March 10, 2006

Naace Conference Blog � Computers in Education: An alternative view

An interesting debate going on across several blogs. I joined the trail at English360, which made me ponder, is this the same debate/controversy as in this critical AmazonUK review? (scroll down to the second review).
Which is itself a return to the debate raised in such books as All Must Have Prizes. The debate was also broached in a recent conference on IT in the UK: Naace Conference Blog - Computers in Education: An alternative view

The Stephen Downes post which so riles English360 is here, and it's not hard to see why: Downes' post is short and bad-tempered and easy to take issue with. Terry Freedman responds here, and does a good job of disentangling some of the many threads that are wrapped up in this fascinating and necessary debate.

Aaron Nelson picks up English360's thread here,
and from there I went to Palimpsest Redux, and thence to Blog of Proximal Development.

On balance I think Freedman's piece the best in that he seems to understand a) the value in both sides of the argument, and b) the value of the argument itself. As someone who attended the NAACE conference and listened to John Clare commented:
I found this a really good session, not at all depressing. I think it is vital that we be challenged about the impact that the huge investment has made. And some of John's points about technology for technology's sake may be valid.

There are so many issues involved in this that it would take me several hours to pick them apart, hours which I don't have, so I'll just mention a couple of quick points that occur to me. Terry Freedman writes:
Although I didn't mention tests in my original post, we have to acknowledge that we do live in the real world. People at large judge students, teachers and schools by their test results. It's all very well for us seasoned educators with nice jobs to be all touchy-feely about this, but in the meantime young people have to jump through all the hoops.

First, let's unpack "touch-feely". I understand the dangers that Freedman is referring to (I think), but at the same time, teachers are the ones who spend the most time involved in and reflecting on teaching and learning, and the more we do so, the more involved and complex a matter we see it to be. "Touchy-feely" may well be a gross short-hand for a realization that there is a lot more to education than schooling, there is a lot more potential in the human spirit than is measured by tests. Going back through John Gatto, John Holt, to Maria Montessori and perhaps further back even, dedicated, observant, investigative teachers have discovered that most schools ask too little of children, not too much.

Second, let's examine "jumping through hoops". A big problem with this is that, as Yoram Harpaz points out,
the gap between goals declared by the approaches ... and goals displayed in their patterns of instruction.... Charles Silberman noted in his once popular book Crisis in the Classroom that the decisive mistake of teachers is that they think students learn what they teach [Silberman, 1971, p. 181]. The analysis proposed here adds another decisive error: that teachers think they are teaching what they teach. Teachers teach content; but the students learn primarily from the pattern of instruction the teachers use and from the messages inherent in it.
(My emphasis). In other words, students learn that "education" means jumping through hoops... not learning anything of value. I see this year in, year out in my own classes: students who, from the outset, don't expect to learn anything of value (they seem to have given that hope up long ago) but only aim to pass the course; indeed, they are just "doing the time". "How many classes can I miss without failing? Have I missed too many classes yet?" These are the vital issues, not whether they've mastered the content or the target skills.

Poor teaching is poor teaching, whether it hides behind the veil of "progessive" or "traditional". To say "traditional" does not imply "better" by definition. One could say, for instance, that Japanese school education is "traditional": rows of students all facing one way, one-way-type teaching in the transmission model (or what Illich called the "banking model"), a high-stakes testing culture. The result I see every day: apathetic students who not only have little curiosity or academic initiative, but also who don't seem to have really digested much of the knowledge they are supposed to have "acquired". In the interests of "teaching to the test", teachers have rushed through transmission of knowledge and given students isolated, fragments of information, not knowledge or understanding, and have moreover convinced their charges that all that matters is remembering enough of these fragments accurately enough to pass tests. Many students are disillusioned and some are disgusted and angry: "It's not education, it's just memorizing" complained one. "We never had to think about 'why', just memorize stuff." They display a rather vague, shell-shocked hold on factual knowledge, and certainly very poorly developed critical thinking skills and evaluation skills (how to distinguish between fact and opinion, how to evaluate the accuracy of information by cross-checking and validating sources, for instance). Is this the value of a traditional education? I'm not in the slightest bit impressed, and neither are my students.

1 comment:

Cleve said...

Back to the first paragraph of your post: you can imagine how bad I felt after writing that, given Stephen's very next post. I wasn't so much riled as confused, as it didn't have the usual Downes character. I just feel that the points that Downes objected to are actually valid points, whether or not you agree with them. I actually agree with Downes' point of view, as a understand it from his body of thought, not what he wrote in that particular post.

But regardless, Clare's points need to be addressed. If we are to change people minds, we have to first understand and respect their ideas, and speak to them in a way that is "reasonable" from their perspective. If not, we won’t engage with them and won’t open up their thinking. We will fail as change agents. So one of my problems with Downes’ post was mostly one of practicality (the same reason I went overboard rejecting the “violence in the classroom” meme last year – it’s counterproductive).

I'm on thin ice because my experience is in teaching business English to adults, and I own my "school", so I can assess/measure however I want to. As a result I don't feel the frustration the edutech community feels, because I don't have ridiculous tests rammed down my students' throats by a clueless admin weenie.

With those caveats, I have to say that I don’t see any way that anyone learns without good feedback and good assessment. We have to give kids honest feedback on their learning and on their performance. As I wrote before, the problem is that most of the time the feedback isn't good, as you and James and Aaron point out. James Nelson is right on emphasizing that we have to truly engage in the learners work, not just write “comma-splice” in red pen, and Aaron’s right that it isn’t valuable to just write “B-“. But note the teacher that is Nelson’s positive example: “He actually had something to say about what you wrote, not just ‘see comma-splice on pg. 4’, but he connected with your ideas (and, yes, he would point out the comma-splices as well)". The word “connection” is key.

We need both red pens and connection, and we need both grades and connection. Red pens and grades without connection are what’s bad, not because red pens and grades are bad, but because anything is bad without connection. Kids suffer because of the lack of connection, not because of the red pens and grades. They need and deserve honest feedback. They must know that the comma-splice is wrong.

Now, as to Downes’ post and Clare’s demand for measurable gains that are replicable and scalable, well, that’s a lot harder to figure out. Like you I found Freedman balanced. But “Having a personal, self-defined identity and being able to express one's thoughts and feelings might not alter a math test score one iota, but honestly, who cares?” is scary. Believe me, I care: if the engineering student who takes that math test then goes on to build the bridge that my family drives over, then whether or not that student can express their feelings is not all that important to me. What's important is the bridge building skill that hopefully has a correlate in the math test (if there’s no correlation, that’s a separate, and important, issue.) Of course I want that student to be emotionally healthy - I just don't think that that is the math teacher's primary responsibility. This may be a cheap point, but I think it gets to the messy real-world gist of the issue.

Wrote too much – but thanks for the stimulating post Marco Polo.