re thinking, ‘What does he know?’ and that final question is exactly the point of this blog: I know rather a lot about it, actually.

Thanks to the internet, I have been able to watch a little-known senator rise through the ranks to become a feasible challenger to the candidate who seemed a shoe-in for the Democratic nomination. I have been able to listen to speeches, read transcripts, follow Periscope feeds of people at rallies, follow tweets and observe the entire process. I completed a quiz which allows one to take stances on a variety of pressing issues and then rank the issues in terms of personal importance. It took about 20 minutes to complete and in the end, I had a 93% match to Sen. Sanders. Thus, I feel very comfortable endorsing him or speaking about him, not because I am stirred by his speeches or charmed by his rhetoric, but because we share common ground on matters which are important to both of us.

Now, having read that last paragraph, remind yourself again that I am sitting in South Africa and most of the time, I have a fairly lacklustre internet connection. Nevertheless, I can find things out for myself, I can get involved as much as I’m allowed to (I’ll be honest, if I could send $27, I would) and I can form opinions. I am genuinely excited about the message Sen. Sanders is spreading, because it is, I believe, the true solution to shifting power to where it needs to be, to fixing systems which I believe have become fundamentally flawed and because, most importantly, it sends a message to the rest of the world. If the United States can bring about a shift that is so monumental, if the voices of those who have felt marginalised for so long are seen to have been heard and to have made a real change, think about how the rest of the world will respond. Even if Sen. Sanders does not become the Democratic candidate or become President of the United States, I think his campaign has sent a shockwave that has resounded not just across North America, but across the world. People are more important than they are often lead to believe.

As an educator, it is exciting for me to watch how people react to the realisation that their voice matters; that they can bring about the change they believe in. By studying social media and its ability to both distort the truth and reveal it, students can be shown the importance of being a critical consumer of information. Whether the allegations about biased news reporting are true or not, this election season has shown that where people want information to spread, they do not need the support of major news corporations to do it for them. Our students are seeing this. They are learning that they have the capacity to spread a positive message, that they can, quite literally, reach the entire world in a heartbeat.

The message this campaign has sent to the established media is also telling. Again, I do not wish to take any stance regarding my views on corporate news stations, but I want to point out that the model for spreading information is changing before our eyes. There are many, many more windows into the rest of the world than there ever were before and all of us need to pause to take stock of this. Teachers especially need to show students how to look at media objectively, to search for the facts, to find the truth when it is so often obscured. I believe that any lesson that looks at creating video cannot ignore the power perspective and camera angles have on altering the ‘reality’ the audience sees, for example. It’s also worth looking at how social media can be used to discover the less-than-flattering details about us, even if a distortion of information is necessary to achieve that goal. Students need to be mindful of what they post, and aware of how to protect themselves.

Our own classroom practices need to be microcosms of the world we want to create. Our schools need to be the communities, the ecosystems, the societies which will form the foundation for our futures. If students are given opportunities to use their voices to make positive changes in their microcosms and are then given the chance to see the impact of those changes in ‘real world’ applications, think about the impact this will have on their behaviour in the future.

All of this is exciting. Think of the opportunities we have to move beyond our classrooms, and beyond our campuses even. The world is wide open, and it’s up to us to teach our students how to look and what to look for. Furthermore, when we know the world is watching, it should have an impact on the type of content we produce.

If you’ve made it to the end of this post, thanks for staying the course. I hope it wasn’t as bad as you might have anticipated. Next time I promise I’ll talk about a matter that is less taboo, like abolishing homework, for example.

Taken-for-granted assumptions: Is it time to do things differently?

We make assumptions all the time. I made one just then, actually. Based on our experiences of life, we make decisions for a future that we are trying to anticipate. In my experience, this seldom works out precisely the way I think it will, and so the question then is why do we make assumptions? How can we try to predict a future that is changing as I type these words? There are a great deal of givens in our society: things that no one questions. We follow through with them because either we believe in their intrinsic value (they are useful to us) or because we are doing them so unconsciously that we don’t even notice we’re doing them. When was the last time you thought about how you walk, for example? I don’t mean the mechanics of the action, I mean, when did you last think about how you place your feet, what your posture is, whether you engage your core when you move? I certainly don’t think of these behaviours unless I’m leaving an appointment at the physiotherapist.

Let’s bring this back to education by looking at a practice I feel is a given for most of us: writing.A great deal of teachers’ time is spent either trying to decipher handwriting, improve handwriting or complain about handwriting. It’s something that apparently has been on the decline year after year. I was one of the markers for the IEB Matric final examinations for two years and just in a single year the number of students who had handwriting concessions had increased exponentially.

When I introduced the idea of the 1:1 iPad programme, one of the biggest concerns was that students’ handwriting would deteriorate. My response was: how much longer are they going to need that skill?

Be honest, when was the last time you had to write something by hand? I am able to type far more quickly and accurately than I am able to write, and my hands don’t get as sore. My computer also compensates for little ‘brain-blips’ I make every now and then (I spelt decipher with a y earlier and my Mac kindly reminded me that that was not correct). The only reason I can see for needing handwriting is because final examinations are almost exclusively written by hand. For now.

And that’s the point I’m trying to make: things are changing.

As far as I am concerned, it would be far more beneficial to teach students to type properly than it is to try to force them to do something that ultimately is a little-used skill nowadays. I will go a step further and say that even typing’s days are starting to be numbered. Just look at how much Siri has developed in the few years it (she?) has been around, and you can see where we’re headed. I do not think it’s too far fetched to argue that in the not-too-distant future, we’re all going to be using voice command for everything and even typing won’t be something we need, let alone handwriting.

There have been studies which argue that memory retention is lower in students who do not write by hand and that students who type during lectures do not absorb as much information. My challenge here is that perhaps we’re looking at the wrong behaviour as the source of the problem. Perhaps we need to look at how we’re conveying knowledge. Students’ way of accessing the world is almost entirely different to how most adults accessed it, and yet we plough on in much the same ways as we’ve always done. I think the world has changed and it’s time our practices followed suit.

We need to move towards new ways of creating and sharing knowledge. We need to teach students how to engage with rapidly-changing technologies, to be excited by new opportunities, to be able to create media that others want to consume, to consume media thoughtfully and with consideration of others and to know when to use which technology and how.

Let me make one thing clear: I am not for the wholesale abolishment of any practice (except, perhaps, homework). What I am a firm advocate of, however, is questioning assumptions. People—all people—should question what they do, why they do it and how they do it. Thomas Edison said, ‘There is a way to do it better. Find it’ and this is advice I feel we should all make an effort to follow.

The next time you start to enforce a practice, or ensure that it forms part of your syllabus for the year, before you type it next to its bullet point or into its box on the rubric, think of Edison. Question whether, in 20 years your students are going to need to use the skill you are so desperately trying to teach them.

This final sentence for example, has been written entirely using my voice and built-in dictation software on my Mac. For how long are we going to need to know how to type let alone write by hand? Something tells me not very long; in fact, I’m sure that within our lifetimes we’re going to see more fundamental changes to the way of life than anytime before. This is something I find deeply exciting and I look forward to the way it’s going to improve our lives and contribute to our making positive changes in the world around us.