"Why have a computer lab? You wouldn't put the pencils and paper in their own room."
- A teaching colleague
Greg Whitby was next on my dance card, speaking about schooling in a 1:1 world in what promised to be an interesting presentation. As someone who follows Greg on Twitter and has interacted with him on occasion, I have found him to be honest and forthright vis-a-vis his opinions. Never in my experience to the point of being rude or disrespectful, but you know exactly where he stands. 1:1 as an approach to education is a topic of much interest and in which many schools have invested significant financial resources into rolling out, however, sometimes forgetting to put appropriate investment into infrastructure, teacher professional development, or into the students around ensuring they understand how to get the most out of the technology.
1:1 schooling is still a contentious issue as was seen in March 2016 when then Headmaster of Sydney Grammar School, Dr. John Vallance, was quoted in this article that technology in the classroom is nothing but a distraction. Whilst I disagree with that sentiment, I completely agree with him that I personally would invest in staff before technology, however, I believe that to discount technology as a legitimate pedagogical tool en masse is a mistake. What I can agree with is that it can be a distraction and a money pit; if the appropriate investments in staff pedagogy are not made. However, I digress.
Greg began by reminding us that the pace of change in technology is so rapid that as a society we cannot possibly keep up with everything, especially when we take into account that there are self-learning algorithms in play and that Microsoft recently shut down Tay, its AI driven supercomputer. Referring to the current trend of getting coding into as many schools as possible, Greg asked why we need our students to learn to code when the algorithm can do its own coding. There are a lot of obvious responses to the literal question, however, I suspect that Greg was driving at something deeper, questioning the wide-sweeping move towards embedding coding into the curriculum, however authentically that is or is not being done. It is a critique I can understand and share, I am not sold on the need for coding to be embedded into the curriculum. What is being taught that cannot be taught in a different way that does not result in more being added to the workload of teachers?
Greg moved on remark that he would be happy with glacial movement in the design and development of curriculum in NSW. This would mean there is at least some movement as opposed to no movement. I found this interesting. I have no experience with the process of writing a curriculum document, either now or at any point in the past, however, from what I have gleaned from staffroom stories across different schools is that the process is the same but the focus in the new curriculum is simply a little bit different according to the flavour of the decade.
This frustration seems to come back to the supposedly new skills often referred to as twenty-firsty century skills, in particular, (critical) thinking. SInce when, Greg argued, has thinking been a soft skill? I have written about the oddity of twenty-first century skills. With regards to thinking skills, the argument was made across social media that many students (and adults, for that matter) detest actually needing to think for themselves, at least if you ask teachers; whilst they are also used to the game of school wherein they are often drip-fed the information and answers they need to pass the test or exam at the end of the unit.
Greg's fire and passion for the topic was coming through loud and clear as he exhorted the audience to let go and be learners ourselves. Part of this continual learning is about being flexible to each day as we school pedagogical and timetabling structures change to meet the needs of society. There are now many teachers who do not know what their timetable looks like each day until they arrive as it is dependent uopn what their students want or need to learn. THis was exemplified in a video of Rusty from High Tech High. Rusty said that his focus is on asking students what they need to learn in order to achieve the big objective and to act as their guide and mentor as much as their teacher.
Good learning, Greg continued, has always involved STEM subjects integrated together. STEM is another area that I find puzzling. I do not deny that STEM, as individual subject areas are important, by howver, I do question why those subject areas? Why not The Arts, oratory/rhetoric, or philosophy? One of the lessons of my own education that stands out to me was from Year Six with Mr Hawkins (long since retired I suspect). We read The Lighthouse Keeper's Lunch by Ronda Armitage and one of the tasks that we needed to complete was to devise a way to get the Lighthouse Keeper's lunch to him without the seagulls getting into it.
This would be considered a STEM project, however, it was just a way of combining a range of subject areas into one unit for effective teaching. We learned about angles, the hypotenuse, design principles, how to use hot glue guns and balsa wood, addition and subtraction with decimals, some basics of thermodynamics (what if it was a hot lunch and what about his coffee?), some introductory physics relating to gravity, mass, and momentum and that is simply off the top of my head (I think there was also some sort of creative writing task as well, however, cannot recall details about that part). That single unit stands out in my memory as fun, challenging, rewarding, and a highly effective use of teaching time from a single stimulus. It highlights Greg's point that an experiential learning framework can be part of the larger picture, especially when driven by an inquiry cycle.
Greg changed tack now, remarking that he no longer talks about improving schools. That conversation has been going on for over a hundred years and arguably has made no impact; they look the same, the pedagogy is often the same, much of the content is the same. The issue around schools is not that we need to improve them but that we need to transform them; and to this end STEM is merely a lens to look through, not the sole thing that we should be doing as STEM is driven by the business model, they are skills that business need. However, the business-driven model has not worked thus far for education and I trust that we all know the saying relating insanity and repetition.
There is no silver bullet or panacea in education as it is far to complex and varied and so we need, as teachers, to be able to adapt to what the demand is. There is change happening in many schools, however, as Lisa Rodgers remarked at FutureSchools this year there are pockets of excellence but the distribution is uneven.
This need to grow and adapt should be driven by the lead learner, which I saw from another congress should always be the Principal. As part of their leadership they should be modelling what Greg refers to as the three Rs, however, rather than reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic, it should be radical, relentless, and resilient. This should be Principals empowering teachers to truly transform their classrooms. Simply putting new technology into old classrooms merely results in old classes with expensive technology and no transformation unless there has been pedagogicla development. This need for transformation is the radial urgency of the now according to Greg.
Thank you for reading this article. If you have missed any articles in my EduTECH 2017 series, you can find them all on this page.