‘There is no research’: Bringing balance to the Modern Learning Environment debate

The reporting on Seven Sharp on Monday 7th August of developments in New Zealand schools around so-called ‘Modern Learning Environments’ (MLE) sensationalised these changes. The item, intended to be positive and balanced, was in fact presented in the skewed terms of ‘backlash’ and ‘dislike’, and the actual learning environments referred to as ‘open-plan mega classrooms’. While the item carried comments from two principals and two parents, each representing opposite sides of the ‘debate’, the weight of ‘evidence’ clearly favoured the anti-camp. In particular, Dr Anne Malcolm, principal of Ponsonby Primary, made the surprisingly ill-informed claim that ‘there is no empirical research’. This requires the record to be set straight.

Is there really no research? Suggesting so makes it seem the Ministry of Education has embarked on a policy that has no rational basis in evidence (treating children as ‘guinea pigs’ it was suggested). Here I will provide a quick snapshot:

  • 2004, the Ministry of Education commissioned a study by AC Nielsen to ascertain the views of a range of key stakeholders in regard to the role of school design in securing and improving learning outcomes.
  • 2008, the Ministry of Education undertook a learning studio pilot project. Five schools were selected from around New Zealand where future-oriented building projects were built and trialed to point the way to appropriate design for 21st century school buildings.
  • In 2005 in Australia, Kenn Fisher, Assoc Prof in Learning Environments at the University of Melbourne and consultant to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, was matching the learning activities and skills outlined in the curriculum of the state of Victoria to likely building solutions.
  • In 2011, Prof. Jill Blackmore and colleagues produced a literature review on behalf of the state of Victoria. They surveyed extensive literature into the connection between the built environment and student outcomes.
  • European research in this area has been ongoing for many years, including the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), such as its 2013 research on innovative learning environments. American research by architects such as Lackney goes back to the 1990s.
  • More recent empirical research is being undertaken at the University of Melbourne, under Assoc. Prof Wes Imms, and his LERN team.
  • In New Zealand, those actively working on producing research results include Leon Benade, Chris Bradbeer, Jenny Charteris, Graham McPhail, Mark Osborne and Alastair Wells.

Anne Malcolm’s statement is intended to be authoritative and effectively shuts down any further debate. Furthermore, linking the idea of ‘no research’ to a parent claiming or suggesting that MLEs are some kind of mad-cap experiment that are doing damage to children, simply sends alarm signals to parents, and teachers not currently working in these kinds of spaces.

Bernadine Oliver-Kerby: Readers are casualties of her flawed op-ed

A couple weeks back I happened to hear an op-ed about flexible learning environments delivered on the early show on Newstalk ZB by the stand-in host for the day, Bernadine Oliver-Kirby. I was immediately struck by her ignorance and lack of knowledge. Ignorance of the work of teachers; and lack of knowledge of a subject on which she felt qualified to freely opine. My second thought was the realisation that these foolish comments would appear in the New Zealand Herald as the two media outlets have become ‘NZME’. Indeed, they did appear in press on the 17th Feb 2017.

It’s likely wasted effort to respond to this diatribe—in part why my comments are being made 10 days later. Her implicit teacher bashing aside, the point still needs to be made that those who have the benefit of the media spotlight ought to exercise greater care over their choice of words in relation to anything to do with our children (‘kids’, by the way, Ms. Oliver-Kirby, are baby goats, as I always remind my students). This is so because the parents of those children can be very easily wound up over such topics as education.

For the record, Ms. Oliver-Kirby’s emotive language included: ‘sprawled’; ‘newfangled’; ‘roam free-range’; ‘feral’; ‘erupting numbers’; ‘stepping over bodies’; ‘resembles an airport terminal when the French are on strike’; and ‘these zoos’. This is the kind of language that plays into the hands of other, equally ignorant people, or serves only to confuse and concern those parents who are unfamiliar with changes in school building design. Her use of animal metaphor is troubling, but is one among many ‘cheap shots’ (see Claire Amos on this point).

The argument that ‘open plan learning was tried in the 70s and failed – this will fail too’, is the last refuge of many Jurassic’s one happens to meet along the way. What they, and Ms. Oliver-Kirby, fail to recognise are the significant differences between then and now. These differences include superior building and acoustics standards, the role played by digital technology, the changing nature of teachers and teaching, and especially the radical changes evident in young people.

The chaos of the strike-ridden airport is juxtaposed with the picture of a closed environment that offers “privacy…noise control…[and] optimum learning”. I would suggest that the closed environment of the traditional single-cell also offers a limitation in human resources (one teacher, not several), generally requires the teacher to be stuck to the front in delivery mode (as opposed to allowing multiple forms of teaching and learning), and significantly reduces flexibility (making anything apart from individual and paired work much more challenging to organise).

It would pay Ms. Oliver-Kirby to undertake at least a modicum of research, so that she can address these issues in a more balanced manner. And by ‘balanced’ I do not mean biased in favour of flexible learning environments—critique is to be welcomed. My blog readers need only look at the contents of this site to realise I have engaged critically with some of these ‘newfangled’ ideas. For a recent academic piece, see this article (or this free version).

Countering educational obsolescence

Since 2011, I have engaged with a term that had become very fashionable in New Zealand education by that time—‘21st-century learning’—and wrote a philosophical paper on the subject for the annual conference of the Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia (PESA) in 2011. The paper, teasingly entitled,  ‘Bits, bytes and dinosaurs’    has since been published in the society journal, Educational Philosophy and Theory. While I looked critically at this term that had taken on a ‘buzz phrase’ aura in educational discourse in New Zealand (and beyond), the thrust of my argument, with reference to two ‘dinosaurs’, Levinas and Freire, was that, despite rapid changes to and in our common world, such thinkers continued to offer a discourse of possibility and hope. Furthermore, these thinkers remind us that certain attributes and dispositions transcend time and place, and schools have both a right and an obligation to develop these.

This research interest has evolved over the intervening period, first by developing a deepening sense of the ways participant practitioners (teachers and school leaders) understand 21st-century learning, and how the concept, acting as a policy imperative of a neoliberal government, influences their work and their thinking about their work (see, for example). Secondly, the research examined more closely a number of schools that have new purpose-built facilities initially referred to in New Zealand as ‘Modern Learning Environments’ (MLE) and more recently as ‘innovative learning environments’ (ILE). Additional, related, research I conducted focussed on a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device, or 1:1 computing) school.

The thrust of this research in the past year or so, is to ask the question, ‘what is it to be a teacher in the 21st century?’ I seek the answer in the ways that my participants interact with a range of environments that enable or reflect a way of teaching that has either been unimagined in the past, or very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in the past. I continue to be interested too in how they reflect on these dynamics that impact on their daily working lives.

The idea, in particular, that learning spaces (not ‘classrooms’, note) be designed to accommodate say, around 90 students and three teachers working in a team, is a significant departure from standard practice. Before responding to what I have just said by claiming, “oh, that’s not new— open plan learning was tried in the 60’s and failed”, let me say that I tend to hear this response from those who wish to hear no more of what I am saying to them. Dealing with resistant attitudes is one (important) part of the narrative. A quick response, however, is to say there are differences—we did not have the digital and mobile technology then; educators had very fixed ideas about teaching and learning then (mainly transmission models); and school environmental design (buildings and furniture) were rigid and inflexible (and unhealthy) then. Furthermore, in the old open plan model of the past, the teachers often taught independently (essentially, multiple classes being taught separately in one big space).

Little wonder the experiment did not last long, and schools quickly reverted to the single cell model (what Stephen Heppell calls ‘cell, bell, hell’). People like Heppell have, however, long questioned this conventional approach to schooling and higher education (and, indeed, we teach what we know). Surprisingly, however, apart from the likes of Heppell, who at least has a background in education, it has been left to non-educators to force the pace of change. For example, Prakash Nair, an architect, claimed that the ‘classroom is obsolete’,   and the firm he represents, Fielding Nair International, has a robust international profile in the area of educational design.

Since around 2008, the New Zealand Ministry of Education has increasingly committed to building schools that reflect advances in school environmental design, beginning with such schools as Albany Senior High SchoolOrmiston Senior College and Stonefields Primary. Several more have followed, and the pace of building (both new and refurbished) flexible learning areas has increased dramatically across the country.

Despite its capital investment in this building programme, the Ministry of Education provides little support or direction with regard to pedagogy and classroom practice, apart from providing several case studies on its website. The Ministry prefers to leave decisions about the use of these learning spaces to individual schools to decide. Given this lack of direction, and the increasing pace of change in New Zealand schools, the School of Education at the university where I work, which has an explicit ‘futures focus’, agreed to pilot a number of new papers this year in its undergraduate Bachelor of Education (B.Ed) primary and early childhood programmes. These papers attempt to emulate the pedagogy (both classroom practice and teacher thinking about practice) encouraged and enabled by the new learning environments. The pilots are premised on the view that the altered space alone does not bring about these changes; that individual teachers must grapple practically and theoretically with the possibilities (and challenges) afforded by these spaces; that those teaching these papers (ie the lecturers) must attempt to model the evolving and emerging pedagogy, reflecting openly with each other and the students along the way.

While both physical refurbishment and new building investment was out of the question for the School of Education or the university, it was within budgetary possibilities to refurnish an existing large, rectangular space (measuring about 135 sq. m). The underlying thinking was that this change alone would begin to alter the mind-sets and attitudes of those taking and teaching the papers. Further underpinning this notion is the advance in the development of educational furniture that emphasises flexibility (creating pedagogical variety) and that contributes to student health and well-being. For instance, furniture design expert, Paul Cornell advocated on behalf of ‘user-centered’ furniture design that addresses comfort, health and safety, that is usable, has psychological appeal and is functional. He claimed (somewhat controversially):

In the knowledge economy, where learning is not only continuous but also more informal and serendipitous, anything that makes the experience more positive will also increase learning…furniture is more than a place to sit; it can be a strategic asset. (p. 42)

As anyone familiar with educational bureaucracy will attest, the wheels grind slowly, thus the capital expenditure grant won by the School was allocated too late to purchase and install the furniture prior to the start of the new semester. Three weeks into the semester, the students went away on teaching experience, but on their return, the new furniture was in place.

In my personal experience, I noted the following reactions:

  • A more relaxed learning atmosphere, and by the second class since the new furniture was in place, an atmosphere of productive discussion;
  • From a teaching perspective, an emphatic denial of the ‘teacher-at-the-front’, stand and deliver, or unitary focal point;
  • A dramatic increase in spatial volume, once the large, cumbersome tables and chairs that previously stood in the space had been removed;
  • Unsurprisingly, some complaints from colleagues not teaching the pilot papers, yet still having to use the room (which is used widely). I would expect this reaction from people of my generation, accustomed as we are to decades of convention;
  • Surprisingly, complaints from some students (in and beyond the pilot papers) who insist that their university fees purchase for them the right to a monologic, transmission-style learning experience, in which they are seated at fixed desks and chairs, while listening to one teacher, in the front. I did not expect this reaction from people in their twenties and thirties.

Meantime, I and my two hard-working and deeply-supportive colleagues with whom I share one of the pilot papers (the other is the responsibility of three of our Early Childhood Education colleagues), are experiencing a pedagogical life different than the one we have grown accustomed to over many decades of teaching. We share long collaborative meetings in which we attempt to map out an uncertain journey with few clear markers on the way. I realise some of our students may read this piece, and perhaps be troubled by this confession. They too, have grown accustomed to teachers who are meant to know their subject intimately, and to have the scope and sequence of teaching off-pat. We do not—at least not yet. We three openly point out to our students (ours, not mine or yours) when we have floundered, when we have become excited, or when we are uncertain. Time will yet be the judge of the inherent value of what we are attempting, or it may judge that we have merely been pushed under the wheel of the neoliberal steamroller, with its discourse of knowledge economy and lifelong learning. To repeat a cliché, however—rather have tried and failed, than not tried at all.

School funding – An issue of social justice

Last week, a somewhat surprising announcement suggested the current method whereby New Zealand state schools are funded is in for a major overhaul. This system has revolved around the concept of ‘decile funding’. Effectively, based on certain socio-economic measures (such as employment status of parents, number of people living in a household, and real estate values of the neighbourhood) schools are allocated a ‘decile’ grading or ranking. Decile One schools are located in disadvantaged areas or areas of low socio-economic status, while Decile Ten schools are typically located in areas where real estate values are high, parents are in employment and homes are not overcrowded.

The funding rationale is quite straight-forward and strives for equity, with low decile schools receiving proportionally higher rates of funding than higher decile schools, whose parents are better positioned to top up the school’s government funding. And while this idea is sound in concept, it has developed some significant flaws: for example, in the context of the promotion of a competitive ethos by various neoliberal education policies (such as school zoning and self-managed schools), the decile ranking has become a proxy for achievement. In other words, high decile schools are considered to be ‘better’ schools able to produce greater success in national examinations or attainment of National Standards; while low decile schools are assumed to be struggling schools characterised by dysfunctional behaviour and image.

In a bizarre twist, the decile system has become part of the marketing furniture in the hands of real estate agents. Nothing sells a house like being in a ‘grammar zone’ with nearby high decile schools (for example). The decile system is not related to the quality of teachers or the quality of educational provision at any given school, yet many families living in proximity to a lower decile school will avoid the school, and endeavour to enrol their children in more distant, but higher decile, schools.

This funding system, though apparently equitable, fails for several reasons, including the points above, but also because it fails to recognise nuances. A good case in point was the secondary school at which I worked for many years. As a Catholic, state-integrated school, it was able to draw students from outside the neighbourhood. In the particular historical trajectory of this school, once based in a neighbourhood increasingly populated by migrant Pacific island families, it evolved from being a mainly European boys’ school to one that was a mainly Pacific Island boys’ school. In the 1990s, the area became gradually gentrified, the working poor moved out of the area, and an increasing number of the students bussed in. The school demographic did not change, but the material ‘value’ of the area was greatly enhanced. Thus, while the school continued to draw on the working poor, the local real estate values skewed the decile ranking, so that what ought to have been a Decile One school (because its students were from poor homes) was in fact a Decile Three school, consequently attracting a lower level of funding.

So, this system does require overhaul, and perhaps the government should be applauded for reviewing this funding formula. Some of the changes it considers, however, are not unproblematic. For instance, it is suggested that funding be tied to individual students within a school who come from homes dependent on benefit; or from homes with a history of incarceration; or from homes with a child abuse history; or from homes where the mother has no formal qualification. Inevitably, questions are raised concerning the possible stigmatisation of students, and the question of data gathering.

Are teachers and schools going to be burdened with gathering this information? The government is claiming its Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI), which links data from a long list of government agencies including corrections, health, education and the tax department, will be doing the work. That may be so, but it seems a long stretch of a generous imagination to believe that schools (ie teachers and administrators) won’t be responsible for increased accountability and measurement tasks.

Being a critically reflective teacher: A Freirean perspective

For those who work in Southern Hemisphere universities, Semester 1 is just beginning now, so I will soon meet some keen (hopefully!) students who are a third of the way into their 3-year Bachelor of Education programme. This may be a good time to briefly reflect then, some of what the great critical educator, Paulo Freire had to say about what it is to be a teacher.

Pedagogy of Freedom (1998) drew particular attention to the teacher, and some of the qualities and attributes Freire believed teachers, educators and thinkers of education ought to aspire to.

Freire was committed to the idea of teaching as a political activity and the idea that teaching is an ethical activity. Freire’s claim is important to uphold when teachers are increasingly seen as mere functionaries of the reformist, neoliberal state.

Freire held a controversial position on the development of critical consciousness. There are, however, two ways the idea of critical consciousness applies to teachers and teaching: first, teachers should be initiating their students into the process of developing criticality, and second, teachers have a responsibility to both themselves and their profession to develop as critically reflective practitioners.

Freire regarded teachers to have chosen to make a difference to the world, and believed the work of teaching professionals to be intrinsically valuable, calling on teachers to dignify teaching. These commitments require actions, however, some of which may be discomforting to some teachers.

Not all teachers (especially beginning ones) will realise that policy directly influences their professional lives. Being aware of, and challenging, the role of policy reveals teaching to be a political activity. Policies too often are a knee-jerk response to perceived failures of the education system to deliver a return on taxpayer investment. Freire’s Pedagogy of Freedom (1998) revealed his concern with the impact of the “scourge of neoliberalism” (p. 22) on teachers’ thought and practice. This fatalistic ideology places enormous emphasis on the accumulation of grades through continuous assessment, and encourages teachers to see the world as a given, discouraging theorising of its underlying causes and tensions, giving preference instead to data manipulation as an explanatory tool. The promise of a hopeful education that develops a love of society and consequently, egalitarian tendencies, is no more than a vain hope under these policy agendas.

Freire argued that educators ought to recognise that their role is more influential than merely teaching content—their role includes the moral formation of learners, which cannot be separated from teaching content. Teaching is people-centred, and the relationships that develop in an educative context are complex. Therefore, teaching, Freire would argue, is an ethical activity, and at its heart is consistency between the actions and words of teachers. Thus, Freire accentuated teachers’ actions over their words (actions speak louder than words).

The ethical teacher listens, rather than speaks. This focus on listening over speaking does not silence the teacher’s voice, but allows the student voice that is struggling to make meaning and sense of knowledge. To create the climate in which this student voice can be heard requires a spirit of humility on the part of the teacher, although this does not imply the submission of the teacher. By being an active listener, however, the teacher models appropriate behaviour for students to follow in their relations with teachers.

Teaching is not a technical matter, but a task richly ethical, yet radically uncertain. This state of uncertainty was captured by one of Freire’s well-known notions, that humans are never complete, thus teachers are in a state of ever–becoming.

In his acclaimed Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970/1996),  Freire rejected ‘banking education’ in favour of ‘problem-posing education’, a rejection he reiterated in Pedagogy of Freedom. Transmission style teaching was thus rejected in favour of dialogical education that would develop a critical disposition. The life experience and prior knowledge of students are a text in the development of critical understanding. Problem-posing teachers will seek ways to bridge existing knowledge with students’ knowledge, to ensure their students cross over to critical curiosity and consciousness.

Students require teachers who assume responsibility for promoting and developing critical thinking. If students are to think critically, they must think about something. Specifically this will be the knowledge of the curriculum and the knowledge of the students. It is important then that teachers must see themselves, and be seen, as authorities in their field of expertise, but not seek to be elitists or authoritarians.

Critical teachers commit themselves to transformative change. Therefore, Freire clearly intended that teachers be open to change and new ideas, through critical reflection. This reflective activity will support teachers to be consistent and coherent. Critical reflection on practice is thus central to Freire’s theory. When teachers think critically about their present practice, their future practice will benefit, and they develop their theoretical understanding of their own purpose as educators. Through a process of reflection, self-reflective teachers theorise their practice, then try out their emerging theories as they gear their classrooms so that students can bridge the gap to critical curiosity.

As self-critical learners, and problem-posing educators, teachers research their students as if they were themselves ‘texts’. Teachers seek to understand their students much as a reader seeks to understand a text. Critical reflection on practice is morally informed and committed to transformative action. A focus on the relationship between theory and practice by teachers as part of their daily routine helps to challenge the technical and instrumental rationality pervading education in the 21st century.

Freire’s simple humility and respect for the dignity of others, and his driving passion for the attainment of a just world in the face of a global orientation that emphasises greed, self-aggrandisement and individual attainment over social cohesion, serve as an object lesson to all educators, and a model for all teachers to emulate.

Teaching in the BYOD (1:1) environment

Teachers increasingly find themselves in schools now where devices (such as iPads, Chromebooks and laptops of various kinds) have penetrated the classroom, either as a school recommendation, school provision of class devices, or as a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) (also called 1:1) policy. Each of these options will scale up the involvement of the teacher. In some schools, for example, where device use is optional, some teachers may opt not to integrate devices and associated digital technologies at all. Where classrooms may have a set of laptops or tablets, there is likely to be greater onus on the teacher to engage with the technology. In a BYOD situation, however, the more likely expectation is that teachers will not only seek to find ways of using technology and digital tools (such as the Internet and various applications), but also will actively re-think their approach to teaching as a result.

I want to follow up my previous posting (‘Technology – like the air we breathe’) with a summation of some comments I made as part of a discussion of findings for a still-unpublished book chapter. These findings are based on in-school qualitative, ethnographic research I conducted in the winter term of 2015. These contextualised findings raise some interesting points that arose for me, as I observed many students and teachers, and through the many conversations with those students, teachers and even some parents.

 Some critical points

  •  Some teachers overestimate the digital capability of their students, and assume that young people necessarily know their way around computing and digital devices. This plays out in the classroom when teachers call on students to help each other to master the required technical or computing skills. Furthermore, some teachers may also assume that students will be ‘naturally intuitive’ in accessing, navigating and working in digital environments. This is a spin-off of the over-emphasis on a ‘digital native/digital immigrant’ distinction. There are various critiques and analyses, such as this one.
  • Some teachers regard technology merely as a tool, rather than as way to revolutionise their pedagogy. The notion of technology as a ‘digital pencil’ persists. In this sense, technology has not been integrated into the fabric of the some teachers’ thinking about their work.
  • While teachers understand the SAMR model, they find it challenging to get beyond substitution. ‘Electronic worksheets’ are a mere substitution of a paper handout. For some teachers, however, there is simply not enough time to develop a redefinition of tasks, not to mention the unwillingness of some to take the risks associated with possible failure, should radically new tasks go awry.

 What kind of response to change should teachers aim for?

Some embrace change, as they see the opportunity to develop their imaginative abilities. Fundamental change may positively influence the way teachers think about their daily work (it may also make them question their life’s work and purpose, however). A critical change to put into action is more individualised teaching and less teacher-talk. Ironically, this kind of shift may cause some students and parents to imagine teachers have relinquished their responsibility to ‘teach’ and just become ‘glorified baby-sitters’.

 Why are teachers willing to change?

 Many (most?) teachers are motivated by their desire to make a difference in the lives of their students, no matter how difficult and challenging change may be. The implementation of BYOD and associated e-Learning strategies add significantly to teachers’ workload, with implications for personal health and well being. New responsibilities include writing, planning and creating new materials, and this may be akin to the first year of teaching. Technology-rich digital environments may provide a sense that teachers must be ‘experts’ who are familiar with the cutting-edge of new technologies and applications.

Technology, especially ICT, the Internet, mobile devices and the various software programs and the many and varied applications, are a boon and a burden. A recent Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report suggests that these technologies are not yet as widely used and implemented in schools as perhaps they ought to be (given their impact on our daily lives). Yet, the same report finds that their impact on student learning is anything but clear-cut and certain. This finding is grist to the mill of those who question the value of ubiquitous device implementation in schools. What that suggests, I argue, is not to step back from the brink, but to engage more critically with the technologies that are impacting the pedagogical lives of teachers, and the way their students choose now to communicate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Technology – Like the air we breathe

I notice that an Australian educator was quoted by the Times Educational Supplement as suggesting “technology is invisible now. Just like electricity, it’s there, it’s an enabler, it makes the connections work.” Indeed. I spent some time observing the implementation of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) in a secondary school last year, and one of my observations was that, in some classes, the teachers may well have been saying: “Right, take out your textbooks, and turn to p. 32”. What they were saying (some of them, at any rate) was, “Right, we’re going to take out our devices now, and open up Google Classroom”. Those words, used that way, sound very odd indeed – a little like saying, “Right class, we’re going to breathe now”.

By contrast, in three other school settings, where I was observing teaching practice and gethering qualitative evidence to support my research into flexible learning environments, the use of (digital) technology was integrated more seamlesslessly. Ironically, none of those schools have a BYOD policy, though one was making moves in that direction, while the other two merely supported the notion that each student was entitled to bring an appropriate digital device to complement their learning. (Reflecting on the difference between these schools and the BYOD school, I note that those with flexible learning environments also happen to work in a self-consciously ‘futures’ frame).

Two critical thoughts spring to mind when thinking about my BYOD participants: one relates to the digital natives/digital immigrants bifurcation; the other to the vision of increased cognitive load underpinning some taxonomies.

Elsewhere, I have joined others in challenging the notion of the existence of a ‘natives/immigrant’ bifurcation, for at least these reasons: it yields too easily to an ‘us vs them’ sceneario (ie the geeky teens who know all about that digital stuff vs the old dinosaurs who think faxes are modern and that there is an ‘interweb’). Second, the perpetuation of this myth allows some teachers (and parents) to really act like dinosaurs, and never challenge themselves to learn something new. Third, it presupposes all those born, say since 2000, are just ‘naturals’ with digital technology, and will ‘automatically’ know what to do with technology. Finally, and here is the space teachers should explore more, is the notion that all the members of the ‘Net Generation’ are using their digital technology in cognitively challenging ways. This is plainly not so. Like their elders, many (most?) young people have core functional uses for their devices.

Ruben Puentedura developed the SAMR model, a taxonomy that suggests teachers ought to aim to move from activities that are mere substitutes of pen and paper activities, to higher-order tasks demanding redefinition, in which previously inconceivable tasks are introduced. My own classroom obseravtions in the schools I mention above, suggest that this movement is not quite as simple as may be suggested by the SAMR model. If anything, the movement makes enormous demands on teachers’ time and energy, and that is before you get to thinking about their sense of personal confidence and skill in digital device use. In addition, schools find themselves under various forms of the neoliberal accountability regime, which includes National Standards and NCEA in New Zealand, for example.

There is an important sense in which the the two issues I am critical of, come together in the situation I described at the outset. Teachers who buy into the ‘natives/immigrants’ bifurcation may be reluctant to develop the skill set and confidence required to be effective in their seamless integration of digital technology into their pedagogy (doing and thinking), while simultaneously know just enough to get by, thus merely play the substitution game. Hence the odd comments about taking out devices now. Yet, if they recognised they have the ability to learn, they will find that they still do have something new to impart to their classes (who still do not ‘know everything’ about digital technology) thus allowing their students (and themselves) to engage with digital technologies in exciting, critical, and seamless ways.

 

 

University in 2016?

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This is the title of a recent newspaper article that is more of a promo or advertorial on behalf of the university system in New Zealand. The article was well-timed to coincide with the publication of the results of the 2015 National Certificate in Educational Achievement – better known in these parts as NCEA. The article has something of a Polyanna feel to it, telling the eager young hopefuls that a university education is ‘a smart choice’, providing ‘better job prospects’, arguing that the unemployment rates of graduates are lower, and earnings higher. Readers (likely prospects) are reminded, that “if being employed is important to you, keep an eye on the employment prospects for graduates in fields that interest you.” The impact of the news of the likely cost of a degree is mitigated by the reminder that this is an “investment that will pay off over the rest of your life.” So, what is the cost? Apparently, $14 000 (NZD), which the average person takes 7 years to pay off.

Some critical thoughts come immediately to mind on reading this. One is self-critical. Just last week, I was appealing to university educators to remember to rekindle the ideal of a critical education, in anticipation of a new academic year (in the Southern Hemisphere, January is the start of a new academic year). I can’t help feeling a touch cynical, though. For one, two of my three adult children have student loans of around $60 000 each (and they have not been using their student loans to take ski trips). This size loan will take far longer than seven years to repay. Their cases are far from simply personal, and represent a major social issue for young New Zealanders – an issue with some direct links to neoliberal state policy. To gain a sense of what I mean, have a look at Student Debt and Activism in New Zealand, an entry on the Savage Minds blog site.

My second critical thought is prompted by the advice offered to potential undergraduates in the New Zealand Herald article to “follow your passions – study what interests you and what you love doing.” The New Zealand Minister of Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment, Steven Joyce, may beg to differ, however. In his economic view of the world, prospective students should be thinking strategically about their likely job and earning prospects in the future, much aided by the helpful Occupation Outlook app, which enables users to gain an accurate sense of job and earning prospects. There is a further twist to this tale, however, as coming to all New Zealand tertiary providers in 2017, is the intended policy requirement

to publish information about the employment status and earnings of their graduates broken down by specific degrees and diplomas…[thus] students will also be able to see what and where to study to improve their employment prospects.

One final point of critique: the work of Brown, Lauder and Ashton on ‘the global auction’ has helped to refute the linear idea that ‘learning equals earning’. Their research suggests that in the global knowledge economy, high skills are often made available at bargain basement cost, while for the elite, earnings are propelled ever-upward. Clearly, some sobering thoughts for academics and students alike, about to embark on the 2016 academic year.

Getting back to teaching as a subversive activity

Today, the 11th January, 2016, marks a return to work for many in New Zealand. Summer has barely begun (indeed the best is to come), yet the shift back into routine cannot be delayed any longer. Schools and teachers will make a more gradual awakening, coming fully to life by about the beginning of February. Prospective student teachers will have an even slower start, with their first semester commencing by the beginning of March, although the ones who are choosing the pressure-cooker, compressed Master level postgraduate teaching qualification make their start somewhat earlier (and this notion of a ‘postgraduate profession’ probably deserves its own blog posting sometime in the future).

Despite enjoyable summer days at the beach still to come, some of these students will no doubt be turning their thoughts in anticipation to the year ahead, as indeed, should be the academics who will guide them along the way. On that note, I thought about some of the exciting ideas I was introduced to in my first year of Education study, and amongst these were the ideas presented by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, in their 1969 book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity.  These authors have been credited with popularising inquiry learning.

Suppose (suggested Postman & Weingartner), all the syllabi and curricula and textbooks in the schools disappeared…In other words, suppose that the most common material impeding innovation in the schools simply did not exist. Then suppose that you decided to turn this ‘catastrophe’ into an opportunity to increase the relevance of the schools…

[Now instead] suppose that you decide to have the entire ‘curriculum’ consist of questions. These questions would have to be worth seeking answers to not only from your point of view, but more importantly, from the point of view of the students…add the requirement that the questions must help the students to develop and internalize concepts that will help them to survive in the rapidly changing world of the present and the future. (1969, p. 65).

There are some remarkable features in this portion just quoted. The first is that it is the opening of a chapter entitled, ‘what’s worth knowing?’, in itself a critical question any educator (or prospective educator) ought to ask. Or, a question any critical educator should ask! And the answer is likely to have much to do with the final sentence of the quote above. That is a second remarkable feature of the quoted material, because it was written nearly half a century back. The insight suggested by Postman and Weingartner seems lost, however, on the army of commentators, experts and ‘modern educators’ who speak of educating and learning for the ’21st century’, using precisely the same words, yet in an evangelistic manner suggesting that they have just invented this ‘great new idea’.

A further figure of importance who suggested ideas that cohere well with those already suggested, was Paulo Freire. In particular, his notion of ‘problem posing education‘ is one that sits well with the idea of turning the questions students have into the ‘text’ of the class. In their quest for relevant knowledge, educators will do well to honour the insights of their predecessors, as well as to apply critical standards to their own work in the present.

A final thought then: a third remarkable feature of the quoted material from Postman and Weingartner is their warning that standards, texts and curricula impede innovation in the classroom. This is a warning that is often repeated, yet teachers and schools work in the midst of neoliberal  accountability demands and a public climate that projects teachers as part of the problem leaving them with few options, it seems. While this seems a dire note on which to conclude, as a new year begins to unfold, critical educators must continue to seek opportunities to teach subversively, if any of their dreams of a transformative education are to be realised.

The accidental meeting

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University of Copenhagen

During 2015, I have enjoyed the privilege of taking a 6-month sabbatical from my university job. The focus of my sabbatical work has been my current project, which is to provide a thorough, critical, analysis of the development of flexible learning environments, which are all the rage in New Zealand schools. Sometimes referred to as ‘Modern Learning Environments’ (MLE) (the term first used by the New Zealand Ministry of Education) and as ‘Innovative Learning Environments’ (ILE) (the term the Ministry now prefers), these new building designs provide flexible, transparent and permeable spaces to encourage innovative teaching and learning. In turn, these innovative practices are geared to the provision of educational experiences more in keeping with the 21st century, than the ‘industrial age’ model of schooling is able to provide.

Although most of my sabbatical time was spent working from my desk at home, I did spend a fruitful three weeks in Europe. The first of these three weeks was in Copenhagen, where I met two associates,  Eva Bertelsen (University of Copenhagen) and Lisa Rosén Rasmussen (Aarhus University). My friends kindly introduced me to several individuals and accompanied me to visit several schools and university campuses in Copenhagen.

One of these visits was to a newly modelled building at the University of Copenhagen, where we met the architect (‘Thomas’, for anonymity) who managed and executed the design and implementation of the new build. Amongst the innovations related to the new design was the location of the lecturers’ offices (partly glass-walled) within the library, located on the visible second level. Part of the thinking here, Thomas explained to Eva and I, was to

create the possibility of what we call the accidental meeting between lecturers and students…[If a student was]…sitting there reading and a lecturer is returning from their office and [the lecturer]…see[s] [the student] reading whatever book and say, ‘oh this book is actually quite nice, but in comparison with that one it would be brilliant’. So it’s like six seconds of instruction that would make a connection and confirmation of being there…

The photograph attached to this blog fails to capture the dramatic visual effect of the building and the area described by Thomas, but its ironies are what interest me here. The glass, and its implied transparency, are reminiscent of Foucault’s notion of surveillance. In a neoliberal educational climate that favours accountability regimes (checking-up; checking-on; evaluating performance), marketisation (competing for students) and public choice (‘the student experience’, as my university calls it), the following from Thomas has a chilling ring:

As I said [earlier] when you came to work here you didn’t know where the people were teaching or they were preparing or concentrating or they were out travelling but you can’t share anything because you had no idea what’s happening. Present, not present, no idea. We [the planning team] discussed [creating] a culture being present. It was quite important to have that, we want to be there, we want to participate and share both culture and knowledge. (Emphasis added).

So the physical vision of lecturers at work, in their offices, or of walking between the shelves towards their offices, may be more about ensuring that they can be seen to be doing their work, than about providing opportunities for them to be conducting quality research, for example, or developing exciting programmes of learning. It may only incidentally be  motivated, as Thomas suggested, by the desire to create the chance of ‘an accidental meeting’ of students and lecturers.

Taking even this motivation at face value however, what does it mean in a lecturer’s life to accidentally meet a student for ‘six seconds’? Imagine any chance encounter – there is little likelihood it will ever only be for six seconds. Call it a minute – imagine this multiplied say half a dozen times each day. That is half an hour each week (seeing as we’re counting). Back to the neoliberal demand for accountability and the intensification of work flowing from these demands – academics and teachers are required to do more and more with less and less. Yet here is an opportunity (in the name of transparent learning, and making knowledge public) to add further stress to the work of the lecturers in this building, by the further erosion of their time resulting from ‘the accidental meeting’.

The visually pleasing, more comfortable and more environmentally-friendly buildings increasingly appearing on the educational landscape offer many teaching and learning opportunities, but may also come at a cost, namely that associated with an underlying intent to promote an agenda less concerned with aesthetics, environment, personal comfort or education, and more concerned with promoting an economic vision.