EdTech to the rescue?

The woman was dispirited. It was a sweltering evening and she was out of a job. No more money to send home; no more support for her family. Very bleak.

A paraffin lamp flickering was the only noise in the room. We sat in a circle of armchairs and couches round a low-lying, rickety old coffee table, staring at the ground, wringing our hands, thinking of something to say to her. Nothing came. You see, she had been dismissed from teaching for being an outstanding teacher. And this was a first for us.

But it wasn’t just her. Throughout Malawi, some of the most successful, hardworking, teachers, civil servants, engineers, nurses and businessmen had, by presidential decree, been directed to go home. To go back to their village and district. They belonged to the same tribe; but were scattered throughout the country. Now they were ordered home, courtesy of the country’s leader, Hastings Banda. People from tribe X.— stop work! Go home!

Overnight, the local high school lost half its staff. They packed their bags and boarded toppling and overladen buses, departing with the first light of morning.

The school closed for an ‘indefinite period’ to work out how it was going to continue operate. It re-opened and did badly.

Exactly the same thing nearly happened in another country where my wife and I were living.

There was one tribe from the northeast corner of this particular nation, with a very different language to those spoken by the rest of the people, and quite a different culture. It was an inordinately successful tribe. Its men and women, like those from that tribe in Malawi, dominated the civil service, medicine and professions. Their sons and daughters excelled in schooling. Their success provoked envy. But thankfully no harsh policy was introduced to curb their achievements; instead, clever policy nurtured their commitment to the public good. They weren’t sent home. They didn’t migrate overseas.

Questions around culture (and language) are provocative. Especially in education. A lot of attention has focused in the last five years on the effect of teachers. On quality teaching and learning. I have written policy on the subject for New Zealand and am familiar with its assumptions. One area needing more scrutiny, however delicate it might be, is the role of culture in relation to achievement. Moving the focus to culture is something that affects both teachers and students alike.

Just recently, in Australia, there has been much discussion around the success at school of kids from Indian and Asian homes—first generation kids, whose parents don’t speak English.

They’re achieving the strongest sets of results in K-12 nationally. Not just in math and chemistry, but in English, too. In Melbourne, the country’s second biggest city, 90% of kids winning places through selective entry tests to top schools are from non-English speaking backgrounds. Is their success due to tiger mums? Or does it have something to do with certain narratives integral to their culture? Is it both, and other factors, too?

As grades and academic achievement at K-12 slide in much of the West (benchmarked internationally), one solution has been to relax and become more ‘inclusive’—to accept lower standards and expectations as the new norm. Tough curricula and assessment just breed an elite and exacerbate social inequality. We need to democratise education. Or so the argument goes.

Chris Woodhead, former Chief Inspector of schools in England, asks whether a ‘dumb down’ response constitutes the education our children deserve. Like me, he sees education as a matter of justice. He lists multiple examples across core curricula to illustrate his point. He highlights, for instance, an average type of test question from a national school leavers’ examination for 16yr-olds in 1963: A particle moves from rest in a straight line and after t seconds its velocity is (3t2-4t) feet per second. Calculate the distance which the particle travels in the interval of time from t=2 to t=5.

And the leavers’ examination for 2008? It poses simpler challenges: Work out £1.70 x 5.

Woodhead calls the evacuation of expectation in English education a ‘desolation of learning’. Not a true democratisation: just a straightforward failure.

He cites philosopher Michael Oakeshott: ‘educational engagement is necessary because (1) nobody is ‘born’ a human being and (2) because the quality of being human is not a latency which becomes an actuality in a process of growth. If we deny our children the opportunity to participate in the conversation of mankind [a decent education] we deny them their humanity.’

I differ in that I think we are born human beings. But I agree that one of the tasks of life is also to become human beings. And that this doesn’t happen automatically, it takes grace and effort—perhaps a good part of which is spent on education—formal and informal. I agree with Woodhead and Oakeshott also when they urge that our kids must have the opportunity to be stretched: to be introduced to great thinking, discoveries, theories, conundrums, music, art and literature. But this might bring us around to the culture question again. What was it, for instance, about the Swiss and the Scots? What was peculiar to their culture that led them to be so successful historically?

Instead, we see, in places like the UK, the required pass rate that used to sit around 50% for math has sometimes dropped to as low as 20%. A sort of £1.70 x 5 approach to higher learning. A dumbing down. Especially at College and university level entrance.

This is not happening in Shanghai, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong or Japan. Their math and science results consistently outstrip every other nation in the survey. Their kids reliably achieve high marks in hard tests; sometimes finishing K-12 three years in advance of Australian, New Zealand and American students. There is no slackening of expectation in these cultures. Quite the opposite.

In excusing ourselves, we say that the math in such countries is learned by rote, and the learning can’t be applied. That kids from Japan or Shanghai are not taught to be creative; they are weak on identifying problems and solving them, etc.— These arguments are mistaken.

An examination of TIMMS and its requirements might lend some strength to the notion of dead testing, but a close look at PISA results shows Shanghai, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, etc.—children achieving the same high levels of success as they do in TIMMS. The significance? PISA is designed to evaluate applied learning. Our kids are no better at this than they are at the basics. But their colleagues in Asia are.

As I mentioned earlier, it is incredibly important for parents, principals and policymakers to look at ways to build the teaching profession. Pretty obviously, great teaching leads to great results.

Additionally, we need to ask questions around motivation: what engages a student, capturing their heart and imagination for good learning? While accepting, too, that a little bit of success tends to have a snowball effect (where success breeds success, and a growing interest in history, physics or engineering seems to feed itself). Motivation can become self-fulfilling.

Perhaps, though, it is also time to look at the role of culture in learning a little more closely. However uncomfortable it feels, we might want to ask whether there is something common, for instance, to the tribes I mentioned in Africa (very effective learners), and the Japanese, South Koreans, Singaporeans, etc.—. Is it simply that an understanding and valuing of the utility of education is embedded in these cultures (as a pathway for social mobility and financial security)? Do these cultures hold teachers in high regard, attracting the best, paying them handsomely and honouring them socially? (Remember the so-called ‘noble professions’?) Do they have a tireless and strong work ethic? Do their languages somehow facilitate greater intellection? How do they apportion leisure in relation to work? Answers to these questions might raise the eyebrows of parents and policy makers alike. Especially as they think about how they should respond to them.

EdTech cannot be a universal cure for the ills of poor teaching, slack student motivation and an indulgent culture, but it can go a long way in helping our kids do better. It can come to the rescue. It can compensate for bad teaching through apps, programmes and videos that are more exciting and demanding than branded notes or impenetrable and dull textbooks and better than night school. With its clever play with games and entertainment, making learning engaging, it can also kickstart motivation. Without noticing it, kids are learning and enjoying doing so. Perhaps, EdTech can also cut through the culture puzzle, stretching our kids without losing them. The use of formative or ongoing assessment to discover weaknesses and then teach into gaps, promises to be enormously effective. As it draws on user data, EdTech will also help researchers unravel the mysteries of why some cultures foster certain goods.

Take away points: Too many American, Australian, New Zealand—in fact kids all over the world—are not getting a good enough education. This will have negative economic consequences on a personal and national scale: standards of living will slip away from people as a fact and a promise. If Woodhead and Oakeshott are right it also means we are selling our children short. A full education is humanising (however, we might understand it). We can work on getting better teachers or affecting better teaching; we can look at ways to increase our kids’ motivation to learn; but we should also try to glean what it is about some cultures that make them so successful educationally, and learn from them. Success is probably not just about an efficient system, great teaching and strong motivation; it is likely related to certain cultural phenomena, too. EdTech will prove an invaluable aid to learning in the near future; possible becoming indispensible within a decade.

Research: A guide to measurements in student achievement (including international measures): http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp1314/QG/StudentAchievement

TIMMS and PIRLS results, especially page 114: http://timssandpirls.bc.edu/timss2011/downloads/T11_IR_M_Chapter2.pdf

A springboard for research on PISA: http://www.oecd.org/pisa/

Woodhead, C. A Desolation of Learning: Is This the Education Our Children Deserve? Stroud: Pencil-Sharp Publishing, 2009. http://www.amazon.com/Desolation-Learning-education-children-Paperback/dp/B00OX8UXFM/ref=sr_1_fkmr1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1424245851&sr=8-1-fkmr1&keywords=Woodhead%2C+C.+A+Desolation+of+Learning%3A+Is+This+the+Education+Our+Children+Deserve%3F

Kevin Donnelly: http://www.theage.com.au/national/education/australias-great-divide-who-values-education-20150208-1369ga.html


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