Messing about on the internet

I am generally not a fan of OECD education reports. The conclusions often reach beyond the strength of the evidence. I will never forget watching a video-linked Andreas Schleicher suggesting that PISA data supports the notion of more personalisation. What, really? Would that be evidence from Shanghai or evidence from South Korea? However, this time, they have released a report that confirms my own prejudices. So I won’t look too hard for the flaws.

The OECD seems to have found that merely giving computers to students does not improve their performance in reading, maths or science and that frequent use is likely to be linked to lower results. This is not a surprise.

There is a useful idea that keeps cropping-up in education and almost forms a model for lots of education research. Essentially, students learn what they are taught and don’t learn what they are not taught. I intend to write one of my more technical blog post about it at some point but Dan Willingham frames it well in his book, “Why don’t students like school?”.  He discusses a teacher who teaches students about a key historical event known as the ‘underground railroad’; a system for African Americans to escape slave states. The teacher gets the students baking the sorts of biscuits that the escapees would have eaten. And so the students would have been thinking about flour and eggs and baking rather than history.

This is exactly what happens when computers are gratuitously introduced into classrooms. A teacher thinks, ‘These students need to know definitions of key words; I’ll get them to find the definitions on the internet and make a PowerPoint.’ It sounds like a good idea until you analyse what the students will be thinking about. They will be thinking about animations and clip art and how to work PowerPoint.

This might be worthwhile if you have identified these things as stuff that is worth learning. But you cannot possibly justify it as a way of learning the definitions. At best it would be extremely inefficient and at worst the students would learn little of what is intended.

And yet, technology is beguiling because these students would look busy in a thoroughly modern kind of way. They would probably quite enjoy making PowerPoints – just as many generations have enjoyed making posters – and so are unlikely to become argumentative and difficult. Add to this leaders who are encouraging teachers to embed technology throughout the curriculum and you have a recipe for lots of self-defeating busywork.


12 thoughts on “Messing about on the internet

  1. says:

    I teach math at the collegiate level and I am really torn with pure online education. I taught in a distance-learning program for over a year, taught in a hybrid program during that same time, and taught sit-down lecture style classes on both sides of this experience.

    I really like the ease of grading, assignment collection, and available resources the online environment can offer, but I think the students work themselves into a box regardless of the policies and materials you use because the education becomes impersonal and allows them to wander into unknown territories completely unaccompanied. I really like the sit-down lecture format as well, but I dread grading assignments for large classes and rarely felt like I could assign and grade enough written work to help the material cement itself into their minds. This is where I think blended learning has its place.

    Blended learning is extremely difficult to do correctly. When I say correct, I mean there is a proper mix of written homework (that gets written, thoughtful feedback), that there is enough supplemental practice online with instant feedback, that the same community from the classroom is present online in a controlled environment, and that the standards of rigor do not get dropped. It isn’t terribly hard to get two of the four at any one time, but getting all four just right at the same time is extremely difficult. While this model and its associated assignments for each class will vary greatly, the structure has no place for busy work or “filler” assignments (i.e., PowerPoint projects).

    Technology has invaded, and in some cases replaced, the traditional ways of doing things. While it should be embraced, it should be embraced with the relevant technology of the field. Embracing anything else takes the focus away from actual learning in the field and contributes to confusion later on down the line.

    • Tara Houle says:

      that was very well articulated. As a parent, I am very interested in hearing from the classroom point of view. Thank you for your explanation.

      • I think we need to share our experiences to fully understand how OECD and PISA studies and recommendations fit within the current education model. If we just take their hype and run with it, we can never really learn anything.

  2. “students learn what they are taught and don’t learn what they are not taught”

    This phrase would seem to suggest that children can only learn when they are being taught, and that is obviously not true, because books. 🙂

      • The child is learning from what they read, but they are not ‘being taught’ unless you believe that an inanimate object can perform an action. It is the child doing the doing, not the book. Two children could read the same book, and one might learn from it while another might not take anything in at all.

      • Kids will take different things from what a live teacher says too. I really don’t see the distinction that you’re trying to set up. I have often used the existence of books as evidence that understanding can be achieved through direct instruction.

    • says:

      Students are an interesting group of people as Greg said. It has been my experience that many students lack the self motivation and intellectual curiosity to learn the material which is not given through direct instruction. That may sound harsh, but I also find that the direct instruction takes otherwise obscure passages from books/movies/help forums, makes them digestible, and then plants the seed for curiosity when properly pointed questions are asked. While it is true that curiosity alone is not enough, it is a hell of a start.

      • The distinction is between teaching and learning. Learning is about more than just teaching. I think you may be over estimating the role of the teacher in learning, and under estimating the role of the learner. You probably won’t agree, but I’d just like to offer that thought for you to consider. 🙂

      • Tara Houle says:

        A coach is similar to a teacher when it comes to kids. Successful coaches use proven, successful methods, because they work. Obviously they are always looking for new and innovative ways to improve their coaching style, but I don’t know of any successful coaches who abandon effective principles and jump on the bandwagon every time a new trend comes along.

        The biggest deficit our children face in school these days, is a lack of foundational skills: reading, writing, arithmetic. These are the FUNDAMENTAL skillset a child requires in order to be successful in obtaining more advanced learning in school. If we switch the analogy over to sports, when a child is first learning a new sport, good coaches ensure good methods are used to create a very strong foundation of that particular skillset. Whether or not the child is learning, or if the coach is teaching, is irrelevant. What’s important, is that the coach use effective methods, so the child can learn. I live in Canada and 2 of my brothers coach 2 very competitive and successful hockey teams at the elite level. If either of them were to utilize methods to explore a child’s learning of hockey, they would be fired on the spot. Their job, is to ensure these kids develop this specific skillset intimately, and correctly, instilling in them confidence and successful development along the way. The exploration of what they do, develops at a much later date.

        So why is teaching any different? Why aren’t the deficits of our children’s foundational skills being taken seriously? This needs to be the focus – at the younger years. Figure this out first. The rest will follow.

  3. David says:

    Schleicher’s article on the BBC is interesting in that he seems to be appalled by these results and doesn’t know what to really make of them.

    Two things jump out at me from his comments: “We expect schools to educate our children to become critical consumers of internet services and electronic media.” As a teacher, I am not in the job of teaching students how to be good little consumers–I’m trying to teach them how to be human beings. This goes to the issue that Pope Francis brings up in Laudato Si about technology never being neutral (from para 107): “We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.” The society I want to see our young people build is not a consumerist one…

    The second thing that Schliecher said has to do with what teachers ought to be doing: “Perhaps most importantly, technology can support new pedagogies that focus on learners as active participants.” Well, we all know where that is leading….

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