Category Archives: teaching and learning

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

What links an inept bank robber, Charles Darwin and two Cornell University psychologists? Read on to find out!

David Dunning and Justin Kruger describe the Dunning-Kruger effect as a cognitive bias of both unskilled and highly skilled individuals. What I find most interesting is the differentiation between how the bias affects the skilled versus the unskilled.

  • Those that are relatively unskilled are biased towards thinking that they are better at a task than they actually are.
  • Whereas highly skilled individuals underestimate their competencies, instead thinking that a task that they find easy will be easy for everyone, regardless of how objectively difficult it might be.

This is aptly summed up in the statement below:

“The miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others”

(Kruger and Dunning, 1999)

This topic is such a huge source of fascination to me. One reason in particular is that it is by no means a new phenomenon. Although given its Dunning-Kruger moniker in only 1999, scientists have been aware of it well before. For example the extraordinarily talented Charles Darwin commented in the Descent of Man that

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”

(Darwin, 1871)

This covers precisely the bias of unskilled individuals; they think they know something exactly because they do not know it well enough (feel free to swap know for understand  or vice versa at any point in this post, depending on what side of that particular precipice you stand). Darwin goes on to say

“It is those who know little…who positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved”

(Darwin, 1871)

Or, less eloquently put, individuals without the skills to understand an issue will often by the first to say it is intractable. Even more interestingly we are all prone to some degree of agnosognia, or deficit of self-awareness, about ourselves. If you are not very good at something then often it can be impossible to know you are not very good at it!

“The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is”

(Morris, 2010)

From a personal perspective there are obvious exceptions that come to my mind; I know I am not very good at singing or speaking Russian. There is no false sense of expertise in these fields! But my concern is the things that I think I am good at… Perhaps my confidence in thinking I am good at explaining the semi-conservative replication of DNA is totally misplaced? Perhaps it is a combination of the Dunning-Kruger effect twinned with “The Curse of Knowledge” (another closely linked cognitive bias, this time held by people who know a great deal on a subject and assume others know as much causing issues when they try to explain concepts)?

At times in my teaching career I have had the immodesty to think that I am good at helping students learn in general. Reverse Imposter Syndrome* might be the culprit?! I am an impostor thinking that I understand a topic, simply because I do not have the capability to realise I do not understand it. Or as Dunning put it perfectly:

“We are all just confident idiots”

(Dunning, 2014)

There have certainly been watershed moments in my time as a teacher. When looking back I have realised that certain techniques or strategies didn’t really work. Certainly reading literature on learning has allowed me to see how I can refine and improve my practice. With each epiphany helping to shed a little more of my Dunning-Kruger outlook with the realisation that I did not know enough or understand what I was trying to do to actually evaluate it properly. I might venture to suggest most teachers are subject to a little of the Dunning-Kruger effect at one time or another. We are all, and this is by no means a criticism, “confident idiots” some of the time. Conversely we also fit the bill as unconfident geniuses* at times too. 

What of the inept bank robber mentioned at the start? This is perhaps the reason I find the Dunning-Kruger effect so interesting! The story goes that a man named McArthur Wheeler inspired the eponymous psychologists. Perhaps recalling the childhood activity of using lemon juice as invisible ink, he rubbed it into his face then set off to rob two banks. To his astonishment he was arrested shortly afterwards, police simply watched the CCTV footage from each bank. The height of stupidity one might argue? Yet this was not a spur of the moment decision; Wheeler had planned this novel approach, testing the lemon juice’s effectiveness by taking a photograph. The fact that the Polaroid picture in question was empty should not surprise us, it is thought that the camera had not been set up to face him. Wheeler fitted the bill of an unskilled individual so well that he could not even take his own photograph correctly! Or in more blunt terms:

“Wheeler was too stupid to be a bank robber [so] perhaps he was also too stupid to know that he was too stupid to be a bank robber”

(Morris, 2010)

*Recently there have been suggestions that the Dunning-Kruger effect leads to Imposter Syndrome, suggesting that feelings of inadequacy are due to the skilled thinking what they do is easy, thus devaluing the skill. This is exactly the reverse of the “confident idiot”, e.g. the unconfident genius.

Sources:

Darwin, Charles, 1871, “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex”, John Murray, Introduction, p3.

Dunning, David, 2014, “We Are All Confident Idiots”, Pacific Standard, Tuesday 27th October 2014.

Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David, 1999, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 77 (6), p1121–34

Morris, Errol, 2010, “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is (Part 1)”, New York Times, Sunday 20th June, 2010.

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What will SASFE be like?

Unbelievably it is just under two months until Forum on Education takes place in St Albans on Saturday 28th May. Although the official St Albans School blog has been detailing most of the information for the day itself (St Albans School Forum on Education), I thought I would take this chance to set out the vision of what delegates can expect.

Certainly SASFE will be deliberately smaller in scale than some teacher-led CPD events and education conferences. This is to encourage a collegiate and collaborative atmosphere, bringing discussion and sharing of ideas to the fore. The keynotes will be delivered in the School’s library, an intimate and scholarly setting as befitting the three distinguished speakers. Martin Robinson, of Trivium fame, will kick the day off, no doubt posing the questions that truly challenge how we think about education. Just before lunch Ian Yorston will discuss how technology can aid and abet assessment and feedback in and out of the classroom. As a final act Jill Berry will speak about leadership, bringing the curtain down on the day.

In between the keynotes delegates will attend three seminar-style workshops, led by some incredibly talented teachers from both the state and independent sectors. There will be a choice of different seminars covering a diverse range of subjects and concepts that are representative of the debates and discussions currently occurring in education. A full list can be found on the official St Albans School blog SASFE Keynotes and Seminar Information.  The workshops classification as a “seminar” is deliberate, once again reflecting the small-scale and collaborative nature of Forum on Education. These sessions will eschew didactic presentations, instead very much being an exploration and discussion of a topic to encourage a conclave of collaboration. The study group concept of the seminar returning delegates to the tutorial atmosphere of higher education and allowing discussion to flow, bringing nascent ideas to fruition.

As a reminder of the nuts and bolts of what else is on offer, tea, coffee and refreshments will be provided before, during and after the conference. Lunch is also included as part of the £30 ticket cost. Finally an on-site parking space or collection from St Albans City railway station is also part of the package, another way to try to make attending the conference as hassle-free as possible.

Teaching and Learning Observations

One of the duties of my role is to “undertake an extensive programme of lesson observations”. This is a task I greatly enjoy and not an altogether new assignment. In my former life as a Head of Department lesson observations were an annual duty as part of Performance Reviews. However, I was always left dissatisfied with the focus on accountability rather than the craft of the classroom. Certainly more time was taken up with the nuts and bolts of performance management than having a proper discussion on teaching and learning. Ultimately this would often leave both parties involved in the process a little short-changed when it comes to actually reflecting on the observed lesson; more a case of box ticking than profound contemplation.

Therefore it was a very happy coincidence that the eminently sensible Dawn Cox was at hand with advice. Last year she blogged on how lesson observations were often divorced from what really mattered. This was just as I was coming to similar conclusions and yet here it was in black and white, with a clarity and directness my own thoughts lacked. Dawn highlighted a list of some of the worst points of lesson observations. Some of these points I could identify having occurred when I have been observed and also, more distressingly, some mistakes I have made when observing as a HoD. To improve what is a vital and omnipresent part of teaching she suggested several ideas; these got me thinking about what lesson observations should really focus on.

Before I describe and explain my adaptations of Dawn’s ideas it should be pointed out that as Head of Teaching and Learning my observations are completely decoupled from performance management. I go out of my way to make these as stress-free as possible, including the option to say no to the observation (most colleagues are pleased to invite me in…I think!) and no need to provide any planning or paperwork. Listed below are three distinct stages that my ideal teaching and learning observation would comprise:

  1. Pre-observation – teacher and observer sit down to agree and discuss a lesson to observe. This discussion would cover what the teacher of the lesson would like to take from the observation. The focus would therefore come from the observee / teacher not the observer. Alternatively the observation could have a more general focus, if the observee wishes.
  2. Observation – this would be recorded in the narrative style, listing actions that have occurred during the lesson. This objective viewpoint would then form the main stimulus for stage three of the observation. Additionally, and with the observee’s permission (agreed during the pre-observation meeting), student work would be looked at and specific students spoken to during the lesson in an attempt to glean more information.
  3. Post-observation – a formal meeting between the teacher and observer. The observer would act both as a sounding board as well as bringing constructive ideas to the discussion, sharing the narrative record of the lesson and any other relevant information.

Time. It always comes back to time with any new idea in teaching. In practice I had to almost abandon stage one due to lack of time, particularly mutually free time. In the picture below you can see the top section is called “arrangement of observation”; this can be as simple as “via email”. Sadly it has been almost impossible to schedule a meeting before and after an observation; I feel that of the two the post-discussion is more vital to the process.

Overall image

Here is an anonymised scan of section 1. As stated before it is incredibly difficult to have the pre-observation discussion, however, I feel that this section should still have some role in the form. So, like the human appendix, it is there shrivelled and of no real use hanging on in vestigial format.

Section 1

From the same lesson is the narrative account, making up section 2. Note the post-it note box, which I use to record my musings. In this anonymised version it states “A picture tells 1,000 words!” and “Live marking – in front of student”. Both of these I picked up during the lesson and wished to remember for the Teaching and Learning newsletter, used to share good practice. The narrative record is split into two columns and has notes on what was going on.

Section 2

Finally the third section shows my attempts at noting down the major discussion points during the debrief. To write everything down would detract from the reflection, certainly it is difficult to be in the moment when trying to scribble down each point. This lack of comprehensive notation is a nod to Dawn’s proposed coaching suggestion and very much the essential part of feeding back observation details. However, the point detailed below were all discussed and considered in one way or another. I believe it is important to have the signatures to show that this is an official observation, albeit divorced from performance management, and also gives a more formal ending to the process.

Section 3

This post-lesson discussion actually led to me arranging a second observation to watch the same teacher with the same class (hence the “Tue p2” scribble) as part of a longer reflection on teaching and learning.

Should anyone be interested I am more than happy to share the blank pro-forma. Essentially I have tried to shape teaching and learning observations to best suit the observee. As with everything this is an ongoing process and very much of the ‘design-refine-redesign’ model of formative evaluation. My thanks go to Dawn Cox for providing the inspiration in her original blog post. Although I have adapted it and focused on just three of the key points, it is very much the offspring of her thoughts.

DID YOU KNOW??? Dawn was a presenter at the St Albans School Forum on Education on Saturday 28th May. Follow @SASForumEd to keep up to date!

Tyrannosaurus test

Last night I popped into London to attend the entertaining Intelligence Squared debate on whether testing demeans education. Outside the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster the glittering educators of the capital filed into the debating chamber, one lady perusing her copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. The main question seemed to be whether regular school testing helps students to flourish or actually hinder development. So what do we think? Is standardised testing a tyrant king with no regard for anything other than soulless data collection? Or does it have a place in the ever changing modern world? I suspect no sensible educator would fall at either extreme of this spectrum, but nevertheless the debate was interesting and amusing in equal measure. Summer Turner has written up her thoughts with usual thoughtful-panache so if you are only going to read one blog on the event read no further and click away.

First up and for the motion was Tristram Hunt, former Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent Central. He cut quite a dash up at the lectern. I could quite easily see why it is such a loss that he has resigned from the Shadow Cabinet. In fact much of the audience were left wondering what might have been by the end of his persuasive speaking. Out came the easy on the ear soundbite that students need to be “learning skills for jobs that don’t yet exist” and that tests were not suitable preparation for the workforce. Throughout the evening Hunt was an incredibly good sport, taking gentle jibes and digs about currently inhabiting the political wilderness with good humour and class. He started his address with “Friends, Comrades” to much mirth and towards the end referenced “frenzied Corbynistas.”

Next came Daisy Chirstodoulou, she of Seven Myths, speaking against the motion. Recently she has written several excellent blogs on the subject of assessment, therefore it was no surprise that she constructed a logical and reasoned case for testing (in fact I don’t think either sides of the house wanted to dispose of testing completely) and more tests in particular. One main foundation of this argument was the hidden bias of other assessment methods, Christodoulou ascertained that teacher assessment discriminates against low income pupils and therefore testing should replace such an unequal practice. It was at this point I lost the specific reference she used but her suggestion that tests are fairer resonated with some parts of the audience. In all her speech was a barnstorming and surprisingly emotive appeal to equality by declaring testing a fairer method. At this point I felt convinced that relentless testing was a necessary and useful tool in education’s arsenal. Since the debate Christodoulou has written up the experience which is well worth checking out.

Tony Little was close to persuading me to reconsider throughout much of his discourse. Much came from his wonderfully titled An Educated Person’s Guide to Education, the content of which I absorbed while on holiday this summer. For this reason hearing Little regal and bring to life the chapters of the book was an immersive and trans-medium experience. According to his address we are a juggernaut at full speed heading off a cliff by persisting with a regime of testing for testing’s sake. In his own words “we’ve allowed the exam testing business to go too far…we run the risk of being slaves to data.” He spoke at our Prize Giving ceremony three years ago and from this I know that Little does value achievements beyond GCSE and A level, particularly the former of which it was clear would be the tests that would be ditched. Additionally the wonderful Centre for Innovation and Research in Learning that was one of his final acts as Headmaster of Eton College is testament to his dedication to a broader approach to learning; one only needs to look around the incredibly impressive space to know there is a purposeful exploration of improving education and thus avoiding the “shrinking curriculum.” However, he still did not quite explain what might take the place of the current state of affairs.

And then to Toby Young, so often providing an alternative view point on education. It seemed to me that his premise was to take down those for the motion, perhaps a sensible tactic but also one that might alienate the undecided (although this is maybe my meek agreeability coming to the fore). In this vein he joyously pointed out Tristram Hunt’s opposition to decoupling the AS from the A level in response to, former Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove’s recommendations; in doing so pointing out the obvious that this would have meant more exams. Quite a change of tune indeed. Where Young was particularly strong was taking down the idea that testing in education was removed from the kinds of tests faced in the workplace. Again the theme of equality, or perhaps inequality, was seized upon “an atmosphere of healthy competition and regular testing” is key to helping disadvantaged pupils.

After some questions from the audience (some were even genuine questions!) we were ready to hear the result. It transpired that the result was not ready for us and, chair for the night, Sir Anthony Seldon put to use his improvisational skills (I wonder if Wellington College have lessons for improv?) to fill time. Asking ostensibly Tristram Hunt, but more accurately the gentlemen to his right, whether he would like to be a Headmaster Tony Little amusingly intercepted with “are you asking me?” However, my favourite and beautifully superfluous question was asking Daisy Christodoulou what her favourite myth was (answer you can always just look it up), proceeding to then ask what her second favourite was (projects and activities are the best way to learn). Before we had a complete count down from one to seven the results were in. Those for the motion had convinced the most people to change their minds and so it was we had collectively resolved to end the tyranny of the test.

As always debate and discussion engender a self-reflection that otherwise might not have come about. For me there were several questions that lay unanswered, the two most pertinent being:

  1. What are the alternatives to standardised testing?
  2. Does testing suit certain subjects over others?

In particular question two raises the issue of how we examine or assess creative subjects. Although I will be continuing on with my end-of-topic and end-of-year tests in Biology, I am not so absurd to reason that this approach works for Drama or Design and Technology. In what is becoming one of my favourite phrases at the moment, there is of course no “one-size fits all”, tyrant test or not.

Tickety-boo

This post is a part response to this article detailing what one examiner thinks whilst ploughing through their marking. It is also time I put down why I subject myself to a summer of missed evenings to make endless ticks and crosses on someone’s hopes and dreams. Unlike the Guardian article I do not have anonymity, but that doesn’t stop me detailing why I do it (and it certainly is not for the money) and what we can learn from the process. Unlike the author I do not “try to guess…what kind of person” wrote the answers. And I have not been privy to hilarious responses, in fact I always think it a little sad that a student has veered so far away from fact as to blurt some form of nonsense.

I have written before about the uneasy marriage of subject understanding and examination technique – I am against exam teachnique, where students are taught how to just answer exam questions, like performing fleas in a flea-circus jumping through tiny hoops. At its worst teachnique is akin to looking through a monocular at the narrow confines of a specification point or sentence in a syllabus. However, understanding how an assessment works is vital and it is here that the lines blur. When does good teaching become unhealthy and blinkered teachnique-ing? (I’ve laboured this poor play on the two words enough so good to go out with a really pitiful attempt) Here ends this little tangent as this is meant to be about why I mark exam papers.

My top five reasons for being an examiner:

  1. Improve understanding of how an assessment works.
  2. See where common misconceptions occur for different topics.
  3. Plot “healthy” ways to address these misconceptions when teaching a topic.
  4. Improve/refresh/confirm subject knowledge.
  5. Meet with enthusiastic people who enjoy discussing the subject.

One of the best perks for this particular job is the moderation / standardisation day. It is great to meet up and indulge in some geekery. I genuinely find the time spent pawing over an examination paper and mark scheme in early June to be some of the most worthwhile CPD I take part in. As each year goes by I feel like I have another layer of understanding about not just how exams work, but also the subject too. Each year my knowledge of Biology increases as we discuss the finer minutiae of osmosis, transpiration or some other process. I have read calls for teachers to take an actual exam in their subject as part of the interview process or performance reviews and I actually quite like the idea. Surely we should be masters of our domains? I would add to this suggestion that we should also be examiners for our subjects too as a means of staying on top of and feeding back into the assessment system.

Beyond the obvious peeking inside the machinations of deciding a mark scheme, the actual process of marking is incredibly illuminating. The common mistakes that are seen from paper one to paper three-hundred and fifty also help me to understand where students go wrong in their understanding. This is where the Jaffa Cake conundrum really comes to the fore, it is plain to see when a student has a clear understanding of a topic and also when that clarity is lacking. Truly my advice to all students who sit a Biology exam is to

“write less, better”

There are definitely misconceptions common to Biology and, I would guess, some more uniform mistakes that I see that are also made in other subjects too. Below are three such errors founded on my school-based marking of end-of-topic tests as well as examination work. For me this advice is firmly in the good teaching camp and is more know thy assessment than the teachnique of knowing just a reduced and useless junket of knowledge to jump through a worthless hoop, but please let me know what you think. I live in fear that I will one day fall down on the wrong side of this particular tightrope.

List of three common errors and suggested quick fixes

Response that are totally barking up the wrong treeRead the full question! Actually read every word, read it again. Box the command word, underline the key words and glance at the mark allocation (BUG).

Candidate scribbles down everything they know about a topic mentioned in a question but has no specific focusAnswer the question! If the instructions above (RTFQ) have been followed the question will have been carefully read, twice, and the components highlighted in some way. Write down a response and when finished immediately read it through, checking it has actually answered the question.

Partial or no response – It is difficult to know why sections are left blank in an examination, there could well be reasons specific to the individual which an examiner would never know. In mocks and end-of-topic tests that is not the case, so I will base this “fix” on these internal assessments and be quite blunt with the solution. Learn the content. There is no substitute for knowledge and understanding, so put the hard yards in to revision and start learning! The real paper or final assessment is not the point that you want to find out you did not know enough.

My frustration is that there are students who have excellent subject knowledge and understanding who are being failed. This is not a complaint about challenging questions and I like the idea that “intelligence is knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do”, but this goes beyond that. At times I ponder this significance and there are points during the process when I have had my fill of marking with a deadline looming large. In fact in the past when I had finished my share I would tell myself “never again” only for the New Year to fall and my resolve to soften. Now I won’t even contemplate the question until January. I know there will be a time when I just don’t fancy doing it again, but for now the insights into understanding and learning that I gain from standing on the other side of the looking glass are too great and beneficial for me to ever consider it a waste of time. And there was also the occasion in a moderation meeting when we somehow managed to digress to discussing the definition of “producing wind”, but that story can wait for another time…

Know Thy Impact

Yesterday I had the good fortune of attending the Impact Conference 2015, which gathered a truly stellar cast of speakers together in London. Trying to measure the effect of interventions when it comes to teaching and learning is a fascinating area and one that I have come to via Professor John Hattie’s Visible Learning books, especially The Science of How We Learn. As a keen scientist (okay biologist) I am also interested in the idea that by observing something you can’t help but change it; certainly the Hawthorne Effect is a useful reminder that many interventions will work by just being a source of increased attention to detail and raised level of effort. So how do we sift the useful from the useless and how can we prevent the proliferation of educational homeopathy? These were just two of the questions I approached the conference with. Below is an outline of what I took from two of the excellent speakers on show, Professor Rob Coe and the aforementioned Professor John Hattie. Sadly once again I cannot rein in my inefficient verbosity (some might call it verbal diarrhoea) thus I will not be writing up the fantastic Sam Feedman and Philippa Cordingly or the hilarious genius that is Dr Ben Goldacre who all also spoke at the conference.

Professor John Hattie (talk I) I took a great deal from both of Professor Hattie’s talks, in particular challenging the assumption that just because something works it is good and therefore shouldn’t be changed. Reassured that there is very little you can do to decrease attainment (although interestingly labelling students has an effect size of -0.61) it was heartening to hear him say that in the UK success is all around us; it is impossible for everyone to be in PISA’s top 5. Certainly one of the main takeaways from this talk was a reemphasis on seeing learning through the eyes of the learner and using criteria from the learner’s point of view to measure impact. This was nicely summarised as “teachers who learn to be learners and students who learn to be teachers”. Another key point I eagerly agreed with was that the job of a teacher is not to help students realise their expectations but to help them “exceed what they think they will do”. During the first session Professor Hattie was also at pains to point out that he did not say that “teachers should not be researchers” in a recent interview. Instead he urged us to be “evaluators”, a not so subtle change in semantics. I actually fully agree with this. As teachers we are not trained in research so it seems a task for which we are not optimally suited. One might argue that there should be more emphasis on research on the ITT and other training courses, but my own opinion is that this would be detracting from learning the skills needed for actually teaching. However, that’s not to say that the area of research should not be revisited at some point in a teaching career.

Professor Rob Coe As joint author of What makes great teaching Professor Coe did not disappoint during his witty and

insightful talk. He made it clear that it isn’t enough to just know the effect sizes for certain interventions but, as teachers seeking to improve education, we should always evaluate what we do. I liked his point that using motivation to enhance attainment is putting the carriage before the horses in that convincing a student that your lesson is a “game they can win” to raise attainment will have the knock on effect of increasing interest and motivation. Professor Coe confirmed my belief that we do not allow enough time to elapse for an answer after asking a question, but extended this to waiting another 3-5 seconds after an answer to elicit even better responses. This is something I aim to do immediately, both with my classes and colleagues! The final point I’d like to pick up on from this part of the conference is the question “do we know a good lesson when we see one?” There is no doubt in my mind that grading of lessons is an absurd practice but it is wonderful to hear evidence to back this up:

  • When two teachers observe the same lesson and one grades it “Inadequate” the probability that the other will agree is just 10%. Even with thorough training in how to observe a lesson the probability increases to just 40%.
  • When an observer judges a lesson “Outstanding” the probability that the pupils are really making sustained, outstanding progress is just 5%.

Moral of this story? Do not grade lessons.

Professor John Hattie (talk II) Opening on a slightly controversial theme of “neurotrash” Professor Hattie argued that this area of educational research is interesting but does not actually get us anywhere. So often you can simply replace the term “brain” with “learner”.  Turning his sights next to the cause célèbre known as “twenty-first century skills” he suggested that by themselves they are irrelevant as they are devoid of content. In fact it is only where they come with content that you start to establish a transition from surface to deep learning. Indeed he spoke on how critical thinking and problem solving quite simply should not be taught outside of subjects. Another fantastic quote, this time on the importance of learning from failure, was “the second time it’s a mistake, the first time is a learning opportunity”.

I was introduced to a concept that I had not heard of before; James Nottingham’s Learning Pit, see here.This is another instant takeaway that I will look to explore and guide my classroom work. Again the words spoken by Professor Hattie were particularly pertinent in that “feedback feeds on error” and we must not stigmatise failure, instead encourage a thorough reflection and analysis of what went wrong and why. Overall I found yesterday’s conference to be a fantastic INSET / CPD opportunity and would recommend the January event to anyone interested in looking at ways to measure and evaluate impact. Additionally the discussions with other delegates will also be worth the cost of the ticket! Click me!

Header image taken from Wikimedia Commons.

An OESIS in the desert

Just before the end of the spring term I was lucky enough to be at the Online Education Symposium for Independent Schools held at the always marvellous Eton College. Having written before about EdTech I hope it is clear that I am nothing if not open minded to anything that can improve pupil learning whether pen and paper or ones and zeroes. And at OESIS there was a wealth of ideas, innovations and enthusiasm from the US and UK all aimed at helping learning. Within minutes of the conference starting Tony Little, outgoing and indomitable Headmaster of Eton, addressed one of the main issues in eLearning (and I paraphrase): how does it become a real positive for students in the UK, rather than a distraction? When will eLearning be recognised by UCAS and therefore not seen as a diversion from the examinations that form the basis of university entry? Pertinent points to ponder.

Online Education Symposium for Independent Schools

Image taken from OESIS Group website.

The conference itself was incredibly enlightening as a succession of US teachers, Heads of School and educationalists presented on how they made the most of technology to promote student learning. It seems across the pond there is a similar amount of innovation within this area than in the UK and also the same difficulties with separating benefit from cost (in the Hattie sense of the word as well as monetarily). Blending learning between “bricks and mortar” schooling and online courses seems the furrow being ploughed and one I heard a lot about over the course of the two days. Perhaps one of the most surreal moments was a session where we were shown around a virtual classroom for students to explore using avatars, answering questions from teacher-avatars also inhabiting this SIMS like habitat. Indeed during this session a huge smile was brought to many faces when, having been invited to join up and explore the space as an avatar, a delegate blocked a virtual-doorway so the presenter’s avatar could not leave a room! Conversely it was the human interactions over the course of the symposium that really helped me understand what sort of impact technology can have. I find this is always the way with conferences; chatting with other delegates is often worth the cost of the event alone.

The sessions I learned most from related to how to fully involve, engage and use staff to help guide the process of using EdTech. For example Sarah Hofstra, of the Hybrid Learning Consortium, outlined a few dos and don’ts during her session on SPOCs (Small Private Online Courses):

  • Do offer eLearning as an opportunity to increase the impact of teaching and improve student learning.
  • Do not force teachers to use eLearning.
  • Do be patient, wait for the second or third year to be a watershed moment where staff see the effect of using technology.
  • Do not push or pressure teachers into this way of working; it will be severely counterproductive to any aim to increase impact as staff “lash out”.
  • Do allow staff themselves to spread positivity about using technology, do not impose it from on high.
  • Do not necessarily expect it to work within existing frameworks, be prepared to create something completely different; at the most radical end of the spectrum think about using a non-traditional timetable.
  • Do emphasis the benefit of developing life-long learning, amongst students and staff.
  • Do allow students to embrace their own technologies (smartphones, tablets, etc) and be there to help guide their use.

Perhaps the statement that most caught my attention was that the US schools that have made the most progress and greatest success with eLearning have been those that paid their teachers to be more involved. E.g. paying extra for staff to spend their summer developing a course or topic online to then use in to complement their teaching. Additionally schools that successfully use EdTech hire firms, such as the Hybrid Learning Consortium, to actually come in to set up, train and manage the initiatives.

Another session that I found very illuminating was a panel involving a number of Heads of School who had successfully set up and built EdTech and blended learning into their curriculum. In particular the responses to the two questions below: 

  1. What would you do differently?
    • Have different expectations; not expecting uptake / effect too early and not assuming everyone is on board.
    • Allow more time to educate staff.
    • Allow teachers to still teach in the way that they want to.
    • Have the infrastructure in place and staff employed for instruction (one school had two full time “tech instructors” for training purposes, but others found they needed more).
    • Have a greater emphasis on not allowing precious skills, such as picking up a pencil, to be lost.
  2. If you started afresh at a new school what would you do?
    • Hire well! Employ open-minded and passionate teachers, ideally with a keen interest in EdTech.
    • Design creative and collaborative workspaces that not only enhance learning but bring the best out of any technology being used.
    • Use a non-traditional schedule for the school day, e.g. timetable based on blended learning rather than classes, labs, etc.
    • Ensure “messy classrooms” (e.g. student-driven, project based and tech-inspired group work) were encouraged.

In summary the two days really did have a profound effect on my understanding of using technology in a school. And this is without going into detail about the amazing Emerge Education lunchtime workshop where I was treated to presentations on using a RaspberryPi laptop from Pi-Top, the incredibly interesting OceanBrowser from Rodney Tamblyn and Cristian Dinu speaking about Learn Forward’s interactive textbook.

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Image taken from pixabay.

Image taken from pixabay.

This post uses a simple coding trick – if I can do it you can too!

Header image taken by Michael Smyth, 2011.