A computer is an aid(e), not a teacher

Technology provides us with some wonderful tools to enhance learning. As a result, there has been a very strong movement to have us believe that technology can almost take over education. Hence, we have the rise of the Khan Academy and its clones, as well as MOOC’s, webinars and the like.

These technology-based forms of learning can only replace a didactic  form of teaching. They are often an excellent way of front loading, or providing knowledge, and are a (usually) more engaging version of the “sage on the stage” in the classroom.

Where technology currently falls over is assessment – we are not quite yet at the stage at which a computer can evaluate open-ended responses to questions. Consequently, the overwhelming bulk of assessment of online courses is by multiple-choice tests, which is all that most software applications can handle. This tends to reduce such courses, regardless of their other content, to a glitzy method of “chalk and talk”. Assessment of more open responses requires a substantial human commitment behind the software, which possibly defeats the purpose.

At the moment, the optimum use of technology might be giving students some provocative questions, some suggestions of applications and resources and then getting out of the way.



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Too high, too soon

A recent dinner party conversation set me thinking about when education changed. In many systems, schools and classrooms around the world, education has been synonymous with “success in life”, even if most of those places seemed to be failing many young people. When I was a student, many of my friends hated school and left early. However, for them, there were other educational opportunities, as well as almost full employment, and most have done well for themselves during their lives. So, even though teachers and parents tried to make school high stakes from about year 8 onwards, for most young people, it wasn’t.

I was fortunate enough to have begun teaching in a country town, just out of Melbourne, at a time when educators had a say in what was going on in schools. However, my school seemed to be untouched by the wonderful ideas about learning floating about at the time, but I still loved teaching science.

Way back then, it was possible to actually educate* young folk up until the end of year 10. There was a curriculum to follow, of course, and it was pretty much “chalk and talk” with some experiments thrown in, but there were so many opportunities for following up on students’ questions and interests. The “serious” stuff of preparing students for exams was left until the final two years of secondary school.

That all changed sometime after I moved to my second school. This was a school in which colleagues talked about student welfare, learning styles and interdisciplinary learning, all alien concepts at my previous school. It was a fabulous learning experience.

However, out in other schools, there seemed to be an emerging opinion that students were “not ready” for years 11 and 12. This often seemed to come from teachers who only taught the senior years, and felt that their colleagues who taught year 10 and below were somehow letting them and the students down. The inevitable consequence of this notion taking hold was that year 10 became “serious” – schools even began to teach the year 11 curriculum in the second half of year 10, putting pressure on year 9 and downwards. Gradually, year 10 became high stakes.

The flaw in the idea that students are often deemed to be “not ready” for the next stage of schooling is to ask the question “What is the purpose of that next stage of schooling?”. Surely, it is for young people to acquire the attitudes, skills and knowledge expected for that stage? Strategies for reliably determining prior knowledge should provide better starting points for teaching and learning than page 1 of the textbook. However, finding out what students already know and can do is a waste of time when teaching and learning involves all students ploughing through “the curriculum” at the same time, via textbooks.

The trend of moving curriculum back a level has been aided and abetted, albeit unknowingly, by politicians, parents and many teachers who still cling to the myth that high exam marks bring success in life and that, therefore, education is about high academic achievement.** In New South Wales, for example, there is a growing trend of secondary schools becoming “selective” based on the dubious proposition that a student’s academic achievement will be best in a school with only “good” students. So, for many children, grade 6 is now high stakes.

In Australia, with the introduction of NAPLAN, the national literacy and numeracy tests, grade 3 has now become high stakes for some children, because many schools are using it for the unintended use of sorting children.

Then, there is the push, in many parts of the world, for children as young as two years old to begin “school”. These pre-kindergartens are often not places in which children simply learn to explore through play and socialise with others – they do “serious” learning. Unfortunately, in many kindergartens and pre-kindergartens around the world there is a push for students to learn to read and write or learn a language before they actually begin primary school. There are institutions in which 4 year olds are streamed! There is no time for play-based learning, because education is already high stakes at this age.


Mercifully, there are schools and school systems that view education as an opportunity for young people to learn the attitudes, skills and knowledge (in that order) needed to become useful world citizens. Children learn to think, appreciate and take action in these schools, and, as a consequence, still perform at their best when faced with the artificial academic challenges that conventional education systems throw at them. Educators in these places know that success on an exam is a very poor indicator of success beyond school (whatever “success” means). Teaching students to think, to create and communicate are recognised as the essential skills in today’s societies. As well, many stakeholders in education somehow  fail to recognise that resources for learning are no longer confined to schools and libraries. In a world in which we seem to be, increasingly, pulling the wagons into a circle, it is to be hoped that a focus on authentic, individualised student learning will create a love of learning and not a fear of failure and loathing of schools.

*  As in, teach them to think about things that were of interest to them and relevant to their present and future lives, and, sometimes, to even deviate from the curriculum to do this.
**Go here for one perspective on the pursuit of academic excellence.


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Home Investigations

Two recent news articles about homework reminded us that the “homework question” has been settled in too few schools. Homework, the so-called “flipped classroom”, cooperative learning and constructivist pedagogy can come together in a blindingly simple, effective way that is win-win-win for teachers, parents and students.

When the classroom is orientated towards students answering substantial questions about “big ideas”, then homework becomes the vehicle for finding out things, for gathering “the facts”. The classroom is then the space in which students collaborate to answer the important questions and to extend their thinking to higher levels by analysing, predicting, hypothesising and exploring further, in an environment in which the teacher facilitates investigation. For example, instead of learning about World Wars, the larger idea of “conflict” (or, perhaps, better, “peace”) can be addressed from multiple perspectives. A question such as “Is it possible for us to live in peace” can be asked, and students can be given a range of tasks to perform at home. For example, with appropriate scaffolding, they could

  • research a particular conflict
  • interview family/friends/neighbours about significant conflicts they know about
  • interview family/friends/neighbours about their thoughts about conflict and peace
  • watch the evening news, read a newspaper (including digital editions), etc.
  • find and watch videos on the internet
  • , depending on the focus of the class

Good scaffolding would consist of one or two questions that enable students to explore the issue. Some questions might be factual, but others might be about larger issues and/or opinions. And, not all students need have the same task/topic. Back in class, the information discovered at home can be shared by students with each other and the teacher.

With an integrated approach to teaching, learning and homework, students benefit from doing interesting, relevant tasks both at home and school. Parents can be more actively involved, stress free, in working with their children at home. The teacher does not have to grade tasks than cannot be verified as the student’s own work[1] and do not have to be tied up with making videos, constructing resources, etc – the teacher’s role is primarily designing good questions and creatively finding resources.

[1] Note that tasks that count towards a student’s graded achievement should only ever be done in class, so that the teacher can verify their authenticity.

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Asking the right question

In our work with educators and schools to improve teaching and learning, we find that many struggle with the transition from the traditional “sage on the stage” method of teaching to inquiry-based classrooms. One of the most common “blockers” is “What will the parents think?” Many parents, although they want the best education possible for their children, still see education the way the media portrays it, and the way they were taught, themselves – the teacher at the front of the class encouraging/exhorting/ inspiring/threatening/etc the students into learning. Although they want their children’s school to be better than the one down the road, they get nervous when their school does something different. They are not always comfortable with change.

So, any good school, in the process of educational improvement, invites the parents to be partners in the journey, informing them along the way and listening to their concerns.

We used to ask parents “What do you want for your child?” This was useful in persuading them that student-centred learning led to more positive, sustainable outcomes. However, we realised that we could have actually been reinforcing, in many minds, that what they still wanted was the traditional high marks, leading to a good university, good job, success in life, etc – the model which facilitates disengagement of young people world wide.

The question we now ask is “What sort of world do you want your child to live in?” This opens up the dialogue about the important things being discussed by educators nowadays, such as higher-order thinking, grit, mindset, passion, authentic learning, etc. It suddenly becomes much easier for parents and teachers to realise that young global citizens will, as they grow as learners, achieve their best, academically, as a matter of course. They will also be far more likely to develop the requisite attitudes, skills and knowledge to make a positive difference to their families, communities, countries and planet.

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Using what we know

We know that we all learn in different ways. We also know that we all have different abilities at different things. We know that, with appropriate practice and commitment we can get better at most things.

If we apply this knowledge to schools, then some things become self evident:

– young people need opportunities to learn by different methods, at different rates

– young people begin at different starting points, so it makes sense to find out what/where these are and plan lessons accordingly

– young people need motivation and support to learn in their own way, and coaching to learn in new ways

So, planning for effective learning entails knowledge of the learning styles, abilities and personalities of the young people in our care, and developing programs that allow for as much individualisation as possible.

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Dare to be different

We have a crisis of leadership on our planet, but no-where more so than in education. Governments all over the world appoint non-educators as their ministers for education, and often these people want to “improve” education by going back to a halcyon time in education that, for most “victims” of schools, never existed.

But we cannot blame the politicians. We know that excellent schools tend to be student-centred (with an inquiry-style, holistic, real-world approach to teaching and learning) and have clear visions and/or missions to produce graduates who will make a positive difference to their communities, countries and planet. Not everyone will agree, but it is highly probable that our present global issues (environmental and economic) have been contributed to, in part, by the pursuit of individual academic achievement at the expense of personal character development. It seems logical that, if you can transmit good attitudes to young people, they will do their best and achieve success in a range of areas, including academic. The converse is, too often, not true.

Around the world there are countless thousands of school leaders who are working very hard to make their schools good. However, as someone once said (Steven Covey?) it’s all very well to be leading your followers through the jungle, as long as you are in the right jungle.

An effective leader is someone who challenges the status quo, not maintains it. In many school systems and schools the status quo must be challenged, because it is damaging our societies – the industrial model of education is not appropriate for many of today’s young people (if it ever was), and contributes to the alienation expressed, negatively, by young people all over the world. They need to know that they are valued and respected, so that schools that “expect” obedience to antiquated systems and traditions in which students “know their place” need to “get a grip”.

Unless he/she is very fortunate, a prospective school leader who has a history of doing something “out of the box” and challenging paradigms is either going to put a lid on those tendencies or expect to remain in the lower ranks – are there job descriptions for school principals that ask for skills such as “the ability to challenge orthodox educational paradigms” or “demonstrated ability to implement rapid educational change” or “challenge the Board of Governors in the interests of student learning”?

Someone once said (and we would be grateful if someone can let us know who) something along the lines that if you set out to create as many barriers to learning as possible, you would end up with the modern secondary school. So, as Sir Ken Robinson preaches, we should not be tinkering with the “accepted” model of schooling, but replacing it with something else altogether. We need many more courageous, visionary educational leaders, so that education does not continue to slip further behind the needs of its students.

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Traditional Values?

We love working with teachers to improve the ways in which they plan for their students to learn. There is so much we now know about learning for us to use so that almost all young people can achieve success at school that carries through into their lives.

In this instance, “success” does not mean the traditional view that good grades lead to good tertiary institutions that lead to good jobs – this approach, in our view, is a contributing factor to many of our global problems. If young people, and their teachers, are caught up in the pursuit of personal excellence to the exclusion of anything else, then when and where do they learn to look after other people and their planet? Some learn this, but the evidence is clearly there that many don’t.

Success means having the attitudes/values that enable young people to do their best at school, but also have an awareness of others and the world around them. Success means having the skills and knowledge to take action to improve people’s lives. A person who has strong values about working hard, paying attention to themselves and the world around them, caring for other people and nature and taking effective action when needed will, of course, achieve their optimum exam results. Those who strive for only personal achievement are unlikely to share those values.

There are many schools which have the admirable aim of “teaching” character/values to their students. There are only three ways in which teachers can encourage their charges to share their values: model, model and model.

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