Schools: Invent The Next Era Of Education

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pic3By Tom March.

Many in society have personally experienced the power of technology to enrich their learning. Such things as social media, on-demand audio-video streams and an unlimited array of newspapers, magazines and special-interest communities make this the best time for accessing learning opportunities that humanity has ever known. So those less familiar with schools cannot fathom why technology has yet to transform classroom-based learning. Conversely, those in schools can appreciate this as what is referred to as a ‘wicked problem’; one seeming to defy solution. If it were so easy would not two decades – and radical advances in technologies – be enough to make progress? The unfortunate truth is that, during this time, educators have busied themselves tinkering at the edges when what is needed is a re-invention of ‘schooling’.

As personal technologies shift the world from one-size-fits-all to a different reality where it is expected that everything is ‘fit-to-one’s-size’, how can a model of schooling based on mass production hope to accommodate the unique, idiosyncratic and ultimately more effective ways people learn best when given full access to digital resources? It cannot. So rather than debate issues that only play on the surface of how teaching and learning is structured and conceptualised in schools, educators must get on with inventing a solution suited to the facts of the present conditions. And the conditions are stark in their contrasts:

  • Where goals were once for basic literacy and acculturation to industrial era work, society now demands basic skills, but also much more advanced characteristics required by a globalised world, such as critical thinking, creativity and an appetite for lifelong learning.
  • Where schools once lacked resources and had to rely on readers and textbooks, students today have access to infinite resources that will only become more personally tuned as the current era of data and algorithms progresses.
  • Where conformity was once the attitude that allowed a smoothly humming assembly line, the complex and ever-changing demands of competition and fluid job requirements accent the value of innovation and self-initiative.

These are but a few of the obviously different conditions confronting students today. So more of the same or trusting in change will not achieve the goals educators envision for rich, personally meaningful learning for each student because the platform upon which schools have been built actually supports an entirely different structure. It is as if last century’s train tracks are expected to carry broadband signals or defunct, printed encyclopaedia’s to be up to date with yesterday’s events. A new model is needed.

Designing a School’s Next Era Ed

Through decades working in and with schools, coupled with cycles of research, trials, hunches and new mistakes, the author has come to see that six pieces are essential if a school is to re-invent itself for the next era of education. Each aspect exists because without it, educators are still tinkering with the old model. Although the model is not linear, ordering the components is useful, as many build on each other. These days, enough schools have some or most of the pieces in place to create their own solution to tweaking mass-production schools to liberate personally meaningful learning. Before getting into details for each aspect, it is helpful to see the full process in one view, with directional questions for each:

  1. Vision – is it articulated and shared?
  2. Evidence – exactly what does achievement of the vision look like?
  3. Learning theories – are research-based pedagogical models that promote such student achievements used?
  4. Curriculum 2.0 – are units designed to leverage the pedagogical models and personalise ICTs?
  5. Review – has a systemic review process that ‘closes the loop’ for continuous improvement been embedded?
  6. Smart digital environments – are technologies being used to increase efficiencies and enliven Curriculum 2.0 as well as tap into data analytics to support systemic review?

This creative and invigorating professional engagement is represented by the following graphic.

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Given this overview and graphic, many readers will ‘get’ much of why these components are recommended. However, to establish the case, the following goes through them at a high level, with other writings to detail each aspect further so that schools might find potential guidance on, or confirmation of, their current practices. The main thing to appreciate is that these six steps provide a framework and process designed to prompt schools to invent their own unique approaches based on their local needs and values.

1. Vision – Seeing the Future Today

This paraphrase from Alice In Wonderland captures the importance of a vision: “If you do not know where you want to go, any road will get you there.” Thus, like much of the rest of the framework, the need for an articulated and shared vision is common sense. Of course, most schools have a vision, but unless it is both specific and owned by everyone, it will not drive change. Schools might find they actually need to develop a more detailed vision for student success that focuses on observable behaviours related to teaching and learning. A valuable exercise for all Australian schools is to review the description of successful learners in the Melbourne Declaration because its points are both inspiringly useful and meant to underpin NAPLAN, the Australian Curriculum and MySchool.

2. Evidence – The Twofold Importance of Evidence

Once a school has articulated a rich vision for student achievement that is shared by all staff, students and parents, it is ready to focus on generating evidence that can indicate achievement of the vision. The first word in the last sentence bears repeating: ‘once’. It is not enough for some vision to be on the school’s website or displayed prominently in the office. For the vision to do its job, the school’s goals for students must be authentic and owned by all. None of the amazing change possible will happen if educators merely go through the motions. How will personally meaningful learning for all students be achieved if work is superficial?

Evidence is the important second step for two main reasons. First, in the spirit of ‘backward design’, if schools really hope to make the vision a reality, they should develop measures that demonstrate its realisation before they race off to find and create strategies intended to achieve it. In other words, if the measures for evidence are well-designed, their fulfilment provides validation that the vision has been achieved – at least to some degree and that can be improved upon over time.

Another reason for setting evidence as the second step is that testing communicates what really matters. NAPLAN illustrates a fundamental truth: the very act of assessing defines what is important. Literacy and numeracy are only two of the seven General Capabilities meant to permeate the Australian Curriculum. How many educators could list the other five? How many parents or students could name even one? And yet few would deny the importance of capability in ICTs, critical and creative thinking, personal and social capability, ethical understanding and intercultural understanding. Thus, even though all seven apparently warranted inclusion in the Australian Curriculum, it is clear which ones matter.

If a vision is at all aspirational – which it should be – then a school will want to identify an array of sources for evidence. Among these could be authentic performances, real-world productions and student-managed processes, all of which contribute evidence as to whether and how students are achieving the rich goals of the school’s vision. Consider setting performance tasks and learning productions across the year levels so students can demonstrate their achievements with increasing sophistication as they mature and develop their abilities. Accompanying these performances and products is evidence such as journals, drafts and reflections that illustrate student-owned learning. Finally, by spreading such comprehensive measures across multiple years, students can see them as milestones of their accomplishments undertaken when they are ready, not more tasks assigned by others.

3. Learning Theories to Get Schools There

Now that what successful achievement of the school vision looks like in student performance has been defined, the school needs to explore and choose research-based learning theories that support these achievements. The point is to select systemic models that have been tested and found to reliably deliver intended outcomes. That these are theories and not popular initiatives or new ideas is essential. Theories promise if-then hypotheses: if you desire x, then do y. Theories are not merely promising ideas to be tried and cast aside when what is hoped for does not occur. For example, a school might seek to promote student collaboration and problem-solving, so choosing Sugata Mitra’s Self Organised Learning Environments (SOLE) model provides a framework and hypotheses that can be locally tested.

Notice how this third step, coming after the previous two, is very different from what schools often do, namely, choose promising, popular strategies hoping that these will produce positive results. But which results were they after? Such efforts often continue for a while before being replaced by another new, good strategy. In this way, school change is probably better described as school churn, where lots of activity (and staff exhaustion) is evident, but yields little data of specific desired outcomes. By choosing learning theories that target the goals in the vision and can generate appropriate evidence, a school will not only be using good strategies, but good strategies that are more likely to produce the intended results.

Plenty of excellent learning theories and related research in psychology exist for schools to investigate based upon their visions and identified evidence. Here are a few:

  • Intrinsic Motivation as codified by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan
  • Curriculum Mapping as championed by Heidi Hayes Jacobs
  • Understanding/Schooling by Design from Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe
  • High Reliability Schools by Robert Marzano
  • Cultures of Thinking from Harvard’s Project Zero team
  • Sugata Mitra’s Self-Organised Learning Environments

Note that these approaches are based on achieving specified outcomes, some distinctly different from others. A major benefit schools will experience from this step is that they enjoy a focus missed in many schools that jump aboard various, and sometimes contradictory, bandwagons. Schools that focus on a few initiatives gain power from shared professional goals and avoid staff burn-out.

4. Curriculum 2.0 – New Routines for Classrooms

This step brings educators to a paradoxical experience, where life in a next era classroom will in many ways be ‘like what they have always done’ while at the same time ‘unlike anything they have done before’. Given the school’s rich vision for demonstrable authentic student achievement and a research-based theoretical framework, educators are likely to find many common classroom practices less than satisfactory. Consider: the inefficiencies of class discussions where only a few students talk; the apt-to-miss nature of one-to-many ‘chalk-and-talk’ lectures; the randomness of outcomes in group activities; and the pointlessness of research where text and images are copied with little cognitive engagement. Yet such practices can be found in today’s schools, where covering bulging content can dominate over students’ internalised understandings. With the three precursors of vision, evidence and learning theories in place, the above common classroom practices are transformed: collaborative documents enable 100 percent participation in class discussions that are quickly generated and digitally archived as a baseline upon which to build; thinking routines linked to rich media resources engage students in deep analysis and interpretation; challenge-based learning using jigsaw roles sees learners working interdependently to achieve real-world goals for a global audience or online mentors; and self-chosen, ongoing investigations allow students to pursue deep learning in core disciplines, leading to sophistication that highlights the inevitable interdisciplinary linkages.

Many of these strategies have been around and used for decades, but have failed to transform schools because they could not alter the dominant mass-production model that renders the human and unique subordinate to logistics and uniformity. This gap between what is possible, but regularly done by only a fraction of teachers, speaks to the purpose and importance of a model such as this Next Era Ed suggestion: after over two decades of access to a range of empowering technologies that have revolutionised aspects of society’s wider culture, schools seem immune to change. In a Curriculum 2.0 framework, where students’ self-directed goals drive learning – rather than the calendar and timetable – technologies are readily used to super-charge learning.

The best teachers already know exactly what to do once liberated from the time-driven machinery. The challenge they face is to maximise this expertise and scale it across whole schools. The best place to achieve this scaling is in the collaborative design and implementation of curriculum units: the nexus of school goals, capstone assessments, pedagogical frameworks and related strategies. These elements can all become parts of a whole-school template for units of learning. Any collaborative online document will work to support this, but better yet is a software system that provides a higher level view above the silos of Key Learning Areas and year levels that arise when these units are not part of an integrated, school-managed system. With smart, curriculum design software, it is easy to see which units employ specific strategies that might achieve particularly favourable outcomes and drill down to classroom activities and assessments. As a school, teams and faculties can build on such successes.

5. Review for Continuous Improvement

Great teaching and learning has always happened in schools around the world, but in isolated classrooms and without clear definition of what made it great. Educators therefore had little possibility of replicating it. When the school community speaks the same language of vision, evidence, learning theories, best practice AND has a regular process for reviewing what is working best, then these gems can be shared, imitated where useful and polished to empower a school to pursue a sure path to achieving its vision. Many of the previously mentioned pedagogies make such reviews integral to their model. Look for such regular review processes and build them into the school’s calendar of activities. This is the realisation of instituting professional learning communities that can be drivers of best practice and action research. To find time to make this a possible, consider shifting from labour-intensive, paper-based school reports to the more efficient and effective continuous reporting that smart software now makes possible. With more professional energy available for implementing continuous review processes, schools will find that an appetite for improvement develops that is contagious and stimulating. In fact, before long, people may look at the vision and wonder if it cannot be updated, made more connected to the real world with even more authentic and sophisticated performances that celebrate unique expressions of joyous and deep learning.

6. Smart Digital Environments – the Fruition of Learning

The astute reader will have observed that Curriculum 2.0 made reference to technologies and that the review process is expedited when supported by smart software. In fact, each phase of this Next Era Ed model is enhanced when supported by a smart digital environment. For example, a school’s vision for student learning can be readily articulated so that it is easily embedded in any appropriate rich task and curriculum unit. Similarly, the underlying learning theories can be linked to curriculum units and measured for effectiveness against actual evidence generated by students’ uploaded products and related journal entries. Obviously, a robust online platform will facilitate student interactions, collaborations and access to rich media resources. What makes this digital environment smart is that, in the best case scenario, all this digital activity resides in one database which can be plumbed through analytics to provide increasingly useful and granular data to support a school community’s upward spiral of continuous improvement on achieving what it values most.

The values-driven, evidence-measured Next Era Ed model provides appropriate contexts where technology is used in the service of goals and educational best practice, not the reverse that has been seen so often in the past where technological solutions were force-fit to traditional instruction. All of this is made possible when schools identify student success based upon their goals and local needs and work a model, intent on making only new mistakes. Thus, here is a possible a solution to the wicked problem of how to achieve real school change: the end of the one-size-fits-all approach with real opportunities to tweak mass-produced schooling to liberate personally meaningful learning. For all students, by all teachers.

Conclusion

Every school will have made considerable progress on some phase of these six core steps. It is important to begin with these successes and then gently assess what might have been missed or poorly implemented. One of the most successful schools that took steps along this journey actually realised that what they had done in year one of a five-year plan failed to connect with staff members and that the school’s learning area leaders needed to re-group, plan and begin again. Such decisions and actions are wholly justified and re-paid when the next steps set a secure foundation for whole-school growth and continuous improvement. It is time for schools to trust their local needs to set a direction, identify successful achievement and choose research-based models that support what their community knows is most important.

This article concludes with a plea for a bit of kind intolerance on two fronts: educators can no longer accept reluctant colleagues’ arguments that the status quo is good enough nor over-exuberant tech evangelists’ faith that new gadgets or apps will miraculously get a school where it needs to go. The obvious truth is that unless schools act with focused determination, the vision for technology’s benefit to education will continue to be realised only in isolated classrooms, not across schools, and only for the lucky few. Not good enough.

 

Tom March frequently keynotes, writes, facilitates workshops, consults with schools and designs software, all focused on shifting education from mass production teaching to personally meaningful learning. He has recently joined Hobsons Edumate as principal consultant for teaching and learning.

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