The revolution will be screened
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Have your say on digital technologies in the NZ Curriculum
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Have a say
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Local and international research shows New Zealand educators are enthusiastic and innovative adopters of digital learning technologies. Teachers insist, though, that children’s learning needs to take priority over the IT industry’s hype. They also need more PLD on technology and more resources, and less National Standards, which drive teaching and learning toward narrowly focussed literacy and numeracy
Like any revolution, the midst of it is chaos. There are more questions than answers. For example, has the government already decided to make the teaching of coding compulsory in primary schools?
The Institute of IT Professionals (IITP) seems to think so. “NZ Govt Commits to Kids Coding,” it declared on its Techblog site in July.
The government, it appears, has signed up to a group of five countries called Digital 5, or D5, along with the UK , South Korea, Israel and Estonia. This is a “G8-style group” set up to grow “digital economies”. A commitment to teach children to code is part of the plan.
In a rather unfortunate coincidence, research by the Children’s Society shows that South Korea, Estonia and the UK are home to some of the unhappiest children, according to a report in The Independent newspaper.
Will drilling their new entrants (and our new entrants) so they can code make them any happier?
“One or two in a class of new entrants might get it,” says Wellington teacher and technology exponent, Jo Fothergill. But schools are not likely to react well to a rushed and radical rewrite of the New Zealand Curriculum.
Nevertheless, there is a strong push to include a new Digital Technology learning area in the Curriculum soon. The IITP is already promoting the specifics of a radical rewrite.
Earlier this year, the Minister of Education set up a review to look at how digital technologies fit in the Curriculum. The ministry has brought together a group of 30-40 people to review the “positioning and content” of digital technologies in the Curriculum. It consists largely of businesspeople, philanthropists, academics, and public and private bureaucrats, with the barest sprinkling of independent practising teachers.
Some of the proposals being put forward verge on the ludicrous: five-year-olds will “understand what algorithms are and follow an algorithim”, while “keeping personal information private”.
Fothergill is less cynical. “An algorithim is basically thinking in steps. It can be taught. But the problem is when you’re talking about teachers, you’re talking about workload.
“Changes would be better introduced as modifications to the Curriculum so that teachers simply extend the work they are already doing, such as computational thinking and digital citizenship.”
Optional coding please
A lack of resources is the actual urgent and pressing problem. “There are resources for science – the Building Science Concepts is really excellent,” says Fothergill. “It gives clear, levelled steps and activities. You get authentic learning. It gives great pre-reading. But there’s nothing like that for technology.” She does, however, recommend Canterbury University’s Computer Science Unplugged website as a starting point.
A survey of NZEI member leaders showed that Fothergill’s concerns are shared. Most wanted the teaching of coding to be optional. Most wanted more PLD on technology and more technology resources.
OECD research shows New Zealand teachers rate near the top in a large group of developed countries for using technologies in their classrooms. But they are below the average in being able to access the PLD they need to make them work well.
“I have to source the PD from friends and in my own time.” “I can’t get it in areas I want.” “There’s no PDL for technology this year at my school.” “PD is all on numeracy and literacy” – were some of the comments from member leaders.
Yet teachers being able to get PD is crucial if the revolution is to be of any use at all to children because digital technologies, in and of themselves, do not improve learning outcomes.
In fact, according to Andreas Schleicher, “students who use computers moderately at school have somewhat better learning outcomes than students who rarely use computers; but students who use computers frequently at school do a lot worse, even after accounting for their socio-economic status and other background factors.” Schleicher heads the OECD’s Education Directorate and was hosted here last year by Minister Hekia Parata.
No silver bullet
His words are echoed by the Education Ministry’s Chief Education Scientific Advisor, Professor Stuart McNaughton, from Auckland University’s School of Education.
“The research is fairly clear. If you provide one-to-one devices, if you create access for class learning, typically you get higher rates of engagement.
“If it’s more than engagement you want, if you want achievement, certain other things have to happen – challenging material, complex material, it has to be appropriately structured, and so on.”
Teachers know this too well – students might be distracted and offtask while online but they are actively engaged.
Research also indicates that the much-touted idea of digital technology increasing “agency” – students gaining more control over the content and pace of their learning – does not improve learning outcomes.
“Not unless there’s a degree of teaching mediation,” says McNaughton. “Digital technology actually requires teachers to be even more skilled.”
Like educators, McNaughton is also very aware of the “digital divides”. The 2014 Digital Technologies in Schools survey found there is about one computer for every three New Zealand students, and there is a clear bias toward high decile students having greater access to technology.
McNaughton isn’t as worried about this – he thinks this gap is closing, and can be closed, citing the low decile Manaiakalani cluster in Auckland, which has along the way picked up sponsorship and some high-power supporters.
Philanthropists are keen to put money into technology in schools. The Next Foundation, whose money comes from the family that founded the New Zealand Towel Service, has funded 800 scholarships for teachers to take PD through Mindlab, Unitec’s digital technologies in education collaboration.
But is this kind of funding enough to meet demand? Conservationists talk about the “panda” effect – cute animals which attract funding. Is a school in a rural centre, plagued with joblessness and gangs, for example, able to package itself in a way to attract big-city money and articulate sponsors?
McNaughton is more concerned about another kind of digital divide – teachers unable to get the PLD to be able to use the technology powerfully with learners from different backgrounds. Used badly, technology has the potential to simply reinforce inequality.
“You saw it in the US with literacy, where poor students, who came to school ‘behind’ got drilled with ‘phonics’ to get the ‘basics’ but they missed out on the extended discussions and other rich learning needed to achieve at the higher levels.” If digital technology is simply used to drill children, say, on basic facts, then they too will miss out on what is needed to cross the social divide. There are also concerns about “Euro-centrism” – the individual student with their individual device is not always using cultural strengths and building collaboration.
This is quite a way from the hype of the IT industry and the edu-corporates, which make great claims for their wares. For example, Rupert Murdoch, in describing a company he’d bought, to be run by charter-school reformer Joel Klein, said, “You can get by with half as many teachers by using his computers.”
Fortunately, educators are honing their skills at filtering the hype. But are New Zealand policymakers doing the same? In November, the government will host a conference in Auckland in November for the Global Education Leaders Partnership (GELP).
GELP is a think tank, originally set up by business giant Cisco, which in collaboration with Pearson Education, works to commercialise public education, particularly assessment. GELP features business people, philanthropists, on-song academics, and is co-chaired by Anthony McKay, the Australian who was picked by Minister Parata to be deputy chair of the of the new education council, EDUCANZ.
Minister Parata and Associate Minister Nikki Kaye, who has responsibilities for digital education, declined to answer questions from EA about the conference, D5, the lack of access to PLD or the digital divides. Instead questions were referred to the Ministry of Education, which supplied a bland statement about the importance of digital technologies and the need to respond quickly to change.
When asked if Minister Parata would be attending the Global Education Industry Summit in Finland in October, an official said this was likely as Parata was applying for leave to go.
The government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on system-wide initiatives such as the schools intranet N4L (network for learning), ultrafast broadband for schools, the online search engine and networking and sharing tool POND and PaCT (the Progress and Consistency Tool).
But uptake on these has been hampered by what is widely perceived as the government’s anti-teacher agenda. If schools dive into these initiatives, how will government and officials use the information and data? PaCT, for example, appears to be a tool to ram home National Standards. It could also be used to allocate funding according to the likes of “performance”.
Meanwhile, back on the Kapiti Coast, where Jo Fothergill teaches, she is enthusiastic about conversations had with Māori medium colleagues. “We don’t want to rush on into big changes in the Curriculum. We want a bigger conversation, with whānau and about where we go with this.”
Do we want to be Estonia? Or the Philippines even, where 70% of children learn coding? What is the purpose of education? Is it to fill a gap in the current job market? Is it to future-proof children for unknown prospects? Is it to produce digitally literate citizens?
The digital revolution: more questions than answers.
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Digital learning technologies at brand new Shotover Primary in Queenstown, along with open spaces and team teaching, have led teachers to change their pedagogy and unpack “collaboration”. It’s much more than cooperation, say teachers Muireann Carr and Eve McSoriley, known at Shotover as “mentors”.
Visitors, on seeing the school’s open spaces, often ask about the logistics of managing up to 90 children in a single “habitat”. They want to know where the mentors put their resources, how they plan together and where they teach “loud things”.
But Carr and McSoriley explain that collaboration goes much deeper: it’s thinking together and driving the children’s progress as a team.
Collaboration is about building trusting, open and honest relationships. “If you don’t trust each other, you can’t work together in a space like this,” says Carr.
Working closely with other adults has been one of the biggest changes for the mentors, and they say the benefits are huge.
Unlike schools in urban centres, rural schools can struggle to find staff and Shotover Primary is recruiting. “Help us create truly authentic learning in one of New Zealand’s most stunning environments”, Ben Witheford, Principal.
“It’s easier to try things in a team, because we’re all in it together,” says McSoriley. At the same time, the mentors feel more accountable – they don’t want to let their team down.
“The single cell experience is about you and how you have caused learning for your children. Here, it’s about us,” explains Carr. “If a child progresses, they might be in my reading group, but they’ve also had phonics with Carmel and a big book with Eve.”
Change is a constant
Collaboration can make for really powerful teaching. The mentors have many on-going conversations about the children and where they’re at.
“When we started,” says Carr, “we’d put off making changes until the next week. Now, when we see a need, we start straight away. We’re always talking about and questioning what we’re doing.”
They observe and reflect on each other’s strategies and practices. “We’re four working as one. We have more capacity to target learning better,” she says.
Teach to your own style
Is collaboration for everyone? McSoriley says they’ve all had to let go of some old habits – and they’ve all spent some time in the pit. On the flip side, they’ve grown tremendously as professionals. She feels valued and trusted to teach to her own style.
Carr adds, “I’ve learnt a lot about myself from working in a team. And teaching’s more fun this way.”