Is Education at a Cross-Roads?

Gary Stager, Will Richardson, and Stephen Harris, the keynote speakers at ELH SchoolTech 2014,  are profiled in this article, Is Education at a Cross-Roads? by Rowena Ulbrick.

In an era of rapid technology development, it’s hard not to conclude that education is at a crossroads. World experts on the interaction between technology, pedagogy and innovation believe we live in an era where students are potentially learning more at home than they are at school because that is where they have better access to information and connection to other people all over the world.

While it is true that computers and internet connectivity is today available from most schools in Australia, arguably, these technology tools have not changed the fundamentals of teaching and learning such as curriculum, classroom architecture and methods of student assessment.

Most would agree that, in Australia, we are doing a good job of leveraging technology in the education of our children in the modern world, there is also broad consensus that we could be doing so much better. All it would take is a cultural shift. That change towards more self-directed learning has to be driven from the highest levels of policy and curriculum administration.

Doing School Differently

Will Richardson, a US-based author and recognised thought leader on the value of technology in education, recently delivered a keynote presentation at the Expanding Learning Horizons (ELH) SchoolTech 2014 conference in Lorne, Victoria, where he spoke of the need for a radical rethinking of the role of schools in the education of our children.

“I would argue that the fundamental purpose of school is being challenged,” Richardson said of the technology revolution that is taking place. “It is no longer good enough to just think about ‘doing school better’. We really have to think now about doing school different.

“Of course, we don’t want schools to go away. They are one of the most important institutions in our community and they serve a critical role in our society. It is not about abandoning them but this is a very interesting moment in history for educators all around the world in regards to the way that the web and a lot of other technologies are beginning to influence the opportunities that we have to work with our students.

“It is presenting us with extraordinary and interesting new challenges and it is not just happy days for educators. It is really hard for us to get it right and it should be really hard for us because today, learning with technology is not an option.

“This generation is the first one that does not have an option. For them technology is ubiquitous. If we are going to be honest about it, for most educators, our understanding of technology is behind that of the students we are teaching”

The Intensity of Students

Meanwhile, Gary Stager, himself an internationally recognised educator, speaker and consultant, also gave a keynote address at ELH SchoolTech 2014. He also believes that, so far, too much emphasis has been directed towards using computers merely to improve traditional education outcomes such as graduating scores or literacy and numeracy standards and not towards true innovation.

“Technology is creating all sorts of opportunities for kids to do extraordinary things,” Stager said. “I am not surprised that kids are doing extraordinary things with technology but I am surprised at how surprised adults are at what our kids are capable of.

“I don’t care about using computers to improve education by .02 per cent. I want to see educators use technology as a means to amplify the potential for our kids to do extraordinary things, to get passionate about learning and to express their knowledge in ways that were unimaginable even just a couple of years ago.

“Young people have a remarkable capacity for intensity and it is incumbent on all of us as parents, as educators and as citizens to build upon that capacity for intensity otherwise it manifests itself as boredom at school, anti-social behaviour or, perhaps worst of all, wasted potential.”

“As far as I am concerned, there is no such thing as a kid that is no good at school. That is something that I think no teacher should ever say. What we do often see, however, is an acute intensity imbalance between students and teachers. I believe all educators need to think about how they can use technology as a tool to raise the intensity levels in their classrooms.

“What we should all want is for kids to wake up in the middle of the night counting the minutes until they can get back to school to work on something that matters to them. Something that excites them or that they wonder about.

“Similarly, I want to see an education culture where teachers wake up every morning and ask themselves before heading off to work; ‘how am I going to make this day the best seven hours of the kid’s lives?”

What we should all want is for kids to wake up in the middle of the night counting the minutes until they can get back to school to work on something that matters to them. Something that excites them or that they wonder about.

Gary Stager

Bridging The Chasm

A third keynote speaker at ELH SchoolTech 2014, Stephen Harris, principal of the progressive, Sydney-based Northern Beaches Christian School (NBCS) pointed out that the time is clearly upon us when there has to be more action on adapting the practice of teaching and learning to the new world.

Harris said that the majority of schools – certainly secondary schools – now have 1:1 laptop or device programs and campus-wide wireless Internet access. Most kids have phones and/or access to the Internet at home so the conversation on how to integrate teaching and learning with these phenomena has to accelerate rapidly.

“The shift to computer-based education actually happened 20 years ago,” Harris said. “We have had computers in schools for 35 years. We should not be discussing at all if it will happen – it did happen.

“Learning was democratised in 1984 and here we are in 2014 still discussing these things. That is pretty critical reality because if we truly recognise that we have actually gone past an historical post and we are still floundering to work out what to do, well, then the problem is us as educators. The kids are already there with what they do when they are not at school.

“It was former British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George who originally said something along the lines of ‘You can’t cross a chasm in two jumps’ which is what I think we are trying to do here.

“We are at a point in time where we know where we should be going so we just have to do it – we can’t take lots of little steps because we will fall down that chasm. I think our role now as educators is now to say ‘okay, we hear the ideas, now we have got to use them’.”

Richardson argues that the way we currently judge our students’ success or failure at school is based on a variety of partisan success scores while schools are measured on whether they have moved up the ranking or doing better than similar schools.

“I think there is a real paucity of innovative ideas in schools because our focus is solely on moving a needle very slowly up and up,” he said. “If that is your sole focus, then you are just doing more tests on kids as a means to getting them familiar with the sorts of tests that ranks are on.

“In many ways, this system is fundamentally broken and spending all of this time and energy on getting better at something that is increasingly irrelevant is problematic, if not doing a real disservice to kids.

“As educators, we all need to start thinking about how we make our own practice different. We need to see the world differently and find how we can bring innovation into our classrooms and, then, to try and figure out ways of culturally changing in ways that will allow those good new processes of innovation to scale.”

If you are going to engineer genuine change, then you have to be prepared to make some mistakes along the way and learn from them.

Stephen Harris

So How? (Just Do It)

All three of the these thought leaders spend their whole lives in pursuit of better education outcomes through leveraging technology and social trends so that students are better prepared for life in this new world. Each has strong opinions on how the required change to core education methodologies can be initiated.

NBCS’s Harris thinks there is far too much prototyping in adopting new technology and new thinking in education and not enough commitment to change.

“If a teacher comes up with a new idea, get the entire school community around that idea and implement it,” Harris said. “If it doesn’t work perfectly start tweaking it and observe how it might be adjusted in that context.

“Decisive action is where I think schools have fallen down quite badly. As a profession, we get stuck on this process of trialing projects with year 2 in term 2, for example, before assessing it and abandoning it if there is not a quantifiable result.

“To me, that is just rubbish. If you are going to engineer genuine change, then you have to be prepared to make some mistakes along the way and learn from them.”

Copy Industry – Educators Lagging Behind

Harris also uses the examples of great change in other industry sectors to demonstrate the power of change.

“Look at how technology has totally transformed the airline and banking industries, as an example,” Harris said. “There is no comparison to what has happened in education. We have computers and a range of other great technology but we still have someone standing out the front of the class.

“Despite the introduction of technology, we haven’t fundamentally shifted the model of teaching. Instead of maintaining a status quo, we should have empowered the kids immediately and said – this is your tool and together we are going to engineer revolution.

“We haven’t done that because we are too scared that the scores are going to go down and all those other legacy parameters. We have not made the fundamental shift from control to empowerment which I believe is necessary to fully embrace the power of technology and, until we do, then nothing is going to change in the classroom.”

Change The Culture

Stager also believes that educators at both the policy level and at the coal-face have to steer schools towards a total transformation in culture.

“There is zero evidence to support the notion that holding onto the controls will fully unleash the knowledge and power of technology to engineer change,” he said. “It is not a rational for you to wait until you start to see scores continuing to go down before you think about changing the way you do things.

“I concur with the theory that schools and teachers should not be afraid to think outside the square, to try something different and should not be stifled by failure. We have to embrace progress. Fear is the enemy of progress yet so many of our education institutions are built upon a foundation of fear of failure.

“What if we had a more optimistic view of why we gather for seven hours a day and what our schools look like for the kids that we serve?”

Good culture definitely makes the pathway easier but this isn’t apparent in many schools. Often there aren’t those immediate champions and incentives for change.

Will Richardson

Overcome Resistance To Change

Richardson pointed out the role that the natural resistance to change so often demonstrated by humans is a major challenge for educators to overcome.

“It is really hard [to change] and I think what we have to realise is the idea that when you introduce something as potentially transformative as technology into a school environment then it is going to be and has been in some cases, treated like bacteria,” Richardson said. “As a natural reaction, the system really wants to expel that bacteria because it realises that if that instance is allowed to grow and evolve it will take over.

“To overcome this, we really have to have the courage of our convictions. If we understand what good learning looks like, if we understand the potential that computers and technology bring to amplifying the potential of kids to learn, to create and to do amazing things in the world, then we have to be courageous and willing to push back against the resistance and to keep working towards that goal.

“This is an incredible moment in history and we can’t drop the ball and waste the opportunity. We have to work through the issues and find that conviction to make it happen. Understanding what we are up against is a big part of that.

“Good culture definitely makes the pathway easier but this isn’t apparent in many schools. Often there aren’t those immediate champions and incentives for change so we as individuals have to accept the challenge and say we are going to attack it in some way to try things and to encourage others even if it is difficult to do so.”

Intimate Learning

Stager opined that too many teachers misinterpret the value and meaning of “personalised choice” and because technology allows for significantly improved self-direction.

“I like to think that teaching and learning can and should be more intimate,” Stager urged. “Whether that comes from the learner or from the material or through other people under some form of negotiated process is up for debate but I think there are some problems with what we do and what is mistaken as personalised learning.

It is my opinion that the purpose of schools is to democratise access to experiences, materials and expertise. Schools have a responsibility to introduce children to things that they don’t yet know they love and that is not the same thing as forcing everybody to do the same thing at the same time.”

Richardson said that you don’t need technology to have a great experience in the classroom but with what amounts to “almost the sum of all human knowledge” at their fingertips and access to over 2 billion other people to collaborate with, he espouses its potential as a vehicle for innovation in teaching and learning.

“Technology amplifies your ability to access the abundance of information and reach out to sources of knowledge,” he said. “Don’t try to define what your values are in terms of learning and be really clear about what your vision and philosophy is around them.

“Then think about how you can make that happen more effectively and more often in your classroom. It may be with technology or not. It doesn’t matter. If you have it that is great and you can do wonderful things with it but, on its own, it is far from representing a totally different way of learning.”