Monday, 18 August 2014

Future-focused learning?

In May this year (2014), the report from the 21st Century Learning Reference Group was published. This report, called Future-focused learning in connected communities, outlines its parameters:
1. that it's stated vision is focused on young New Zealanders
2. that digital technologies "change the way students learn, the way teachers teach and where and when learning takes place" (p. 4)
3. that they propose 10 "strategic priorities for 21st century skills and digital competencies"

I want to discuss each of those items, but I'll address the recommendations in another blog post.

Young New Zealanders
Focusing a vision on young people is perfectly acceptable, but it ignores and discounts those of us in positions to help, equip and nurture them. Young people do not exist in a vacuum, for they are surrounded by Significant Others in roles of mentors, models and sources of resources. If these young people are to "contribute to a thriving and prosperous economy" (p. 4) then that is something created by others - ie adults. Ignoring the role others play in developing the confidence, connection and disposition for lifelong learning the vision advocates, is a very large gap in the thinking. This will connect with things I raise later.

Digital technologies and changing teaching
I wrote a literature review for the Ministry of Education a few years ago (Wright, 2010). In it, I mentioned that a striking feature of the literature available was that using digital technologies was altering what went on in the classroom. However, I also wondered if what I was reading about was a case of the Hawthorne Effect in action, where temporary changes occur because of the scrutiny. This question arose because the literature available at the time tended to be about single or short term instances of experimenting with various digital technologies in specific classroom settings. Longitudinal studies in such a new field were not yet available. Also, the literature review predated the explosion of mobile technologies on the educational scene.

I'm currently working with three teachers in a local high school experimenting with iPads and Chromebooks. I mostly visit fortnightly, and this project is in its second year. What I am noticing, now that I've been hanging out with these teachers for quite some time, is that rather than changing their pedagogy (ie how they teach), they are facilitating students' use of the devices in ways that suit their existing pedagogical practices. The difference is scale, not kind. I see expressions of the assertion that digital technologies change pedagogy everywhere - it infiltrates government rhetoric (not just here, but overseas too) and the talk of those wanting to sell the latest and greatest shiny toy to teachers. And yet, when we look at how many teachers use things like PowerPoint or interactive whiteboards (IWBs) we see these become methods of delivery, not learning tools for learners. I have seen scenarios where teachers get students to COPY stuff from a powerpoint slide, for heaven's sake, and where the teacher is in firm control of any digital technology in the room. It is still teacher delivery, not student discovery. So, I am not convinced that the claims of the Committee's report that "digital technologies change the way...teachers teach" (p. 4), is anything more than hopeful rhetoric.

To also assert that digital technologies change the way students learn is also nonsense. Learning theories tell us that as learners we have options that include learning from mistakes (of behaviour, of faulty knowledge, of errors of judgement, of skill execution), learning through problem-solving, learning that springboards from prior knowledge, learning with and from others, and should promote the epistemic curiosity kind of learning promoted by Ian Leslie in his book Curious: The desire to know and why your future depends on it. In it, he provocatively argues that
Children who aren't encouraged by adults to commit information to their long-term memories are having their potential damaged and their desire to learn stymied. When we abandon them to the internet, we are leaving their epistemic curiosity to die. 
This provocation is a direct contradiction to the assertion that digital technologies (inert things, by the way) change the way students learn. The things that have always mattered in learning terms, still do. These include:

  • deep and critical thinking 
  • the ability to judge veracity, reliability and value
  • the ability to distinguish opinion from fact
  • behaving ethically
  • knowing how, when, what and whether to share
  • knowing how to work with others and work alone
  • discerning gaps and silences in information, and 
  • understanding when others are attempting to bend us to their will or agenda. 

What also matters is the curiosity to know, to make, to create and to disrupt, all of which occur in relation to specific contexts, contents and learning purposes. Digital technologies can support these fundamentals of learning by simplifying processes, making them faster, and looking more beautiful. However, of themselves, they change nothing. It is what people do with them that matters, and this doing should be discerning, critical, passionate and creative.

So, even though I'm deeply interested in digital technologies and their potential in education, I am increasingly annoyed by the assumptions about them. What do you think?

More in a couple of weeks.


  1. This reminds me of Hatties' much half-reported soundbite: class size doesn't matter [because teachers continue to practice the same pedagogy regardless of class size]. Similarly, digital technologies aren't effecting sustainable educational change because, as you say, the pedagogy remains the same. To expect anything different would be insane. Should we be asking what initiates and sustains teachers' pedagogical change instead?

    1. Great point Stephen. I think your question is a good one. Perhaps the physical geography of classrooms may be a factor - it is no accident that new schools in New Zealand configure classrooms completely differently. There is emerging evidence that these new configurations make it easier to mix up practices that better match the potential affordances of digital technologies and the growing practices of socially mediated learning. Food for thought!