Monthly Archives: January 2013

Student-Directed Learning and Self-Regulation

Like most educators living in the digital age, I worry about the effect of technology on students. On one hand, technology offers a wonderful way for students to connect to real life learning activities, and to benefit from access to all of the content in the world at their fingertips. On the other hand, it represents a huge distraction.

I’m coming to believe that attention will be the center of the next turning. Attention drives the economy, and each of us personally either remains mindful of, or driven by, the distraction the economy of consumerism creates, aided and abetted by technology. As Peter Herschock says, “But if economics is deciding how to allocate scarce resources, it makes very little sense to talk about an information or knowledge economy. Information isn’t scarce; knowledge isn’t scarce. What is scarce is attention. The kind and quality of investment that people have, in terms of their consciousnesses—that’s really what we’re talking about. That’s what’s driving the global economy.” So clearly, attention, and how we allocate our attention, is a big deal.

This creates quite a dilemma for educators. How to expose students to the richness of information and real world connections that the web provides while not allowing them to wallow in the distractions of Facebook, Twitter, etc. etc? What is our role? How do we help students best develop the crucial skills needed in attention regulation?

I’ve done some research. I’m aware of the argument that Nicholas Carr presents in the The Shallows. I get it. It’s hard to argue that our ability to attend to lengthy work, deep thinking, critical analysis etc., is not affected by our superficial leaping from item to item via the internet and all of the social media it has provided, and it makes sense that, because what we attend to affects our ‘wiring,’ the structure of our brains may be changing.

I’ve read Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It. I’m convinced that our ability to attend has always been compromised, if not by external distraction, then by the distraction that we experience internally. I was struck by Davidson pointing out that even when reading a novel that we are engaged in, a full 20 percent of that time is time that we are distracted internally. (I’ve done some self monitoring on this, and even though I’m a huge reader, that figure seems low!) To what degree is this distraction driven by technology, or merely a function of inherent distractibility?

I’ve read Howard Rheingold and agree entirely that one of the skills that is so important in benefiting from the positive aspects of technology while limiting the negative is the development of mindfulness. Rheingold recommends developing a mindfulness practice (as Buddhists would say, “On the cushion”) and then applying that our computer usage. Rheingold explains that we all suffer from things like “email induced apnea.” When opening email, the average user is likely to stop breathing- the anxiety of what is in that email folder creates that much anxiety, most of which is under our level of consciousness. Thus Rheingold suggests that attention to our breathing helps us keep our attention focused, our body functioning, and makes it less likely that we will get lost in internet distractions. This is a clear view of what we mean when we speak of ‘self-regulation.’

All of these authors agree that a much-needed skill is our ability to regulate ourselves in terms of our use of technology. And I believe that each would agree that we are all on the front edge of learning this. Also true is that engaging in technology is no longer an option if we want to remain relevant as educators. The technological tsunami will continue, along with our need to use it because of the potential it offers, and to use it critically because of the correlating potential to negatively affect us.

What’s an educator to do?

Along comes Punya Mishra and his partners at Deep Play Research Group with some very reassuring news recently published in Creativity, Self-Directed Learning and the Architecture of Technology Rich Environments. Mishra and his partners suggest that by immersing students in a technology rich environment that is structured around student questions and passions, the students will begin to develop the needed self-regulation skills that allow them to effectively negotiate this environment. The authors write, quoting B.J. Zimmerman, “As Zimmerman, one of the leading scholars and researchers in the area of self-directed learning said, ‘When students understand that they are creative agents, responsible for and capable of self-development and self-determination of their goals, their self as an agent will provide the motivation necessary for self regulation.'”

What this means is that if students are put in the position of being agents of their learning, rather than as subjects of the goals of others, they will be motivated to self-regulate. Their learning goals will trump the potential for technologically aided distractions. I think it’s safe to assume this self-regulation is a process, and there will Facebook and twitter forays along the way. However, it’s important to know that when students are allowed to control their direction, they will. The key is shifting the context of learning from ‘teacher controlled’ to ‘student directed.’ Mishra et. al. again, “What is clear is that the development of creativity cannot happen (at the very least cannot happen easily) in the kind of traditional classroom and disciplinary structures we have today. Open-ended, technology rich learning contexts appear to provide opportunities for students to be structured in their ways of thinking, even while they are open to pursuing questions of personal interest- the crux of creativity. As educators we need to understand that we are architects and designers of learning environments that allow students to develop the kinds of mental discipline required to think outside of the disciplines.”

We need to design a technology rich environment that allows students the space to ask their own questions and drive their own learning.

Mishra’s paper is a mere 4 pages long and well worth your time.

De-Professionalizing Teachers in the Age of Accountability

Teacher/student/activist Cory Steeves has done an important analysis of the discourse of “21st Century” education reform in (De/Re)-Constructing Teachers and Their Work: A Discourse Analysis of British Columbia’s 21st-century Policy Agenda. His work covers a lot of ground and touches on many important areas of education reform. He specifically looks at what is going in his home of British Columbia, but his analysis can be applied to any place touched by neo-liberal educational policy.

A striking example of Steeve’s thesis is his analysis of the de-professionalization of teaching via the attack on public education. He shows that corporate leaders have disproportional weight in policy development- teachers are rarely asked to be involved while corporate leaders are over- represented. Policy makers lean on the influence of corporate business leaders rather than those who actually do the work of teaching. Steeves writes, “My belief that teachers must have meaningful influence over the policies which shape their work is grounded in the awareness that it is teachers not policy makers- who are solely entrusted with the responsibility of ‘enabl{ling} all learners to become literate, to develop their individual potential and to acquire the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to contribute to a healthy, democratic and pluralist society and a prosperous and sustainable economy.’ (B.C. Ministry of Education, 1996, p.. C-13)” If teachers are not involved in the creation of the policy, and yet are held accountable for its results, then clearly this is something that is being done to teachers rather than with them, and thus represents on attack on public education. As Steeves puts it, “I believe that if teachers are not meaningfully influencing policy-level discussions about what constitutes teachers’ work, then public schooling might be seen as under attack, or ‘terrorized’.”

In a recent interview that Steeves held with Dr. E. Wayne Ross, Ross described the language of accountability this way: “Accountability is an economic interaction within hierarchical, bureaucratic systems between those who have power and those who don’t. (It is) a means of dispersing power to lower levels of hierarchical systems. Those who receive power are obligated to ‘render an account’ of accomplishing outcomes desired by those in power. Accountability depends on surveillance and self-regulation. Its power is spectacle that results from accounting. Accountability schemes obfuscate identity of higher authority; serve interest of status quo/unequal power relations.”

What Ross describes is exactly the process that Steeves explicates in his analysis of the power relations between the corporate interests represented through policy, and the teachers and children who are the victims of that policy. Teachers become ‘technocrats,’ objects of policy which is determined by business interests, and are held ‘accountable’ via the surveillance of testing without ever being asked for their input. This ‘accountability’ disperses power through teachers (and their evaluations based on test scores, for instance). The professionalism of teachers, which assumes the ability to make decisions, is thus greatly denigrated. Teachers become the tool for increasing test scores, which Steeves calls ‘accountingization’, rather than professional decision makers concerned with the complexities of educating (not the simplicity of ‘achievement’) the students they are entrusted with.

Steeves works from the belief that if we want schools to be laboratories of democracy that serve the ideals of justice, and thus teachers to act as democratic agents, then the policy making process needs to be democratic, which assumes including the voice of teachers. Otherwise we are left with a hypocritical, cynical attack on the commons, a continuing erosion of the public in favor of the private as represented by the ‘market,’ which is the highest value of neo-liberalism. Scary indeed.

What I’ve written here is really no more than a superficial distillation of Steeves’ work. Please read it for yourself.

See Steeves’ abstract here.

His complete work here.

Follow Steeves on twitter: @symphily

Why the Education System Needs Reinventing, Not Reforming

I love this article, An A+ Student Regrets HIs Grades. It reveals a student waking up, though a bit late, to the damage that can be done through striving for success in our achievement oriented high schools. The author writes about beginning to recognize the difference between “success” and learning. As he puts it, “We sacrifice learning for schooling.” And this is done at the expense of intrinsic drives and creativity.

More from the article:

“The purpose and meaning of education is widely misunderstood and wrongly presented.

This is why the education system needs ‘reinventing, not reforming,’ according to Harvard Innovation Education Fellow Tony Wagner. We’re creating a culture- reinforced by society and habitually drilled into students from an early age and well into their teens- that revolves around textbooks, lectures, GPAs and exams, where failing or not doing well are either unacceptable or wrongly considered a sign of weakness or a lack of intellect.”

What the Corporate Reform Agenda Misses

The corporate ed reform’s  imagination of learning is limited to student understanding of content, and thus, because of the forms used to measure this understanding, the students’ ability to regurgitate said content.

Productive  learning, on the other hand, is about transformation of character.

Sarason (2004) describes productive learning as thinking critically  expressing creativity, tolerating ambiguity, and holding fewer dogmatic values.  Such learning leads to great levels of personal responsibility, involvement in the community, and participation in democratic processes.

In other words, productive learning leads to a transformation of character and dispositions  whereas the typical shallow learning of many high schools has no impact on student character or dispositions   If a school culture is to transform young people and our future as a nation, it must transform young people from acquiescent and disengaged to internally motivated, engaged, and hopeful.”

Ron Newell and Mark Van Ryzin in Assessing What Really Matters in Schools

Process or Content? Both

There has been a fairly recent upheaval in the worlds of psychology and philosophy. We used to think of reason as an act that was completely separate from emotion. Descartes famously established this view with his edict, “I think, therefore I am.” Our being as human was determined by our ability to think. And, because this was the essential ability above all else that made us human, the act of thinking, or reasoning, was privileged above all else.

Lost in this was the importance of emotions, and the fact that it is impossible to unbind our thinking from our emotions. George Lakoff points this out in his concept of embodied cognition. He argues that cognition, thinking, occurs only within the grounding of our bodies, and this bodily grounding necessarily includes our emotions. It is impossible to separate the two. We may speak about them separately, but this is simply an instance of the way language fragments reality. (See David Bohm’s, Wholeness and the Implicate Order for more on language and wholeness.) The consequences of this metaphorical fragmentation have been dire, with many arguing that it is at the root of much of our modern day anxiety, and even the root cause of our ecological troubles. (For more, see cultural critic Morris Berman’s “The Reenchantment of the World”.)

I don’t want to make too much of this, other than as a means of illustration for a similar mistake we make in schools when we separate content from process in our imagining of learning.

Our modern day minds have privileged content over process in the same way we have privileged reasoning over emotions (and there are probably connections to Descartes in this privileging of content). Content is that which can be can be quantified and measured. This, from a scientific stand point of view, is what we can objectively verify. And, the logic goes, because it can be objectively verified it must therefore be more valuable.

At the other end of this false spectrum lies the process of learning. Process says that the important thing in learning is the cognitive processes that involve thinking. These are the “21st Century Skills” that are all the rave right now. (See Will Richardson’s article explicating some of this.)

(As a side note, in my view the phrase “21st Century Skills” tends to raise connotations of feeding children to an economic engine, so I prefer Ron Ritchart’s ‘dispositions’ as language that is more fitting to the process view of thinking I am getting at.)

The false dichotomy is that of either a “content focus” or a “process focus” approach to learning, and this false dichotomy privileges content over process, as the dichotomy of philosophy privileged reason over emotion. And it also does so with dire consequences.

The effect has led to focusing on content to the exclusion of process simply because content is easy to measure. Our current emphasis on testing can be directly attributed to this focus, as in what Paulo Friere has labelled the banking concept of education , which assumes that we are simply vessels to be filled with knowledge, and our retention of that knowledge can measured. In opposition to this, the process theory of learning assumes that the cognitive processes of learning content are crucial, and our ability to develop them is the purpose of schools.

My point here is that we harm students by making this an “either/or” gambit. They are both necessary. However, when the approach is knowledge based, or content focused, we lose out on our ability to develop the necessary dispositions for future authentic learning of content. On the other hand, you can not have a process approach to learning unless the process occurs via some form of content. In the process approach, you get the best of both worlds because process can occur only within the context of content. As a simple illustrative example, you can not focus on the skills of dialogue (process) without a topic (content) of discussion. Both are important. However, the topic could potentially be learned without dialogue through direct instruction, in which case all of the potential for developing the skills of dialogue would be lost.

At the same time, we must recognize that these processes we value so much are really hard to measure. And when we attempt to measure them, especially as the outcome of content knowledge in mind via standardized testing, we alter the process of learning because, once again, we are prioritizing content over process. When we test, we alter what it is that is emphasized, and this is done at the expense of the dispositions gained through a process approach. (For more evidence, see the foremost expert on this, Yong Zhao.) By measuring one-dimensionally via testing we pervert the process of learning.

So, process or content? Both.

Schooling for Economics, or Citizenship?

Please take some time to read Insight Labs’, “Disrupting the Discourse: An Insight Labs Inquiry Into the Rhetoric of School Reform” .

And if you don’t have time to read the whole paper, at least read the manifesto it is based on, “School is Not School.”

The crux of “Disrupting” is that we imagine schooling in a far too limited way, and this limitation is a huge obstacle to school reform. The current way of imagining insists that the purpose of schools is the development of ‘human capital.’ This is a utilitarian view that assumes that we need to develop individuals who will serve, and benefit from, our economy. It assumes that schooling should be designed to give students the skills needed to compete in the global economy, and to supply workers for this economy.

To quote the report, “The problem… was that the core purpose of school did not naturally lend itself to the kinds of passions that create national movements. Most school reform proposals, as well as policies current among the status quo, were measured by fairly narrow criteria: will more students be prepared for college? Will they have the skills they need to pursue remunerative jobs? Will they form a workforce that will keep the United States competitive? If you take the shining faces of children out of the equation, these are goals that most people understand to be important, but not ones that are likely to bring them to the streets – particularly when the targets are 20 years in the future. And given that the highest ideal offered by the model was the economic success of individuals, it would be illogical for most parents to commit their time and energy to the future of children besides their own.” (My emphasis added.)

This vision of reform reinforces the conservative frame of the individual striving in a market driven world.

And this view is an obstacle to school reform because it is individualistic. It is about the privatized ‘me’ rather than common ‘we.’ The only excitement generated within it is based on how ‘I’ might benefit- there is no mobilizing, binding vision. And there is no recognition within it of the interdependent reality of life.

In opposition to this, the Insight Lab suggests that a transcendent purpose that will generate the energy needed for change is that of the development of citizens working for the common good. Rather than a vision of purpose of schooling as the development of the individual skills needed to serve a market, the purpose of schooling should instead be to develop individuals who recognize the interdependence of life, and act in accordance with this recognition. That is, the development of citizens with the skills needed to benefit a common good.

Another way to put this is, that our current conversation around education reform is based on the ‘how’ of schooling. Instead, we should be questioning, as Will Richardson suggests, the ‘why’of schooling.

As a warning, my understanding is that “Disrupting” and “School is Not School” are not intended to provide answers. Nor do they assume there are no problems within their suggestions- in fact, much of “Disrupting” is a discussion of the potential issues it raises. They are intended to be the beginning of a reframing of our conversation around reform. And to this end they succeed.