Leading the Innovation Charge: Research and Teachers (NESTA Report on Digital Education)

I’m currently reading the NESTA report “Decoding Learning: The Proof, Promise and Potential of Digital Education” and the report talks about ways of learning with technology and sources of innovation. At the start, in scene setting, the two sources of innovation are identified as being either research efforts that were based on large amount of gathered evidence (research-led) and informal literature such as blogs and teacher networks (teacher-led) – which means, woohoo, if anyone does anything based on what I’ve written in here, it’s a teacher-led innovation. (I realise that there is argument for overlap in here but it appears that formal research publication denotes the division and it appears that there was no reason why a teacher-led initiative couldn’t be high quality if it was still evidence-based, even if there was no strict formal publication.)

Looking across the world, the report started with 210 cases that were either research- or teacher-led and narrowed this down to a representative sample of 150. What’s interesting, to me, is the split by country between research- and teacher-led projects. The US has 65 ‘innovations’, 28 teacher-led, 37 research-led. The UK has 64, 45 teacher-led, 19 research. Australia has 9, all of which are teacher-led. Outside of the UK and Australia, the most likely approach to educational innovation is through a research-based approach. It appears that our relationship to the UK educational system may be even closer than we thought in this respect. However, to look in more detail at these innovations, we have to look at the breakdown of that ways that we see students learning with technology. The learning themes in this document are:

  • Learning from Experts
  • Learning with Others
  • Learning through Making
  • Learning through Exploring
  • Learning through Inquiry
  • Learning through Practising
  • Learning from Assessment
  • Learning in and from Settings

Most of these are pretty self-explanatory (and highly constructivist, unsurprisingly) but they are based on the learners’ actions and include factors such as the resources employed and the structure – which gives a greater potential depth to the classification as you can’t just say you’re doing X, you have to support it with technological resources and learning design.

A very important point raised early on in the teacher-driven, research-driven dichotomy is that the requirement for large volumes of evidence, in the case of research publication, can have a tendency to make the research-led initiatives more risk averse, in that much more information has to be gathered before recommendations can be adopted or conclusions can be drawn. The teacher-led initiatives can highlight serious innovations that are worth trying, but may not yet have the evidence behind them to actually provide a convincing argument. What a dilemma! I can either have evidence for something that I probably already thought of or take a chance on something for which I have no evidence – and in the world of technology, where innovation often costs money, good luck getting a solid amount of cash with a good feeling about an innovation direction. I need to go and look further in the case of Australia, because I know a great number of excellent educational researchers here who are, as far as I know, proposing solid research-led innovations but they aren’t showing up on this particular radar. And, being cynical, if it’s not showing up on NESTA’s radar, it’s probably not showing up at the government level and, hearts and minds, we want the government to be aware that the research approaches (often University-driven) are visible, viable and valuable. (Another thing for the to-do list, apart from finding alliterative phrases starting with ‘x’.)

In looking at the themes, I find it interesting to think about how these themes are both guidelines of good practice and cautionary tales. When set up technology that enables us to Learn from Experts, which is one of the potential underlying principles of the MOOC, we have to make sure that we’re actually providing experts. There’s an interesting example of the statistics expert who tore about an on-line stats course and, while it was rapidly corrected, we have that slight worry that the power to set up a course in no way correlates with your ability to actually provide the course information. Of course, I’m not a trained teacher but my qualification in my academic discipline and prior industry experience does provide me with a level of expected expertise in an area. I’m not allowed to get out in front of students unless I reach a certain bar of qualification – but that is most certainly not always the case. Suddenly the technology innovation theme “Learning from Experts” becomes the source of a philosophical reflection on how we are doing this at all – do we even refer to experts in innovation, education or the discipline? If we want a combination of these, how does it work? As noted in the report, it’s not just access to the expert that learners need, it’s the supporting dialogue between them that assists in knowledge construction and learning. How can innovation in technology support this new dialogue in a way that works?

The future is not just about the provision of information; we solved that problem in the first instance with the book, refined it with the library and then did … something … with it when we developed Wikipedia (all joking aside, on-line resources have added immediacy and ubiquity to the information provision solution). The future is about successful learning, which involves the development of knowledge, and thus involves the arrangement, storage, organisation, retrieval, and development of information in order to support that newly constructed knowledge. There’s a lot of scope for the development of innovative technological tools in this space but, as the report clearly indicates through its themes, this involves thinking about how we learn, how we’re going to learn and how the tech can help us to achieve it.

There’s still a lot of research- and teacher-led innovation to come, which is great because we all love a challenge, but I’d like to finish by noting what is not one of the key themes from the NESTA report. There is no “Learning from watching dull videos of uninteresting material presented with the least effort possible, because that’s how it’s always been done” because this is, quite simply, not innovative. We already know how well that works and that’s why we have to innovate now. Viva the glorious fusion of cutting edge innovation and sufficient evidence to allow us to leap off the metaphorical cliff!

Oh good, it's Monday.(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Oh good, it’s Monday.
(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Beautiful Corrections

(Sorry about the delay in today’s post. Yesterday afternoon, I took an early minute, and my wife and I went to view Australian Aboriginal art at the Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide, had a drink in a pub and then had a long and relaxing dinner at a local ethically-sourced Italian restaurant with a wickedly good pizza oven and a great Langhe Nebbiolo. This didn’t leave much time for blogging. Work/life balance-wise, however, it was a winner.)

Yesterday, I referred to an article on New Dorp high school and I wanted to bring out one of the other things that I really liked about their approach to a ‘get the kids writing’ program. As the article says, thinking, reading and speaking are all interconnected and are reinforced through sound instruction in good writing. This immediately leads to the conclusion that teaching people to write is going to lead to improvements across the board and, as a Probationary-plated social constructivist, I immediately think about constructive interaction between students based on great confidence in speaking, fuelled through a greater depth of understanding and ability to express your ideas.

The article discusses this, because classroom discussion became an opportunity for students to listen, think and be more precise in the way that they discussed their ideas. This can be a trap, as most educators know far too well, if students feel that they have to say something rather than that they have to say something that they can defend, explain or shows signs of reflection. (We see this in writing, too. “What I did on my holiday” is a relatively unassailable personal anecdote with no great guarantee of depth or need for defensible statement, yet “What was the most useful thing that you did on your holiday?” requires thought, comparison, reflection and review. To a degree, obviously. I’m not going to start early writers on a detailed comparison of Yves Klein blue and its apparent lifting from Picasso…)

It is very easy to take classroom discussion in the wrong way. You don’t always have to be cheerleadingly positive (warning: not a real adjective), but framing a critique or a question makes a big difference when you want to encourage discussion and build confidence. That’s why I like what I’m reading about in New Dorp (and I’ve seen elsewhere to a lesser degree), in that the students have a poster at the from of the class that lists ways to respond. For example:

  • I agree/disagree with ___ because …
  • I have a different opinion …
  • I have something to add …
  • Can you explain your answer?
  • I agree with ___ but I disagree with your conclusion (because) …

This is a far cry from the passive responses to a tired questioning approach of “Now, hands up if you think that John is correct”. With this framing, students are encouraged to contribute, contest and expand, but using a formal approach to the argument that reduces dependency upon ad homimen or genetic fallacy issues: we have to address what was said rather than the person or the group that it came from. It’s very easy to say “You’re wrong” or “That’s stupid” and it’s an easy answer that completely undermines what the faculty at New Dorp are trying to achieve.

It’s easy to see how this approach is useful in the higher educational sphere, especially once we get into student-based activities, because we can’t always be the facilitators ourselves, so the training of our sessional staff becomes crucial. One challenge for our sessional staff is how to respond to questions without ending up giving the answer away immediately or doing the work for the student. We expend a lot of time on training (Katrina does a great deal of work in this area) and this simple set of guiding questions and framing, as a training device for our staff as well as a template for our students, will allow us to keep the important lessons fresh and in everyone’s mind. We focus a lot on Contributing Student Pedagogy (CSP), a pedagogy that encourages students to contribute to other students’ learning, including valuing other contributions, generally using a high degree of role flexibility (sometimes you lead, sometimes you support and sometimes you organise, for example). We have a paper in the upcoming special issue of Computer Science Education on CSP, where we talk about this at length, but a simple semi-formal structuring of questions to assist people in thinking about how they are about to contribute or evaluate someone else’s contribution is a valuable component of this kind of approach.

To return to what New Dorp is attempting to do, these questions encourage all participants to think about the why and the because and how their contribution will work in with what has already been said. However, and this is non-trivial, having a semi-scripted start to a response also encourages the correct use of language, familiarity with key phrases and the correct use of modifiers and conjunctions. One of the issues identified at New Dorp was that poor writers couldn’t pull a U-turn in a sentence with much success. Although, despite, and words like that were effectively a mystery – sentences had to be artificially short, tightly focussed and lacking in complexity. Such a limitation greatly limits the degree of expressiveness available to the writer. Sentences don’t have to be long, but they have to be long enough. Sentences don’t have to contain long words, but they have to contain the right words. Ideas need to be expressed in a way that makes them easy to understand but this requires practice, practice and even more practice.

The script on the poster at the front is not a rigid proscription. The poster doesn’t say “Explain the use of adjectives in the sentence.” Instead, it provides a hook that a student can hang their own ideas upon, the leading sentence that starts the invasion of text into the bleak white space of a new page. It encourages discussion, support, interaction and the development of thought.

It appears that New Dorp’s approach is working. Students are improving. Students can write. Students can communicate their thoughts to other people successfully. They can use language. What a great improvement!