Technology Scores

I find moving quickly exhilarating. Especially on water.

I have been fortunate as a teacher, examiner and inspector to be able to travel to various schools in different countries.

I delight in children’s desire for learning, for exploration and for answers, whether in upriver Borneo (moving quickly on water) or rural India. I find education fascinating, filled with beauty, transformation and extraordinary people.

Blue skies delight me, too.

One blue-sky day, however, still touches me with anger.

I had been teaching English at a school for nearly 2 years. A small staff, less than 35. Just over 400 students with an age range of 12 to 18.

It was a good school, nationally ranked in the top 10 performers.

It was non-selective. It did not single out kids because they had done well at primary school or they came from a certain background.

It did, however, stream students when they arrived.

Rightly or wrongly, the idea was to stretch students who showed ‘real’ academic aptitude by putting them all together in one top-class.

Conversely, students who were struggling were put into smaller classes and taught at a slower, tailored pace.

In some ways, streaming was an attempt to meet students where they were.

I taught top and tail end classes.

On occasion, the so-called ‘low-achieving’ classes managed to achieve very high grades. Top classes were always expected to do well.

On this particular morning no amount of blue sky, delicate warmth, or any number of cheerful faces could soften my anger (and I hope by-proxy yours, too.)

I should say I don’t count anger a virtue; but I do think there are times when it is justified, especially when it leads to focused corrective action.

That morning I had gone to visit a class of students I was particularly fond of. I wanted to see how they were doing. It was the top-class of the year; playful, engaging, wanting the best and looking for it.

But that blue-sky day the class was mute. The atmosphere reeked of despondency, with an edge of frustration and panic to it. What was wrong?

Looking at the writing on the board set off instant alarm bells. Where was the teacher? He was not around. Like a number of teachers I came across in subsequent years, he was one of those who simply didn’t bother to turn up to lessons.

What was on the board? Gobbledygook. Beautifully written prose (copied by one of the best students in the class from a textbook in hand) taken from a Masters level textbook written in the 1950s for engineers. Utterly inappropriate intellectually, culturally and academically. Useless to a class of 16-year-olds preparing for a national school examination in technology only six weeks away.

I asked where the textbook was. I wanted to see it. It was in the top draw of the teacher’ s desk. The instruction to the class for the semester had been to copy and memorize it. Every lesson. Copying a 1950’s engineering textbook. It was the only teaching resource the class had. It had been sourced from an unwanted pile of books, thrown out by a university library, ending up in a second-hand bookstore and now becoming the primary learning tool of a class of teenagers.

Any teacher worth their salt forms a strong relationship with students. I knew each one of these children, how ready they were to learn and just how good they were at doing so. Their technology teacher neither knew them nor cared for them. He abused their trust, failing them and their parents.

To cut to the chase. All the students in that class failed their technology examination, lowering their overall school grade. Most of the same group achieved distinction in English and Mathematics, and excelled in all the other subjects. I had gone straight to the principal with the offending textbook, but by then it was too late.

A disciplinary process began.

The technology teacher was unable to change his ways. After another year of wrecking children’s sense of worth and ability in ‘his’ subject he was transferred to another school. Something that happens in every country in which I have ever worked.

Short of sexual misconduct, it is very difficult to get a teacher deregistered and out of the classroom.

Of course, multiple questions attend this incident. Why did it take so long to discover the students’ predicament? How come neither a parent nor a child had said something to someone? How is it possible that teachers in nearby classrooms had not noticed the absence of the technology teacher during a period of months? Remember, this was a good school.

One reflection, and a sorry one, is that even in successful institutions, failure happens. But that is no excuse.

I want to highlight several developments that I think are extremely important in education generally, and that will make laziness, incompetence and irresponsibility among teachers rare.

Firstly, I notice with relief that there has been a shift in policy away from a naive belief that children are blank slates and that we can dump stuff in front of them that they assimilate—the sort of thinking that lies behind handouts or notes on a board, copied from an irrelevant textbook. I like the sense that we need to carefully identify markers in learning and understanding, and then help students navigate their way through these, like movement across sunlit water.

I like, too, the growing literature among policy writers that questions the need for strict regulations on contact time (hours taught per week), calendar days and school holidays (a throwback to times when children harvested crops with the family), and for the need to meld together student age and school grade (K-12).

But best of all, I like the dawning realisation that technology will revolutionise, indeed is already revolutionising education. Particularly with regard to assessment—one of the three pillars in education (curriculum; teaching and learning; assessment).

I have written on formative and summative assessment previously, and will do so again. If the technology teacher I referred to earlier on had used formative assessment effectively, then it would have become very quickly apparent that his students were not learning what they should have been, and his teaching was dreadful.

What is formative assessment and how could it have helped? Formative assessment is a type of regular assessment process designed to show how well a student has understood a specific concept and whether they can apply the same concept in a variety of different situations. We can also use it to see how much information or data a student doesn’t know.

The key point is, we use formative assessment to highlight what a student doesn’t understand rather than what they do understand. This enables us to reframe the concept they are struggling with and to teach it in a new way. Secondly, we use formative assessment to evaluate the effectiveness of our teaching (evaluative assessment).

I saw this superbly done by one school I visited in a northern suburb of Auckland, New Zealand. The principal, working with his physics department had developed an extremely comprehensive system for recording students’ results; he and the whole department then used the data to determine which teaching strategies had been effective. Over a period of three years, the physics teachers improved the quality of the learning in their classes and consequently the final terminal grades of most students taking the subject. The value-added learning was startling (taking into account students skills on entry to a class and exit).

My point is technology is already having a tremendous impact on education and learning, and this will only accelerate in the next decade.

It is normal for homes, schools and children to have access to iPads, handheld devices, laptops and desktop computers. Each of these will play a role not only in entertainment and communication, but also in assessing what we know, what we don’t know and the best routes to learning something new.

In closing, I want to acknowledge that research remains uncertain as to the full value of formative assessment. I also want to say a word about summative assessment.

For many parents and readers, summative assessment is the only formal assessment they have known. And it still prompts the occasional nightmare. It is sometimes referred to as ‘high stakes’ or ‘terminal’ testing (meaning it is a test that takes place at the end of a block of learning, usually as a final examination). On the whole, it is an unpopular form of assessment. There are some calls to phase it out.

I think it has value and don’t think it should be phased out. Compelling research indicates summative assessment forces us to learn things and to hold onto them effectively. It also suggests preparing for such tests maps onto the real experience of the workplace where high expectations and time pressures are normative. My preference is to use a range of instruments for assessment.

Take away points: A revolution is happening in education. Arguably, the most powerful factor in this revolution is the growing presence of digital technology. Such technology can very effectively support the teaching and learning process in assessment. Assessment is not only useful for telling us when a student has grasped a particular learning competency, but also how effective our teaching is. This applies at home and in the workplace, too. Feedback from our children or work colleagues often tells us less about their failings and more about our own lack of clarity, imagination and energy when it comes to communicating. Digital technology will provide no excuses for teachers who are unwilling or unable to change, and who repeatedly shipwreck students’ futures.

High impact research with an excellent introduction that include notes on high stakes testing and summative assessment: Woessmann, Ludger and Paul E. Peterson. Schools and the Equal Opportunity Problem. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007.

A high priority read. A new report on technology and education, focusing on assessment. Preparing for a Renaissance in Assessment:

Something to provoke wonder: Horowitz plays Chopin, Fantasie-Impromptu Op. 66:

With reference to Turner’s Fighting Téméraire, a marvellous book about boats, fights, new technology and transitions: The Billy Ruffian: The Bellerophon and the Downfall of Napoleon.



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