Traditional Schooling

Although not quite as vociferous as Ivan Illich (Deschooling Society, 1971), I am nonetheless a constant critic of what might be termed “traditional schooling”. Discipline, rigor, neat rows of desks, exams. You know the drill.

Over a number of years I’ve criticised my own traditional teaching practices in my talks on Free Learning. To illustrate my point, I’ve used a three-leaved Venn diagram outlining the interplay between  grade worship, conformity and dependence. Expanding on this line of thinking I’ve recently added a fourth leaf, delusion, which I’ve previously written about on this site. The result:

Is it any wonder that our school systems produce so many humans (and I include myself in this bracket) who struggle to live within the societies we are building?

Baking Bread

In last year’s End of Year Assessment (which I did not write about, but you can get a sense of it from the prior year’s) students asked for more curriculum surprises. One them related with obvious relish the tale of the (very random) occasion on which I placed my lunch of raw sugar snap peas on a table and said “help yourself”.  Working on these two pieces of feedback, food seemed like an obvious way to go.

More recently, during a start of lesson chat, I mentioned to my students that I hate most things about most schools (a common theme if you spend any time with me), but that I recently found a school that I love, and which ignited a real love of science and yeast:

This led to a discussion around brewing beer, making bread, the joys of yeast and getting your hands dirty…at the end of which the kids asked me to bake some bread for them. How could I say no?

So, this morning I got up at 4:30 to mix, knead and prove some dough, which I then baked into a large loaf. It was still warm when I met my students at 08:30…and it was all gone by 08:40. The kids seemed so happy with the simple pleasures of fresh, dense white bread and generously applied butter. Some even liked the Vegemite I stole from my wife. This led to an interesting insight that you don’t need lots of money to be happy: the simple things, made with love and shared with others can bring a lot of joy.

Here are a few photos of the process and the result.

As a starter recipe I’ve been using Jamie Oliver’s Basic Bread, which I’ve been tweaking to suit local conditions and tips from others. It is a joy to be learning something new each and every time I bake bread.

Talking As Adults

At ICHK Secondary, as in any school, we find student culture shifting constantly, with new and exotic behaviours bubbling to the surface in a steady stream. Given a broad and contemporary diet of influences, including families, peers, mainstream media, social media, Internet memes and more, it is not surprising to see a blend of positive and negative behaviours emerging over time.

Given the recent revelations around Harvey Weinstein, and Hollywood’s long-standing endorsement of and tolerance for misogyny and sexual harassment, it was not at all surprising that students started to engage with such issues themselves. Without going into detail, we ended up with a situation where one party of students inadvertently offended others within the community, which was then interpreted within the light of our wider social situation. The result was a feeling of hurt, where none had been intended, but where it might reasonably be justified.

What played out between students and staff around this theme ultimately provided a very interesting case study of how we respond to each other, and the role that a strong school culture, based on adult-adult transactions, can play in shaping our lived experience. In the end, a possibly disruptive episode passed relatively painlessly, where it might elsewhere have spiraled beyond of control.

After a range of conversations and an assembly, the following email was sent by our Head of School, Toby Newton, to all students. I’ve chosen to share this email (with Toby’s blessing) as it struck me as a clear reflection of the culture that has been purposefully developed at ICHK, stemming from our 5+1 Model, around engaging in adult-adult conversations in which all parties are treated with respect and sensitivity. Hopefully, in reading the email, you can get a sense of the kind of school ICHK is, and how this model might be applied more generally in our lives.

The email ties in consistently with the story we have developed around Human Technologies, which asks us to constantly consider that we deploy technologies throughout our lives, and that we ought to do so with thought and sensitivity. In this case it is the cognitive and social technology of language on which we are focused, but this lens can be applied meaningfully to a wide range of human contexts.

Image credit: speech bubble thumbnail from Pixabay, under public domain

Apple MagSafe vs MagSafe2 vs USB-C Chargers

At my school, we loan students Apple laptop chargers fairly regularly. Usually, the loan process takes longer than it needs to, because we need to find out what kind of chargers students have. Turns out, few of them know the chargers by their official Apple nomenclature: MagSafe, MagSafe2 and USB-C. The poster below aims to help educate and remind students what they have:

Printable Version (PDF)


Narrative First

Somewhere towards the manic end of last school year I read a copy of Neil Postman’s The End of Education (recommended and loaned to me by my Head of School, Toby Newton). Whilst there were many parts that I enjoyed, and some that I disagreed with, the book had one take away that, to me, makes it an invaluable read for any educator.

The section in question is to do with the narrative of school, and ties in to the title of the book, in which “end” can be taken to mean either the point of education, or, if we get things wrong, the demise of public education as we know it. Postman’s contention is that schools generally provide only a weak narrative for students to buy into, leading to poor motivation and learning, and the possible undoing (or “end”) of schools as vital, public institutions. The specific prevailing narrative is identified by Postman as economic utility, and in short results in students getting the message that if they study hard they can grow up to become useful economic agents within the great capitalist machine.

Needless to say, most students have little short term interest in the economic utility story of their elders, and so schooling gets off on the wrong foot. Whilst this narrative is something that I had perceived, and subsequently rallied against, it is not one I have ever fully overcome in my own classroom.

Where the book opened my eyes was in helping me make explicit to my students what I believe to be a much more powerful narrative. This narrative, which we might call empowered me, teaches students that the best reason to learn is to render comprehensible and amenable a complex and uncertain world. As Thomas Harris makes clear in his seminal text I’m OK, You’re OK, it is the very essence of childhood that children feel “not OK” within the world, being, as they are, physically small and lacking in agency. The empowered me narrative, then, asks students to confront their not-OKness, and offers them educational options to move towards OK (ideally using student choice, self-direction and gradeless assessment).

How might this look in practice? Starting back this year I will use a simulation game in order to place students into a not-OK state, from which they will be given clues in the move towards OK. The game, which my pilot testing shows drives kids crazy whilst drawing them in for a closer look, will be followed by an unpacking of what my classroom offers, in terms of empowering them.

The hope then, is that my classroom, and the way students come to experience it, is restructured to look something like this:The only thing I’m left wondering is why it took so long for me to make explicit a narrative that was always there, hiding just out out sight?

Student Self Direction

One of the key design goals behind the Free Learning pedagogy was encouraging students to direct their own learning. Based on the experience that many students lack the skills to make the most of pure inquiry-based learning, Free Learning makes use of a map of varied learning opportunities to challenge students.

Over the past week I have been introducing the students and teachers of Year 5 and 6 at ICHK HLY (our Primary campus) to Free Learning. I have explained to students that the starting map is very small, but that I will be adding units as we go:

In particular, we are aiming to add units based on what students want to learn, in order that they feel themselves to be important agents within their own learning. The mechanism here is that the evidence that students submit to their first unit (Free Learning For Students, circle in blue in the map above, as an entry point) is a list of goals for ICT learning. By collating this list we have managed to put together the following list of units that students wish to have access to, and we are now in the process of building them:

  • Computer Teardown & Rebuild
  • ChromeBook Basics
  • Coding
  • Digital Citizenship
  • Building A Website
  • Computer security
  • Google Drive
  • Wifi troubleshooting
  • Web browsers
  • Keyboard shortcuts
  • Game design
  • Research skills
  • Drawing online
  • VR world building
  • Lego
  • Inside a phone
  • Chemicals in electronics
  • 3D Printer
  • Digital Art
  • Installing Adobe Flash Player
  • Makes Makey

Given that these students are between 9 and 10 years old, this list constitutes a remarkably diverse and interesting self-directed curriculum. Being a typical teacher, I had underestimated their own self awareness in terms of what they don’t yet know, and was taken aback by the extent of this list. In reflecting on this process it strikes me that this offers us a useful model to apply to the challenge of engaging students and encouraging agency, self-direction and motivation.

Now to start building some of those units…

I Hate Grades

I recently gave a 2-minute nano presentation at 21st Century Learning’s Hong Kong TeachMeet, entitled I Hate Grades. It was a pleasure to be able to speak openly about something very close to my heart, and the reception from the assembled teachers was really positive. Unfortunately the event was not recorded, and one of my colleagues commented that he was said to have missed it. So, as the next best thing, I have done a Photo Booth recording of essentially the same content. Whilst it’s hard to be quite as dynamic and engaging in front of a laptop, the video still gets the key points across.

A broader view of my approach to assessment and curriculum, and how it compares to mainstream education is available in my previous post, The Educator’s Delusion.

Poetic Truth

As part of our Year 8 Human Technologies curriculum, we are asking students to consider not only the nature of truth, but also different types of truth (e.g. scientific, poetic, individual, etc). As one activity on poetic truth, we played students four songs, and asked them to sketch out a response to each song based on what they felt. Some students opted to write, and some to draw. One particularly interesting response came from Bethan, who really provides insight into how she responded to the songs. I wonder if the composers and musicians would recognise Bethan’s interpretation of their own poetic truth.

The songs are listed below, after which you can see Bethan’s work (click for a larger image).

The Educator’s Delusion

Read even a small amount of economics, and you might start to believe that human beings have things pretty much worked out. At its heart, economics views us as rational beings that make consistent, logical decisions on how to live. Quite in opposition to this, psychology sees humans as considerably less competent. Spend a little time studying cognition, and you will see that examples of fallacious thinking abound. In The Art of Thinking Clearly, Rolf Dobelli exposes and catalogues 99 varieties of bias, fallacy and general failure in human thinking and decision making. This book offers us what we really need: a chance to introspect honestly, and reassess the way we think of ourselves. Perhaps our self-assigned pedestal is just a little too sizeable?

Ultimately, and this is a side note, I am given to trusting psychologists over economists, E.F Schumacher excepted. The simple reason for this is that economics (at least practiced by governments and corporations) is predicated on the absurd axiom that it is possible and desirable to obtain unlimited growth in a finite environment.

As educators, we work within long-standing traditions of belief, structure and human interaction, most of which we happily take for granted. These frameworks work well enough for younger students, on the surface at least, where there are certain foundations that we wish to build. As kids get older, however, they quickly start to backfire. For most educators, educational doctrine is so deeply rooted that the soil we till is essentially bound, preventing better thinking from penetrating and gaining hold. Even those espousing “21st century learning” generally don’t scratch through the top soil of educational assumption.

Given the right circumstances, which are vanishingly rare in schools, we might start to see through some of the smoke and mirrors, and see the harm that schools are doing. And not just in some extreme variations of industrial schooling (sorry Hong Kong), but in its very makeup. Perhaps we were lucky enough to have worked in other fields before we became educators. Perhaps our principal encouraged us to read Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, opening the door to “heretical” thinking. Perhaps we had one or two amazing teachers, who threw chairs, climbed on tables and shook us out of student complacency. Just maybe we work in a wonderful, small school, filled with amazing people, that is ripe for change. Perhaps, we don’t have to teach to a test, rank students or in other ways steal their dreams and humanity.

I count myself very lucky indeed to be in this exact position, at the rare confluence of a set of circumstances often beyond my control. The result? I have finally, fleetingly seen beyond what might be called The Educator’s Delusion. And I’d like to pin it down whilst I have the chance, because there is a risk I might never have it this fully in my sights again. Presenting at 21CLHK9 this weekend, and engaging in conversations with many other educators, has brought things into rather clear focus.

At its heart, what we share, and what is so dangerous, is a terribly misguided belief that that it is possible, in any meaningful way, to assess real human learning. There. That’s it.

Oh sure, we can write an exam that most people will fail, because it is based on isolated and arcane knowledge that is divorced from most people’s every day lives. And yes, we can carefully structure a curriculum to pump the required knowledge into students. And if we must, we can examine them before what they have learned has leaked away. And then we can check the box…our job is done.

In our wake, however, we leave a destructive scene filled with anxious husks of young humanity, living lives of disembodied learning, preparing for a working world that no longer meaningful exists (and it’s not getting any better). We produce a population of competitive grade seekers, ranked against each other, immersed in themselves and incapable of genuine living. At my worst, this is exactly who I am, a product of the system I now find myself trying not to perpetuate.

Under the guise of rigour the “best” educators follow best practice (what we might call backward design, as per Richards, Jack C., 2013): lay out a range of learning outcomes, plan experiences and content that meet the outcomes, teach through these plans, assess learning, give feedback. And repeat.

At each stage within the cycle, and across cycles, standards are met, boxes are checked and everyone is happy.

If, however, you return to students a few weeks after the final summative assessment of any particular chunk of learning, you’ll discover something deeply unsettling but mostly overlooked. Something we all know, but which we rarely let our minds dwell upon. Our students ultimately remember very little of what we teach them. Sometimes they can’t even recall the topic, let alone the details we carefully, cleverly built in.

And this is what we do, day in, day out, year after year. It is the educator’s delusion, that we can fill an inherently leaky vessel with disembodied information and expect it to be retained and stay fresh.

For me, in my professional practice, I’ve decided to finally call time on this one. The delusion is dead, its grip loosened. I no longer give grades, I don’t insist on a set pattern of learning and I won’t require mastery of a corpus of deadening knowledge. That’s not to say I’ve given up on teaching or learning: in fact I am more excited than ever about both.

What it does mean is that I am finding more interesting, enlivening, deeper, slower and more fun ways for students to learn. It means I am seeking to promote, not dampen, student agency and action. It means I am giving up direct control over learning, and focusing more more on setting the scene. Free Learning has offered the first steps in this, but there is much more to be done.

My question then, for anyone serious about teaching and learning, is this: have you seen through the educator’s delusion?

Credit: bucket image by Jon Pallbo from Wikimedia Commons, under Public Domain

Educator, Programmer, Author