Saturday, April 25, 2015

A view from the plane we are building...while flying it!

"Building an airplane while flying it"? 

MLE, MLP, SOLE, PBL - all acronyms for the hottest trend in education since...well, I don't know when.

Student agency! Collaboration! Innovation! Creativity! These are the hash tags you will see trumpeting the virtues of said acronyms all across the interweb.

But why the big fuss? Why the rush to tear down walls, push multiple teachers into a shared teaching space, and put students in the driver's seat for learning? Haven't we been here before?

Time to lay my cards on the table. I am a natural born skeptic. My guiding principle in all matters is, 'show me the evidence'. You won't find me sculling litres of organic kale and elderberry juice while rubbing the soles of my feet with garlic and ginger in an effort to 'detox' my system. My personal detox system came ready-installed, thank you. It's called my liver.

When it comes to educational theories,  we teachers have been subjected to more than our fair share of snake-oil peddling over the years. Brain gym, anyone? Learning styles? All roundly denounced as 'neuro-myths' by the people who should know shonky 'research' when they see it - neuroscientists.

So what about this 'modern learning environment' malarkey? Is it merely another over-hyped  but under-researched theory? For the conspiracy theorists out there, is it driven  (as some suggest) by some nefarious political agenda? 

At this stage, I'm not sure of anything. No, that's not accurate, I am pretty sure of one thing. The 'E' part. The physical environment (what we used to call the classroom) is not what this is about. Sure, acoustic panels (oh, yes please!), break out(!) rooms, bean bags and other accoutrements make for a pleasant space, but alone, they do not represent the ethos of a 'modern learning environment'. (Though that being said, working in a three-way open plan with none of the noise reducing technology, can be, ah, 'challenging' at times.)

I have spent much of last term, and most of the holidays reading, watching videos and discussing/debating the merits of this approach to teaching and learning. I was trying to ascertain the driving force behind it, the efficacy of it, and how to actually pull it off!

Two things struck me immediately. First, this movement toward student-directed learning seems in no small part, to be a backlash against the onerous high-stakes testing regimes that blight education in the USA and UK. This is the industrial model of education in all its crumbling glory. Students are merely ciphers in a system. Units of production. An aggregation of results.  A generalisation, granted, but not an inaccurate representation of the system as a whole. The much-vaunted' no child left behind' initiative being regarded as a dismal failure.

Blogs and articles written by teachers in the US in particular, make for depressing reading. They yearn for the freedoms we in NZ take for granted, such as having the flexibility to interpret the curriculum in ways that are meaningful to our students. (Even a cursory glance at the new teacher Facebook page  (Primary Teaching (NZ)) reveals high levels of creativity, innovation - and excitement - in our approach to teaching.)

As an antidote to all this high stress, high stakes teaching and testing, some educators decided that it was time to put the joy back in learning - and not just for the children either! Thus was born the 'tinker movement', 'unschooling' and the variants of project-based learning, where students could embark on projects that sparked their curiosity and gave them a purpose for learning. Levels of engagement increased dramatically, and so it is said, academic achievement.

Of course there is more to this approach than the above examples. Sir Ken Robinson, Sugata Mitra and others have been talking about harnessing creativity/'agency' through student driven learning for some time now. All advance compelling arguments for embracing this approach to learning.

This last point brings me to the second thing that struck me: an apparent dearth of quality evaluative research on the merits of the approach. There is much anecdotal evidence, but at this stage in my investigation, I have yet to see solid evidence.  By this, I am referring to longitudinal comparative studies published in peer reviewed journals.  I put the question to both the Primary Teachers, and the MLE and Collaborative Teaching Facebook pages, but all I have received is zealous anecdotal far.

There is much to this approach that fits me like a glove - the tinkering, the project-based learning, the capturing of students' interests/curiosity to guide learning. I get the notion of collaboration  as a vital ingredient to the enterprise - assuming you get to collaborate with colleagues who share a passion for the job, who are creative, and of course, who are willing and able to share ideas/resources etc.
I know only too well that when students get to collaborate on a project, they can have learning conversations at a level that a teacher simply cannot touch.

No argument from me on any of the above. No, at the very great risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, some of my concerns relate to the emphemeral nature of teaching: the relationship you have with your class, and individual students.

 If you are not seeing the child negotiate their way through their learning in most contexts, how well can you say you know them? We all have students who are, for example, maths geniuses, but who can't form a complex sentence to save themselves. What about the student who struggles in all academic subjects, yet reveals an extraordinary ability in chess? What about the level of trust that is developed by that comprehensive daily contact? I have been told to not think about my students as MY students, but OUR students. Noble aspiration, but how does this depth of understanding/trust translate with 75+ students? 

I am not saying this an insurmountable issue, I am just wondering how we protect and preserve these relationships. Does having several teachers overseeing each student actually enhance the development of a full understanding of a child?

Last, my concerns relate to logistics/systems. If students are creating their own timetables, how do we ensure they are getting the learning they need? Surely the work-avoidance ninjas have more scope for invisibility if not closely monitored.  Does tracking student movement/work out-put add another level of complexity to the endeavour? (Yes, if work is completed in Hapara, tracking of output/achievement is made easier. But what about non-digital work? I have seen some examples of how teachers are doing this at other schools, but my uncertainty remains.)

The whole idea is predicated on the notion that when students have clear goals, they will earnestly set about achieving them. In fact, its said that they will actively seek the learning required to meet them.  Now, I see how this could work if we are truly letting the students pursue an area of interest, and they encounter an aspect of their project that requires some just-in-time learning. The motivation to ace that skill will be high. Even if it means finally nailing those fundamental maths strategies so that they can do more advanced calculations.

However, this assumes that all children have a burning passion they want to pursue. From my experience, by the time children get to 9 or 10 years of age, that relentless curiosity about the world that characterises their earlier years, diminishes (for a variety of reasons...) in some children. Re-igniting that spark can be difficult. Sometimes it is simply a matter of kids not knowing what they don't know. It takes lots of exposure to new and interesting ideas to pique their curiosity. I am only too happy to provide this - I have always done it. 
Before the internet was a ubiquitous force in all classrooms, I used to bring in gadgets, wasp nests, photographs, and all manner of curios for my students to explore. This usually inspired students to bring their treasures in too...I still do this, but now I also show video clips, graphics and such - apropos of nothing but the pleasure in finding things out.  Whole days were often given over to this if it captured their hearts and minds.
 My hero, the physicist Richard Feynman, explains this beautifully:
So if we do not have a 'class', and we are timetabled up the wazoo, where do we find the time to share and investigate these incidental, but deeply engaging and inspiring ideas/items?

But possibly more importantly, what about our ESOL students? What about students on the autism spectrum? Those with ADHD? Dyslexia? These children require much more structure, support and understanding than most. What about the introverts for whom noise and collaboration are kryptonite to their learning processes? (And I'm not just talking about the students. I have seen recent research about the negative effect of open-plan office spaces on individuals who need solitude and quiet to be effective at their job. As an introvert - not an oxymoron, there are many introverted teachers - we just come alive with our class/people we know, this is something that resonates deeply with me. While I enjoy my colleagues greatly, I really miss the option of shutting the door, battening down the hatches with my class and enjoying some quality quiet time.)

Finally, and this may be an outmoded notion, how do we achieve the holy grail of curriculum 'coverage'? To say nothing of National Standards...

So where does all this leave me? Still wary, still skeptical, but nonetheless hopeful that this could be the way forward. 

I concede that there is a very real possibility that I am missing something. I hope that by putting my concerns out there and opening them up to scrutiny, someone, some day soon, will lay my doubts to rest with the answers I seek.

I may be skeptical, but I remain open-minded, awaiting evidence that will give me the compass bearings I need to fly this airplane while building it in the sky.


  1. Goooo Belinda. I knew it. I love what I have just read. I love the way you are questioning what is going on in education and saying 'Hold on a minute, should we not be asking deeper questions. I also can relate to being the child in the classroom who yes can cope with all the noise and busy learning that can happen in a room, but also must remind teachers out there about having a quiet cave for me to sort out my thinking in a quiet space. I love seeing room with nooky corners set up for children who need those spaces. I hope that other educators respond here to your disruptive thinking so that we may have an ongoing discussion.

    1. Thanks, Sonya. 'Disruptive thinking', eh? Who knew? ;) But yes, I am genuinely concerned that I have seen few of the issues I raise addressed with anything but anecdotal zeal. The answers may be out there - they're certainly hiding in plain sight if they are...

  2. Great reflection Belinda - I am writing a new book exploring in part the struggles schools face when they look for evidence. Even if "research says" is wildly waved around, dusted over and drizzled across your newly "acronymed spaces".

    "From a school’s perspective there are two issues at stake - to what extent is teaching and learning in this school, research driven and evidence based? and secondly if we claim our pedagogical practice is research driven and evidence based - what is the quality of the teacher and researcher evidence being used to make this claim?" Hook 2015

    It is the secondly bit above that captures my attention in the text.

    "Regardless of the method used any claims for optimal outcome for an instructional method should be able to be replicated with other groups of students in other schools.

    The school’s position when using educational research to drive pedagogy becomes problematic when the research cited is not based on randomised control trials (RCTs), meta-analyses, effect sizes and when a limited number of third party, direct replications of the research exist. Caution must be exercised even when looking at academic peer reviewed research claims as the number of independently replicated studies is very low. A recent report of the publication history of the current top 100 education journals found that only 0.13% of articles were replications (Makel and Plucker 2014)." Hook 2015

    And if "0.13%" is not enough to disquiet you - you may be startled by the sharing of this educational research in the Atlantic. It explodes many of the anecdotal claims and tropes used to support those "acronymed initiatives" in teaching and learning. And calls into question the usefulness of some of the measures and instruments we use in schools -

    From Does Student Motivation Even Matter?

    Loveless relied on data from the past 15 years of domestic and international assessments to conclude that:

    On measures of student engagement, several countries noted for their superior performance on a much-cited international test—including Korea, Japan, Finland, Poland, and the Netherlands—rank below average on levels of student interest.

    Increasing a student’s enjoyment of reading doesn’t correlate with improved reading scores, or at least such was the case when comparing student surveys to reading scores on an international assessment.

    On measures of student motivation, many countries saw their math scores decline even though their students reported higher levels of motivation.

    Meanwhile, some countries saw scores jump even though their students voiced less confidence.

    Domestically and abroad, girls rule in school, a finding that is consistent with previous studies. Finland owes its heavyweight education status to its girls, as the nation’s boys trail by a wide margin behind the academic achievement of their female peers. In fact, every wealthy country—including the United States—has an education system where girls outperform boys. What’s really surprising is that by adulthood, that gap disappears.

    Unwarranted assumptions and anecdotal zeal are lurking all over

    1. Ah, the voice of reason! Thanks for you feedback, Pam. Yes, the word 'research' seems to confer a halo effect to all manner of ideologies/theories masquerading as 'science' - education being no exception. The student motivation vs achievement - interesting reading. On face value, it seems counter-intuitive - given how much it flies in the face of received wisdom on the matter...

  3. You raise some really important questions Belinda, and no Sonya, I do not find these disruptive, but questions and pondering that need to be discussed and revisited many times. We are undoubtedly in a time of a paradigm shift in education, even bigger than this, probably at the emergent stage of an educational renaissance. How we navigate this period is certainly challenging, particularly as it is just emerging. Illuminated texts replaced by the mass produced illustrations from the printing presses eh Belinda - what a loss. Yes, undoubtedly we must be mindful of protecting what we know and value as effective in our environments.

    1. I agree with Wendy - Belinda's reflection on "acronymed initiatives" in education is not so much "disruptive" as it is an example of effective pedagogy in action

      The post is a teacher action (reflection) promoting student learning - and is an action actively promoted in pages 34 and 35 in the NZ Curriculum framework. Main stream - status quo stuff

      If only more teacher practitioners asked serial "whys" about their teaching and learning. Have some schools using the HookED SOLO Describe++ Map for just this kind of thinking about "doing school"

      "Effective pedagogy requires that teachers inquire into the impact of their teaching on students"

      1. Identifying what my students need to learn next - what is important and therefore worth spending time on given where my students are at - in my class or even across the school. The curriculum asks that we prioritise learning needs of our students.
      2. Identifying strategies (evidence-based) that are likely to meet these needs - help students learn

      Across the year I hope to read more about:
      3. Use these strategies and approaches with students.
      4.The outcomes - the effect of these strategies on the learning need of students - and any unintentional outcomes.
      5. What you will do next - the consequence

      P.S. I do not have any whale oil blubber but reckon I could find a slide rule or two if we continue to have second thoughts about how and why we use technologies in school.

      P.P.S. This caught my attention this morning - file under "zealous anecdote" Belinda - “You have a weird feeling inside yourself that makes you feel happy.”

    2. Ha! Love it! Thanks for the affirmation, Pam. I don't mind the term 'disruptive' in the sense that in my own shambling way, I am disrupting the flow of rhetoric on the matter! Yes, I plan to document how I pick my way through this 'there be dragons' territory. Keep those slide-rules primed...

  4. Fabulous questions Belinda. I wouldn't call them disruptive, but I would call them constructive. I too have concerns over the noise levels in MLEs that have not been properly sound proofed. I have these concerns as I find noisy spaces challenging, and I know many students do too. I also value the quiet of my own classroom after school to plan and mark and create, and I am easily distracted by other staff and the urge to gossip - which is why I'm often at school later than others for the solitude. I'm rather possessive of "my kids" and feel those relationships I develop with "my kids" are vital to their success as learners and my personal job satisfaction. I also have concerns regarding my flexibility to change the programme as the teacher when I have to share students and work in with other teachers. One of my strengths as a teacher is spontaneity and running with the teachable moment (which is why I hate writing a plan down that some principal's demand you stick to)!
    Where I do differ with you Belinda is over self directed learning. While I haven't done this in a multi-group setting, I have kind of used this in my single cell room. It usually involves me touching base with the whole class first thing in the morning and each child telling me what they will achieve that day. While I know the more organised kids will touch base with me regularly throughout the day off their own bat, I make sure I target the ones who are the "avoiders" and keep them moving regularly.
    This is my reflection on MLEs: Modern Learning Environments - how the furniture and space work with learning.

    1. Thank you for recounting your experiences - and your insights. Your blog made for interesting reading re physical environments.

      As a big fan of open space, I've always tried to push desks to the edges of a room to minimise that cramped feeling by opening up floor space. Currently, we have chosen to go with not have a desk for everyone in our open plan space - there are bean bags, lily pads, and some standing benches. Students can work wherever they feel comfortable.

      Interestingly, when we surveyed them about what they liked and disliked about the shared space, many said they wanted more desks! Noise was a big negative for most (even though we have one-to-one devices, and at any one time nearly half the students are 'plugged in'). But as I say, this is in no small part due to the fact we are not in a purpose-built space - that is coming.

      I think there is little argument over value of well-thought out spaces - as the research you cite suggests. What I am seeking is robust evidence that the whole package - environment and 'MLE pedagogy' - actually has the resoundingly positive and sustainable impact on learning and achievement the anecdotal evidence suggests.
      In the meantime, my colleagues and I continue to read, think and discuss the merits (and challenges) of this approach.