The researchED conference on 2 June set the cat (and a partridge) among the pedagogical pigeons. It was no surprise that 21st-century skills and modern learning environments were discounted or deplored.
Key speaker at the event and guest of the New Zealand Initiative was controversial Kiwi-born Katharine Moana Birbalsingh, the founder of “Britain’s strictest school”, Michaela Park Community School in North West London. New entrants attend a week-long military-style boot camp to learn the school’s strict rules, which include no talking in the corridors and demerit points for forgetting a pen or slouching.
Sniffy with Miss Snuffy
Birbalsingh’s Twitter handle is @Miss_Snuffy – “Headmistress/Founder Michaela: free/charter school doing it differently. Believe in freedom from state, truth on race, common sense….”
Some TV1 viewers got sniffy with her pre-event TV interview, though others sat up very straight.
Birbalsingh supports the traditional teaching methods of ED Hirsch in The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (1999). She argues that education should be about teaching children knowledge, not learning skills.
Jude Barback’s Education Central piece on 1 June encapsulated Birbalsingh’s fears for New Zealand’s education system: “You’re about to go off the edge of a cliff”. The video of the cliff-hanging researchEd presentation has now been “removed by the user” though other conference presentations are still viewable.
Luckily New Zealand is devoid of lemmings. It is also the birthplace of commercial bungee jumping and other innovations which use applied knowledge, a range of skills and plenty of initiative.
Content with content?
There was a quick response from Dr Michael Harvey. “The key claim that Birbalsingh makes is… the paramount importance of content over skills …[ but] it is a misnomer to say that skill is not knowledge. Skill is knowledge, just of a different form. The fact-based knowledge that Birbalsingh champions [is] based on declarative memory (knowing that) whereas the skills she decries are procedural memory (knowing how)…”
The key to developing a skill such as playing the piano is practice and reinforcement. Knowing music theory is not the same as tinkling the ivories. This is no black or white distinction, but a reinforcing dynamic.
First cut isn’t the deepest
“At… researchED ‘Festival of Education’ conference in Auckland, 250 teachers and educationalists from around New Zealand had an opportunity to expose a modern-day version of Stanley’s snake oil: the so-called ‘21st-century learning movement.’” 21st century snake oil – Roger Partridge
What expanded the current education debate to a new, largely business audience was this opinion piece on the New Zealand Initiative website on 9 June and then on the NBR website.
Written by Roger Partridge, chairman and a co-founder of The New Zealand Initiative and a former commercial lawyer who led law firm Bell Gully from 2007 to 2014, it recounted the story of American Clark Stanley, who created a dodgy medical cure-all he named Snake Oil Liniment.
In cutting to the chase, the Stanley-blade-wielding Partridge followed in Birbalsingh’s footsteps. Twenty-first-century learning adherents advocate ‘modern learning environments’ instead of classrooms, with 80 or 90 school children and a few ‘free-ranging’ teachers. The teachers are expected to promote child-centred, ‘inquiry-based learning’ rather than teacher-led instruction.
He said, “There is only one problem with 21st-century learning: despite its seductive underpinnings, there is no scientific evidence it is equal, let alone superior, to more traditional, teacher-led instruction. And there is lots of evidence it fails children, particularly the disadvantaged. So 21st-century learning is seductive snake oil, not science.”
Exposé or pose?
Partridge claims that limiting their exposure to the wealth of knowledge their parents gained at school a generation ago is dumbing down children’s learning.
“Now this wouldn’t matter if this 21st-century snake oil was simply being promoted by a few Mr Stanleys. But it is not. It is advocated by our own Ministry of Education. Even the briefest foray onto the ministry’s website reveals how embedded 21st-century notions have become in the Ministry’s approach to education. “
It was a very brief foray, not getting as far as the Best Evidence Synthesis section. The Ministry, via its internationally respected BES publications, makes accessible bodies of evidence about what works to improve education outcomes.
For more than 15 years, New Zealander John Hattie has also done a great job, via his Visible Learning project, to collate research about what works best for teaching and learning in schools. TES has called him “possibly the world’s most influential education academic”.
The snake oil metaphor may shed a little light in one or two dark corners but, like 19th-century whale oil, it is not very illuminating overall.
“[A] false dichotomy of reform versus status quo fails to capture the rich perspectives of teachers who believe in education improvements that are grounded both in research and in their own experiences with successful student learning”: Give Teachers a Voice in Education Reform.
Birbalsingh’s very old school approach may demonstrate the magnetic power of a leader able to articulate shared values and practices, whatever their evidential foundation or fashion status, in order to attract funding in a low socio-economic catchment area and enthusiastic teachers and parents who share her education philosophy.
A coherent learning culture in one school might be in complete contrast to a different mix in another. Each may get some effective outcomes for at least some learners by “the way we do things around here”. Vive la difference!
Modern learning environments
“There is always more than one side to an argument; always more than one good solution to a problem – often many. Learning is a complex matter…. The issue isn’t traditional classrooms OR modern learning environments (MLEs). It is about what works for each individual child and having highly effective teachers trumps everything!” – Dr Lesley Murrihy
In the current debate there has been a lot of emphasis on physical learning environments; for example, Kia King’s interesting parental perspective. This may have overshadowed discussion on other well-researched teaching and learning factors.
Dr Murrihy, Principal at MLE Amesbury School, has written on the limitations of a binary argument between the traditional classroom and a modern or flexible learning environment. She points out that John Hattie shows that what really makes a difference is what happens in the classroom (presumably of whatever configuration). Within-school variation, the difference between the most and least effective teachers in a school, is much greater than between-school variation.
As one might expect, education quality largely comes down to the quality of its teachers. There are more effective and less effective teachers in traditional classrooms, just as there are in MLEs. In Murrihy’s words “… it is not so much the architectural environment that matters in terms of outcomes for students; it is what we do for students within those physical environments that makes the real difference”.
We could add, plus what learners are encouraged to learn and do for themselves, either individually or in small groups, in a flexible range of learning settings, from teacher-led input to personal and team projects, with or without the use of enabling technology.
The process is just as important as the outcomes in terms of acquiring and accessing knowledge and developing hard and soft skills.
The digital+ revolution
“The true revolution of digital technology’s effect on culture is not that it replaces what has gone before, but that it shatters it like a super-collider, reconstituting the fragments into many different forms, some familiar and some completely new.” – Michael Lascarides
We all know that in a digitised and globalised world the nature of work and everyday life is changing rapidly, with huge implications for education and training. What are we doing about it?
There is an accelerating fusion of technologies across the physical, digital, and biological spheres. This includes artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, energy storage and quantum computing.
“Tomorrow’s Schools”, soon to be yesterday’s, was implemented a quarter of a century ago for a world thatno longer exists, despite the apparent yearning of some to recreate it.
Disruptive workplace change
“Many of the major drivers of transformation… are expected to have a significant impact on jobs, ranging from significant job creation to job displacement, and from heightened labour productivity to widening skills gaps… the most in-demand occupations or specialities did not exist 10 or even five years ago…” – World Economic Forum 2016 report The Future of Jobs
Since the 1980s, governments have attempted to develop strategies to help present and future workers meet the demands of rapidly changing workplaces.
The WEF 2016 report points out that the ability to identify and prepare for present and future skills requirements is increasingly critical for education and training organisations, businesses and individuals, both to seize the opportunities and to mitigate undesirable outcomes.
But Roger Partridge seems to disagree.
“What is even more concerning is the cult-like status the 21st-century skills approach occupies within many schools. Teachers at the researchED conference talked about being afraid to express their concerns that modern learning methods were not working. It is as if the 21st-century skills approach has a sacred status; anyone questioning it is at best a Luddite and at worst a traitor to progress.” 21st-century snake oil
It might help to define the catch-all phrase. 21st century skills comprise skills, abilities, and learning dispositions that have been identified as being required for success in 21st-century society and workplaces. They are complementary to basic building block knowledge and skills like literacy and numeracy, not substitutes.
Specific hard skills and soft skills sets are in increasingly high demand. There is a growing emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving, communications and collaboration, creativity and innovation, digital literacy and career and life skills, with an emphasis on flexibility and adaptability, initiative and cross-cultural interaction.
Far from “dumbing down” education many of the 21st-century skills are also associated with deeper learning based on mastering skills such as analytic reasoning and complex problem-solving. The focus is not on content for its own sake. The test is understanding why and demonstrating how, not regurgitating what.
As Henry Ford put it: “An educated person… is one who not only knows a lot, but knows how to do a lot of things.”
The sequence is the secret. The most effective learning comes from a parallel process of knowing and doing, not through an analogue approach of accumulating lumps of knowledge first and then focusing on thinking skills and problem-solving.
Out of step with his peers?
“65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist.” – WEF ibid
Given the business antecedents and membership weighting of the New Zealand Initiative, one would have thought that its chairman would feel at home with the sentiments expressed in the WEF’s report. A Partridge, as it were, in a peer tree. Why is he out of step with the denizens of Davos?
Perhaps because until quite recently he was a senior leader in a well-known law firm. By its very nature, the legal profession encourages retrospective thinking. It is hardly at the cutting edge of innovation, apart from IP policing duties.
The profession also seems to find it difficult to keep up with social change, witness the unseemly scrambling for fig leaves in the wake of revelations about dodgy legal workplace cultures which senior leadership in some blue-ribbon firms had failed to address.
Many lawyers do a little better in adopting new information technology, but Partridge himself is critical of 21st-century learning tools: “In place of exercise books that help students remember new knowledge, it favours digital devices, in which students record their individual learning journeys.”
Do lawyers and accountants still use quill pens and parchment to track their transactions? What about remembering new knowledge? In 1775 Samuel Johnson said: “Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.”
Partridge gives the example of “the blacksmith’s son.” Perhaps he is struggling to come to grips with the 20th-century, let alone the 21st? Maybe he is even more at home with 19th-century Gradgrinds? (Thomas Gradgrind, you’ll recall, is the school board superintendent in Dickens’s novel Hard Times, who is dedicated to the pursuit of profitable enterprise via a repressive approach to education and a limited focus on cold facts and hard numbers.)
Savvy teachers are more important than ever as knowledge map-makers and navigators in a world awash with digital data.
Recognising this is not the same as insisting that teachers themselves are the storehouse of all knowledge which they impart, mother-bird-like, to passive pupils with open mouths. Growing open minds is the thing. So is understanding the hierarchy of data, information, knowledge and wisdom.
Of course, teachers should not just leave learners to their own devices. These are simply tools to be used selectively, in an action learning setting, to create and produce not merely to search and play.
A recent Education Central item said: “There are some fantastic initiatives afoot, from an amazing STEM programme that sees students working on projects to help their communities, to a pilot to provide home internet access to students who currently don’t have access.”
But beyond the use of enabling technology, the real focus should be on developing the critical and creative thinking power of the free neck top computer with which every human is equipped. New neuroscience insights can help teachers and learners alike tap this amazing resource.
Performance indicators and comparisons
“Not surprisingly, the 21st-century results of education’s embrace of ‘21st-century learning’ are damning. Since the turn of the century, the performance of New Zealand school children in reading, maths and science has fallen dramatically in international tests. And the decline is not gradual,it is startling… – 21st century snake oil
Partridge states that “whether it is the PISA, PIRLS or TIMMS rankings, since the beginning of the millennium our children have been sliding down the international league tables – and not just falling behind the rest of the world, they are falling behind their 20th-century predecessors.”
Representatives of employers, universities and trade training have also expressed recent concerns about literacy and preparation for tertiary education and the world of work.
A quick scan of some symptoms and an off-the-cuff diagnosis is not the same as an in-depth exploration of causes and effects inside realistic time frames. Nor is it a reason to accept the Birbalsingh and Partridge prescription for improving teaching and learning is the only treatment.
Twenty-first-century learning principles and practices are not stirred, bottled and dispensed from Wellington through a monolithic pipeline. The great majority of New Zealand learners have not been and are not in MLEs, which are still evolving, as is collaborative teaching expertise.
In New Zealand’s highly autonomous education system, with wide-ranging curriculum choices, a smorgasbord of resources and vastly differing teaching and learning practices, the uptake of anything pedagogical or technological is uneven – and even capricious.
As well as crunch education challenges, such as quality teacher recruitment and retention, salary revaluation, leadership development and ongoing professional development, there are also complex economic and social issues affecting cohort learning.
These include the developing trend of extreme behaviour among ever-younger children with significant behavioural needs, including conditions like foetal alcohol syndrome and “P babies”.
Embracing the future
“…the choice between cocooning ourselves in the past and shutting out all the inconvenient noises of change, or embracing a future based on innovation, disruption and using our brains is stark.” – Alex Malley CE, CPA Australia
According to Malley, there is a direct link between a nation’s future prosperity and its ability to leverage innovation and change to improve international competitiveness. Focusing on the downside of technological change deflects debate from the more important topic: how to best take advantage of the opportunities arising from the digital and other revolutions.
We don’t want to squash the initiative of any young New Zealanders by confining them, however upright, in only passive, one-dimensional learning settings.
The challenges of now and the imperatives of the future demand better.
Lyall Lukey is the convener of Education Leaders Forum 2018 Valuing Educators –Revaluing Education.