What a crock of….

Remember Lyle Lanley? No?

Maybe this will jog your memory:

Mr. Lanley’s notebook revealed more of his dastardly plans:

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There are plenty of Lyle Lanleys blighting the education landscape. 21st century learning is a nebulous term. It has fuzzy edges along with many competing definitions. This leaves it ripe for hucksters like Lyle Lanley to sweep in with overly simple answers to increasingly complex situations. These reductionists pitch products and/or programs based on shoddy research or sadly in some cases, no research at all.

Neuroscience has largely been a progressive venture but it has also been hijacked by those looking to make a buck off of education. Reductionists seek to deconstruct complex systems in order to prove that they are no greater than the sum of their parts. There are three pervasive education/neuroscience myths that the Lanleys like to exploit: 1) Right Brain vs. Left Brain leanings 2) Learning Styles and 3) ultimately Brain-based Learning as a whole. It is time to pull back the curtain on each of these myths and expose them for what they are and their pushers for whom they are.

1) RIGHT BRAIN vs. LEFT BRAIN:

This myth has led to many students being labeled as “right brained” or “left brained” depending upon a perceived level of creativity. This damaging myth has been exploited by publishers and education entrepreneurs for decades. This poorly conceived notion can lead to a fixed mindset whereby students can be led to believe that their levels of creativity are static.

This myth has its roots in the the work of Gereon Fink, at the time from the University of Düsseldorf in Germany, and John Marshall from the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford. They used brain scans to support the idea of hemispheric dominance. This led to a movement where people began to speculate that the creative abilities were based in the right hemisphere, and logical faculties in the left. This myth infiltrated education for many years (and still lives on in some places)  with students taking left/right brain questionnaires so that their learning could be tailored. Countless research studies have led to contradictory results. Neuroscience and true research definitively discounts the idea of hemispheric dominance. So to the idea of Right Brain vs. Left Brain,  I call….”BULLSHIT!”

Thankfully, there is a movement afoot to debunk this damaging myth and to recognize the complexity of the human brain. The “No Right Brain, Left Brain” advocacy group is backed by Deepak Chopra and Sir Ken Robinson but sadly many resources based on hemispheric dominance are still being published.

2) LEARNING STYLES:

This damaging myth has been heavily exploited by profiteers both past and present. The supporters of this movement purport that an individual learns best when information is taught in a manner consistent with his or her “learning style”. Researchers investigating the validity of this myth have uncovered as many as 71 supposed learning styles. The concept sounds great, but has no credible research support.

The idea of learning styles is rooted in the theory of multiple of intelligences, developed in the early 1980s by psychologist Howard Gardner of Harvard University. Gardner claimed to have identified 7 distinct types of intelligences (visuo-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic and logical-mathematical), and that this “challenge[s] an educational system that assumes that everyone can learn from the same materials in the same way”.  It’s a myth though. There is no scientific evidence that children learn any better or differently when presented to them in their “preferred learning style.” Research actually points out quite the opposite. According to Paul Howard-Jones of the University of Bristol,  while speaking at a workshop about the impact of neuroscience on society at the BNA Festival of Neuroscience ,some research actually suggests that children learn better when presented with information that pushes them out of their “comfort zone.” So to the concept of “Learning Styles”, I call “BULLSHIT!”

This infographic does a wonderful job of debunking “learning styles”:

The Myth of Learning Styles Infographic
Find more education infographics on e-Learning Infographics

Many 21C or Ed Tech entrepreneurs and publishers are looking to make a buck from the excitement and ambiguity of “EDUCATION 2.0”. Many of these products are based on neuromyths. The OECD states, “A neuromyth usually starts out with a misunderstanding, a misreading and, in some cases, a deliberate warping of the scientifically established facts to make a relevant case for education or for other purposes.”  These myths are dangerous and duplicitous. The OECD continues, “Parents, teachers and educational specialists are naturally eager to put into practice what they have read or heard in the popular media. There is a danger that they might be tempted to too readily adopt so-called “brain-based” teaching or rearing strategies that are in fact not based on any evidence at all.” People are always looking for answers and the Lyle Lanleys of the world are looking to sell them. Just like the human brain, education is a complex system. When we try to reduce it to its base parts, we strip it of its beauty.

Don’t just take my word at face value, do some follow-up on your own as well. The following links are both source material for this piece and further research:

OECD Neuromyths

Think Neuroscience – The Myth of Learning Styles

Separating Neuromyths from Science in Education

Edutopia – Education Neuromyths

CEA -Neuromyths are a Barrier to Changing Education

There are countless research based ideas to support the integration of 21st century learning fluencies. We just have to be patient and judicious as we seek to discern fact from fiction.

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Don’t patronize me!

Raising the level of teacher and/or student engagement is an ever popular topic. Many question how best to raise the level of engagement. I wonder though, should we even be asking that question? or more practically, maybe the question itself IS the problem.

Engagement can be a pretty one-sided venture. Depending on how you approach it, engagement could be viewed as a static activity whereby an individual is investing emotional energy into a fully formulated or prepackaged vision. When a canned board or ministry program is released to the education community, the goal is to engage the teachers and the learners. Success in this case is measured by how willing the participants are to get with the program and put it to work. Is this what we really want? Sounds kind of patronizing to me. Not to be trite or hyperbolic but doesn’t the “no taxation without representation” refrain of the pre-American Revolution times come to mind? You want my engagement but not my involvement in constructing the program or its implementation. Gee, thanks!

Rather than addressing the level of engagement, I think that we need to reflect on the level of participation. Many parts of our lived experience are so entrenched because there were no other options at the time of their creation. Educational programming has been top down in delivery and creation for so long because that made it easier to get the product to market. Connecting large numbers of people to contribute to an idea was either cost and/or location prohibitive. We see this model being chipped away daily thanks to the  rise of connective technology. Rolling out a program without larger participation is no longer done out necessity, now it is a matter of choice. I am by no means suggesting that we run education referendum style where every decision or idea requires the consent or contribution of the entire education community. I do believe though that creation of policy and programs must become much more participatory in nature.

As an administrator, I believe it to be a fool’s mission to drop an idea on a staff without some form of participatory decision making. It doesn’t have to be the whole staff but using your School Improvement Team as key partners in the creation of policy is hugely important. It lifts moral since it doesn’t feel imposed but it also becomes a “smarter” venture because more ideas and viewpoints were added to the puzzle. This is not a difficult proposition because it is done within a single school. The challenge comes when you try to scale this type of participation to a system level. Connective technology makes this type of large scale participation possible. The doubters will claim that the level of participation will likely be low. SO WHAT? I am an administrator in the Toronto Catholic District School Board. We have approximately 9000 staff directly involved in learning (teachers, support staff and P/VP’s). Even if an open challenge initiative was to receive response from 1% of that population, that’s 90 people. Ninety new views, ideas or even idea fragments added to the pool of innovation. A slick campaign that combines substantive issues, good presentation design and heavy celebration of success is bound to attract more users with each iterative attempt.

21C is about opening up traditionally closed structures. It is about approaching problems from new and broad-based perspectives. It would be hypocritical to preach collaboration as a new world virtue to our students without doing it ourselves. This small example of a Twitter conversation has HUGE potential for student learning. An enlightened and open educator, Ms. Heidi Siwak puts out this amazing invitation and another amazing teacher Stepan Pruchnicky directs it to myself and the TCDSB SEF Lead Jan Murphy based on his knowledge of a collaborative inquiry of which we are a part. Sandra Mustacato from AICT joins and hopefully carries this on to her circle.

Twitter___Interactions

OpenIDEO scales this idea to a worldwide reach. IDEO partners with various NGOs, companies and non-profits to open large scale social problems to proposed solutions from the global community. The process is an intricate but accessible one, far beyond just throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks. Ideas are put through a rigorous design process to reach a workable solution based on communal decision making.

E-waste is a global problem that should be open to a global response. The goal is not have people engage with a ready made solution rather the goal is for large scale participation. Education has always been a complex entity. We must start to harness the collective energy and ideas of our learning community. I truly believe that if we want 21C fluencies to take root and eventually bloom, we must cultivate a participatory culture. It is time to move way beyond engagement and think participation.

I can, not I’m told.

Change be scary. It can be so scary because of the potential for extremes. A plan could be an extreme failure or an extreme success. Both realities can be equally scary. Education change is scary because it will require many of us to “let go”. This is concerning for some because they worry about students not learning in a non-traditional model while others are concerned because it is SO hard to let go and give up control. I can empathize with both camps and with  those who lie somewhere in between.

We are a “wild west” period right now where change is scattershot and seemingly a moving target. Acceptable one day and repudiated the next. Some ideas seem to be enacted or considered simply for the sake of change rather than for the benefits of student learning; making change all the scarier. Change is worth the trouble if helps the kids. “Help” means many things to many people. I believe that “help” happens when we make changes or enact programs that empower students to take charge of their learning. Figuring out how to do this kind of change can be confounding.

I consider myself to be an “ideas guy” who is learning to get better on the operations side. I am a massive media consumer who pays attention to EVERYTHING which can lead to me paying attention to nothing! I crave frameworks and mental maps to help me coordinate ideas and make meaning. Those serendipitous moments when the right idea hits you at just the right moment are magic. At Connect 2013, I attended Chris Kennedy’s (@chrkennedy) session where he presented the three pillars that the West Vancouver School District is building programming around. Their focus is on 1) Inquiry 2) Self-Regulation  and 3) Digital Access. EXACTLY the simplification  that needed the focus our team at St. John. Empowering students to become life-long learners above all else is an identified priority but how do we operationalize such a broad concept? Thanks to Mr. Kennedy and WVSB, we have that foundation to put ideas into action.

Lightning struck again quickly when I came across Kiran Bir Sethi’s TEDed talk regarding student empowerment. Through the mantra of  “I can”, her Riverside school in India designed a program for students to blur the lines between school and the real world. Students were given the chance to enact real change through a Project Based Learning on steroids kind of program.  The goal was to turn learning over to the students through a three part plan:

1) AWARENESS: see the change  2) ENABLE: be changed and 2) EMPOWER: lead the change. The end goal is to create a student body that is more competent and less scared. As Marianne Williamson  so timelessly and beautifully stated “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond Measure….And as we let our own light shine, We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, Our presences automatically liberate other.” Empowering students to take charge of their learning, one student, one class or one school at a time has that ability to liberate others.

When our students start taking action because “they can” and not because “they are told”, good change has taken root.

Being a tourist in your own Education System

Last summer my wife’s aunt and uncle visited us from Cape Town, South Africa. Her uncle wanted to visit all of the major Toronto landmarks. We took the red double-decker sightseeing bus all around the city. I saw parts of my own city that I had never really paid attention to before. Being a tourist in your own city can be  a very enlightening experience.

Taking that tourist approach to your own education system can be equally enlightening. I found this video on Edutopia from the OECD Education Everywhere series about education in Ontario. The video focused on Unionville High School (part of the northern Toronto suburb of Markham ).  Markham is an extremely diverse city with a very large Chinese and south Asian population.

The video paid specific attention to the role of the “Student Success” teacher and the larger Student Success team. The team meets weekly and focuses on coordinating supports for the transition of new Canadian students. The goal is to provide supports for the whole child and not only the academic side.

Additional information and perspectives can be found in this OECD document:

https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B7X-Dkl-q6IfdWZDVFVRNnVHamM/preview

Tablets in Ethiopia: Flipping without a Classroom

I just read a fascinating article in the June issue of WIRED magazine by Eric Steuer. Nicholas Negroponte (founder of the One Laptop Per Child project) in conjunction with Tufts University and the MIT Media Lab have launched a potentially groundbreaking research initiative focusing on the ability of children to learn without any schools, teachers or books.

The research team arranged for solar powered Tablets (courtesy of master designer Yves Behar) to be dropped off in an Ethiopian village without electricity and a literacy rate of 0%. The children in the test groups, aged 4 through 12, were given NO instruction in regards to even the basic workings of the Tablet. Negroponte shared the startling results:

  • within 15 minutes the first child figured out how to turn it on
  • within 3 more minutes ALL children had it turned on
  • after a week 47 of the loaded apps had been used
  • two weeks later the children were reciting the alphabet

The researchers hope to find out if this mastery of basic skills can lead to an intuitive development of critical reading comprehension skills.

The potential for this project is amazing. As tablet technology becomes more common place and thus cheaper, equity concerns in regards to Ed Tech start to evaporate. This study also shows the innate power of children to learn. This is further evidence that our job as educators is to facilitate and not dominate the education of our children.

Talk about the speed of innovation – Flipping the classroom, before the classroom even exists!

Passion, Joy, Play and Learning

I came across an interesting article from Mind/Shift via Edutopia on Twitter. The article was written by two Finnish educators, Taina Rantala and Kaarina Määttä. It focused on the importance of learning being a joyful activity for students.  A teacher-centered lesson might bring joy to the teacher but rarely does it do the same for the students! The teachers used an ethnographic research method and followed a cohort of students through grades 1 and 2. These educators observed that:

1) Joy was generated through choice. The authors stressed that the students should be given choice from within a set of objectives developed by the teacher. Far from an anarchy of student choice, the teachers set limits for the students to help guide their discovery.

2) Play based learning was highly engaging and joyful.

3) Self-discovery gave the students satisfaction as they came to master a concept through their own inquiry. The sense of ownership made them more passionate.

I found it fascinating that the results of this study of 6 and 7 years overlapped almost perfectly with the work of Daniel H. Pink shared in his  book Drive:

Pink’s concludes through his research that monetary incentives don’t work when it comes to motivating people to succeed. People are motivated through:

1) AUTONOMY      2) ENGAGEMENT      3) MASTERY

Funny how it works, kids are little humans after all!

Lessons from Abroad – Finland

Finland has been getting tremendous amounts of positive publicity for the success of their education system. They have catapulted up the PISA rankings and based on aggregate scores, Finland is now ranked as the #1 education system in the world. At the TCDSB Student Success Conference, renowned education expert Andy Hargreaves compared the Finnish system to a Ferrari because it the nexus point of innovation and performance. Hargreaves compared Canada to a thoroughbred racehorse because of the tremendous focus on improvement at the expense of innovation.

What makes the Finnish system so great? The first video from the American Teachers Federation focuses on the following success indicators:

1) Teaching is a highly respected profession where all teachers are required to hold a Master’s degree. The opinions of teachers are taken into account when important decisions are made. Job embedded professional development and teacher collaboration are core to the development of all educators.

2) The relationship between teachers and administration is extremely close. There is a synergy between these two important roles.

3) The focus on the individual student in a priority. Differentiation is organic to the process.

The second video from the OECD via Edutopia takes a closer look at the focus on the individual child. Key points from this video include:

1) Early identification of students who are struggling. The goal is to deal with learning gaps early so that struggles do not compound. The special education resource teacher is engaged early in the process to observe students who are struggling.

2) There is not a stigma attached to special education support in Finland. Upwards of 90% of kids in the system have received support in some manner.

3) Every school in the system has a student welfare committee made up of school personnel who meet twice monthly. The goal is to regularly discuss the development of all children but especially those who have been flagged. Individual problems are dealt with on a case by case basis. These issues range from the emotional to academic level.

The Finnish system places a huge emphasis on people and not bureaucracy. Policy is of secondary concern to the welfare of students and educators. Surprise, surprise..putting people first actually works!

Lessons from Abroad – Singapore

Edutopia in conjunction with the OECD created a series of videos highlighting the education reform movements of several countries. I will post each of the videos along with a brief summary. I found these videos to be EXTREMELY helpful. Finland has been getting most of the accolades when it comes progressive systems but Singapore deserves some love as well.

This snapshot of education in Singapore was enlightening on many levels but three things really stood out for me:

1) The focus on Student Engagement. The school leaders explicitly stated that “fun” was a priority.


2) There was an acknowledgement that technology was core to the being of the students. Rather than view it as a distraction, the teachers and administrators found ways to integrate into the curriculum.


3) Professional Development as a networked activity was HEAVILY emphasized. Technology allowed these teachers to create learning communities that extended FAR beyond the walls of the school.

NEXT UP…FINLAND