Thursday, December 16, 2010

21st Century Learning – Sir Ken Robinson gets it half right

Is our current model of education outdated, boring and leaving kids behind? An interesting set of questions to ask, and certainly worth exploring, though the answers are as varied as the people and corporations and governments they represent and there is noticeably little critique about whether the questions themselves are the right ones. Such is the dialogue on so-called “21st Century Learning”, and it will be coming to a school near you.

There is no doubt that the primary basis and structure of most modern public education systems are based on a set of premises adopted during a time when the world of work looked significantly different. The late 19th Century and early 20th Century were characterized by “taylorization” – the notion that all processes could be made more efficient if they were broken down into their component parts. Factories adopted this in the form of the assembly line, with each worker performing a discrete and unique task. In schools, this model mirrored the factory image, with bells, discrete subject areas, and children moving through the system in grade groupings. The goal was to create a system that could take any citizen and turn them into the type of worker needed for the new industrial era – literate, numerate, able to follow instructions, and accustomed to moving through life in a lock-step fashion.

This is the analysis of Sir Ken Robinson, whose video “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” has become somewhat of a mantra in the 21C learning circles. The difficulty is that Sir Ken stops here.

The post World War II era brought another significant change to public education systems in the developed world. In response to the Cold War, massive expenditures were invested in public systems. Capitalism now needed not just workers for the factory floor, but thinkers, who would send spaceships to the moon and nuclear missiles wherever they might need to go. The emphasis was on science and mathematics, higher learning and creativity. Now students needed to be prepared not only for the mundane factory jobs available, but to be the creative scientific thinkers that would develop new industries and improved factory processes (such as computerization) as well as to invent ever more powerful and destructive instruments of war (such as missiles, whose technology depends on space research). A greater number of students needed to be university ready, so that they could pursue research and engineering.

The last quarter of the 20th Century brought yet another shift with the advent of large scale standardized testing. I call this the “cash register” generation – children raised to function in service industry jobs and to use a wide variety of computerized machines with a high degree of accuracy. Today’s standardized tests have driven the school system to focus more on how to learn narrow and specific questions with only one correct answer. This is a significant change from the exploration and creativity and critical thinking required to produce great researchers and innovators.

The common thread through all of these changes is that the system is based on one predominant goal – training workers for the workplace, whatever that workplace might look like. And this is where the root of the problems with so called “21st Century Learning” lie. The proponents of 21st Century Learning have not fundamentally broken from the notion that schools are training grounds for work. Do they want change? Yes. Do they have some good critiques of “20th Century Learning”? Yes. Do they have a vision for 21st Century Learning that we should embrace? Most emphatically no, because that vision is at essence no different than the predecessors they critique – one based on producing 21st Century workers.

I entered the teaching profession because I believe every child has the right to explore their intellectual and creative potential. I believe a free and democratic society depends on a citizenry able to understand and change the world they live in. In my mind, the starting point for a public education system should be the free opportunity for each child to meet their full potential as a human being.

As with many proposals for fundamental change, amongst the details are components that in fact align with a view towards a democratic and egalitarian view of public education, and those that will work against it. This was true with the factory model which did produce an incredible increase in literacy for the mass of the population. It was true for the era of science, which allowed a great deal of progressive and creative pedagogy to enter into the system and resulted in much higher rates of post-secondary education.

But fundamentally these models focused on the skills needed to be a "good" worker. Come when the bell rings. Sit and listen. Do what you are told. This will be true as well of the new ideal - 21st Century Learning. It will make very good workers in a "knowledge based", computerized economy with large numbers of service sector jobs. But will it make good citizens? Will it make artists, musicians, athletes? Will it make thinkers and writers? Will it allow every child to explore and fulfill their potential? I don't think so.

Getting to the specifics, the 7 "C"s are the vision being adopted by the BC Ministry of Education as the 7 critical skills for the 21st century. They are:
  • Critical thinking and problem-solving 
  • Creativity and innovation. 
  • Collaboration, teamwork and leadership 
  • Cross-cultural understanding 
  • Communications, computing and ICT (information, communications and technology) literacy. 
  • Career and learning self-reliance. 
  • Caring for personal health and planet earth. 
Here is my short list of “the good” and “the bad” and what is missing in this vision of learning in the 21st Century.

The Good
  • Smaller class sizes for primary through to grade 8 
  • A move away from behaviourist models towards constructivist models of learning 
  • A focus on creativity, critical thinking, cultural and environmental understanding hopefully meaning more resources for areas other than literacy and numeracy 
  • Perhaps the elimination/reduction of standardized testing as it conflicts with personalized learning 

The Bad
  • Overemphasis on workplace skills in the form of the sixth “C” – career and learning self-reliance – as well as references to apprenticeships and situational learning 
  • Overemphasis on technology rather than pedagogy in the form of the fifth “C” – computing and ICT and the tremendous influence technology companies appear to have within this movement 
  • Very large class sizes at secondary – some proposals indicate class sizes of 50 for grades 9 through 12 
  • Unclear if personalized means distance learning because no choices are available at your neighbourhood school 
  • Does not address the funding crisis – underfunded 21st C learning will be no better than underfunded 20th C learning 
  • Ignores societal issues such as poverty, which have a tremendous impact on student learning 
  • Potential for privatization – particularly in the suggestions for community based delivery models and situational/apprenticeship learning 

The Missing “C”

Class Composition. Perhaps the most disturbing omission from the discussion has been special education and inclusion. Nowhere have I seen consideration for how these ideas enable struggling learners to succeed. British Columbia has an appalling record on supporting inclusion and no doubt this is why the graduation rate for students with special needs hovers at fifty percent – considerably below the eighty percent for the population as a whole. Any significant educational reform must look specifically at the needs of these learners.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Can something good come of the Avison report?

There is no question that the report by Don Avison on the BC College of Teachers is politicized. And this is no surprise. He is following a long and sorry history of the College as a battle ground between teachers and government, beginning with its incarnation in 1987.

But perhaps the report will at long last put the College out of business. No fewer than three newspaper editorials have proposed the elimination of the College. Maybe a rudderless government will agree and do the simple thing - eliminate the College and place teacher certification back with the Ministry of Education.

The College has undermined and frustrated teachers. While there is a legitimate need to ensure that teacher misconduct is addressed, the College creates a system of double jeopardy - teachers are subject first to discipline from their employer, the school District, and then to discipline from the College. This is unfair and has created a stressful and costly system.

Avison referred in his report to the situation of a teacher who moved from District to District despite his misconduct and behaviour which posed a danger to children. This is a real and legitimate concern. But a simple and effective mechanism to avoid this scenario is an employer database, where serious discipline by a School Board is registered and recorded. This would allow Districts to know if serious misconduct charges against a teacher existed before hiring. But it would avoid the costly and unfair practice of disciplining a teacher twice - once by the school District and a second time by the College.

I agree with Trustee Mike Lombardi who wrote on Janet Steffenhagen's blog: "I believe that the BCCT should be disbanded. It is a failed experiment. The Ministry of Education should once again assume responsibility for teacher certification/ decertification in. BC. In all jurisdictions in N. A. other than BC and Ontario, teacher certification/ de-certification, is the responsibility of provincial/ state education authority."