Guided collaboration

In some ways, too much of a focus on collaborative tasks is bad for students.To make group work successful teachers have to give pupils a very specific activity to complete, otherwise things get too chaotic, and outlying ideas get shut off. Also, one group member tends to take control and the thoughts of those who are quieter or don’t fit in socially are disregarded. I’m not saying that students can’t recognise good ideas, but they don’t have the broader perspective on the subject that a teacher does. I’ve frequently seen people roll their eyes when someone’s making a point, but actually what’s being said is very interesting. You need a teacher to make sure these ideas are recognised and drawn out.

The Guardian has a very interesting interview with Diana Senechal about the loss of quiet reflection in schools. She maintains that collaborative learning has been overused in schools, and that space should be made for quiet reflection.

Although I clearly believe in collaboration, I also know that space had to be made for children with a different approach to learning, particularly more introverted children. I would say that there is a big difference between Senechal’s quiet reflection, and children sitting alone studying for exams. This, though, is part of her point.

Part of the reason there isn’t enough room in schools for solitude and intellectual thought is because there’s a focus on exams as an end goal. When I first introduced the new philosophy curriculum we didn’t have tests. One day a pupil said to me, “But professor Senechal, we’ve been trained to think only in terms of the test.” I thought that was so sad. Some students find their way through and realise that the subject is interesting and get taken away by it, but others are trying so hard to do things right that it ends up being a neverending struggle. Young people are under so much pressure to get perfect grades that there’s really no wriggle room for imperfection or taking risks.

I couldn’t agree with her more.

The apprenticeship of observation

Consequently, the most powerful influence on teachers is the one most beyond our control. The sociologist Dan Lortie calls the phenomenon the apprenticeship of observation. Teachers learn to teach primarily by recalling their memories of having been taught, an average of 13,000 hours of instruction over a typical childhood. The apprenticeship of observation exacerbates what the education scholar Suzanne Wilson calls education reform’s double bind. The very people who embody the problem — teachers — are also the ones charged with solving it.

I’ve already written a fair bit about Elizabeth Green’s New York Times article Why do Americans stink at math?.

While Dan Lortie coined the term to refer to teachers, I think this idea applies in a number of other areas of our lives. We learn by watching those around us, our parents, our teachers, eventually our friends and neighbors. What we learn is not always the best way of doing things. In many cases the pattern seems set, and it’s difficult to do things differently.

Learning to do things differently takes time and effort. In many respects, the last five to ten years have been an ongoing attempt to unlearn what I learned in my own apprenticeship of observation. When I chose to work on the web almost twenty years ago, I thought the challenge would be learning new skills. While that is a challenge, the real challenge has been learning new and better ways of solving problems and collaborating.

Measurement creates a pointer

But measurement can cut both ways. In track and field, we happen to measure speed, and so we cultivate agnation of speedsters. If we happened to measure running style, we would cultivate a nation of gazelles. The minute we choose to measure something, we are essentially choosing to aspire to it. A metric, in other words, creates a pointer in a particular direction. And once the pointer is created, it is only a matter of time before competitors herd in the direction of that pointer.

Youngme Moon talking about the the perils of measurement in Difference (p. 29).

I’ve often heard it said, “you are what you measure,” but I like Moon’s “you become what you measure” more.

In my day job, we do a lot of setting goals and measuring outcomes. We work very hard to define those goals, and only decide what we want to measure after we know what we’re trying to achieve. By doing this, we hope to make sure we’re measuring the right thing.

Another reason I’m interested in the question of measurement is that I’ve recently place my son in the education system. I’ve been reading a lot that indicates that standardized tests are having unintended consequences: encouraging teachers to teach the test or even to cheat. While I’m convinced we need educational testing and that the current culture is often a positive one, I’m still not convinced that standardized tests are measuring the right thing.

Reading and writing is useless

And it really meant something to the child. The child read beautifully, it turned out, and was really very competent. So it actually meant something. And that story has many other anecdotes that are similar, but wow. The key to the future of computers in education is right there, and it is: when does it mean something to a child? There is a myth, and it truly is a myth: we believe — and I’m sure a lot of you believe in this room — that it is harder to read and write than it is to learn how to speak. And it’s not, but we think speech — “My God, little children pick it up somehow, and by the age of two they’re doing a mediocre job, and by three and four they’re speaking reasonably well. And yet you’ve got to go to school to learn how to read, and you have to sit in a classroom and somebody has to teach you. Hence, it must be harder.”Well, it’s not harder. What the truth is is that speaking has great value to a child; the child can get a great deal by talking to you.

Reading and writing is utterly useless. There is no reason for a child to read and write except blind faith, and that it’s going to help you. So what happens is you go to school and people say, “Just believe me, you’re going to like it. You’re going to like reading,” and just read and read. On the other hand, you give a kid — a three-year-old kid — a computer and they type a little command and — Poof! — something happens. And all of a sudden … You may not call that reading and writing, but a certain bit of typing and reading stuff on the screen has a huge payoff, and it’s a lot of fun. And in fact, it’s a powerful educational instrument.

Nicholas Negroponte’s discussing the myth that learning to read and write is difficult during his amazing 1984 TED talk.

This followed an fantastic anecdote of a child teachers believed couldn’t read. It turned out he believed reading was the boring stuff teachers gave him. When he could get something out of it, when it was useful for him, he was perfectly capable of leaving.

Negroponte eloquently makes the point that children learn best when they are allowed to follow their interests, take on challenging tasks and make something that is meaningful to them.

Reading isn’t hard, but it isn’t magical either. It’s a tool, and kids are more likely to use it when it suits their curiosity and interests.


Creativity has been the long-standing missing ingredient in education. Companies have been desperately seeking it since the last depression. Creative thinking leads to innovation, and innovation leads to success. Sure, science, technology, engineering and maths are necessary, but without the initial creative stimulus for solving a problem or imagining the possible, nothing would ever be accomplished.

Jon Kamen of the Rhode Island School of Design explains STEM is missing a crucial ingredient. Kamen and many others are suggesting that STEM be changed to STEAM, for science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.

I like the idea of adding the arts to STEM to get at the idea that creative problem solving should be encouraged. But as Vince Betram points out adding an A to the acronym might be missing the point.

I’m often asked why science, technology, engineering and math are the only words used to create the acronym, and when Project Lead The Way (PLTW), the STEM organization I am proud to lead, will change STEM to STEAM, STREAM or STEMM — incorporating art, reading or music into the acronym. If that is the debate, we are clearly missing the point. It’s not about adding to the acronym, but instead adding to the relevancy of learning. It’s about showing students how technical concepts relate to real-world situations and providing them with hands-on projects and problems that help them apply concepts in a new context. It’s about nurturing students’ curiosity and helping them develop creativity, problem solving and critical thinking skills. STEM isn’t simply the subjects in the acronym. It’s an engaging and exciting way of teaching and learning.

One crucial point that adding the arts to the STEM might gloss over is encouraging students to learn from one another. In the arts in particular the belief in the myth of the lone genius is very strong. Getting students working together rather than sitting alone at their desks is crucial for preparing them for the challenges they’ll face in the real world.

Exam results

Research shows high-stakes testing can also produce unintended consequences that fall short of outright cheating. Daniel Koretz, the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and an expert in educational testing, writes in Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us, that there are seven potential teacher responses to high-stakes tests:

1. Working more effectively (Example: finding better methods of teaching)

2. Teaching more (Example: spending more time overall)

3. Working harder (Example: giving more homework or harder assignments)

4. Reallocation (Example: shifting resources, including time, to emphasize the subjects and types of questions on the test)

5. Alignment (Example: matching the curriculum more closely to the material covered on the test)

6. Coaching students (Example: prepping students using old tests or even the current test)

7. Cheating.

Anya Kamenetz, in her article on why the Atlanta testing scandal matters, lists these seven possible outcomes of high stakes testing. She cites outcomes 1-3 as positives. My response was that only the first outcome is really a positive. I’m probably making too many assumptions, though.

My first assumption is that outcome four will always happen: a test will determine what is taught. So teaching more or making students work harder will only mean that they learn how to take the test, not necessarily that they learn what they need to. And yes, I know that “learn what they need to” opens a huge can of worms. Obviously, if the test is testing what they need to learn, then it’s a good thing.

My second assumption is that more teaching and more hard work are good up to a point. My strong suspicion is that we’ve passed that point along while ago, and that the extra work forced on students is counter productive.

These are both assumptions, and I have more to learn in this area, but I wanted to capture these assumptions while they were still fresh in my mind.

Intimate worlds where students become explorers

Every successful educational initiative of which I’m aware aims at strengthening personal bonds by building strong systems of support in the schools. The best preschools create intimate worlds where students become explorers and attentive adults are close at hand.

David L. Kirp in his New York Times essay Teaching is Not a Business explains why our focus should be on the relationship between students and teachers, not on setting up schools as businesses. This certainly aligns with the work John Hattie has done.

In fact, in his interview with BBC4, John Hattie claims that while academies and other business-like schools show some improvement in the first 6 months, after that they perform no better than ordinary state schools.

Uncertainty is celebrated

Uncertainty is a very bad thing. It’s evolutionarily a bad thing. If you’re not sure that’s a predator, it’s too late…

The question “why?” is one of the most dangerous things you can do because it takes you into uncertainty. And yet, the irony is that the only way we can ever do anything new is to step into that space. So how can we ever do anything new.?

Fortunately, evolution has given us answer, and it enables to address even the most difficult of questions.

The best questions are the ones that create uncertainty. They’re the ones that questions the things that we think to be true already. It’s easy to ask questions about how did life begin or what is the extent of the known universe, but to question what we think to be true already is really stepping into that space.

So, what is evolution’s answer to the problem of uncertainty? It’s play. Now play is not simply a process. Experts in play will tell you that actually it’s a way of being. Play is one of the only human endeavors where uncertainty is celebrated. Uncertainty is what makes play fun.

Beau Lotto explaining why play helps us answer the most difficult questions. He goes on to claim that the characteristics of play are exactly the characteristics that make a good scientist.

From there, he wondered if children would make great scientists. It turns out they do. The student of Blackawton Primary School in Devon came up with, designed and implemented a scientific experiment. The results of which made a valuable contribution to science and were eventually published in a scientific journal.

Amy O’Toole, one of the students involved in the project, is an impressive speaker. Her part of the talk alone makes this a TED talk worth watching.

The power of small actions

We’ve not asked anyone’s permission to do this; we’re just doing it. And we are certainly not waiting for that cheque to drop through the letterbox before the letterbox before we start. And most importantly of all, we are not daunted by the sophisticated arguments that say that these small actions are meaningless in the face of tomorrow’s problems because I have seen the power of small actions and it is awesome.

Pam Warhurst, discussing how Todmorden used propaganda gardening to transform their market town into an edible oasis, complete with “vegetable tourists.”

Like Project H in Bertie County, this is an amazing local project that helps not only to revitalise and give confidence to a small community, but to help build “a different and a kinder future.” The project has since spread, radicant-like to other towns all over the world.