Disconnected learning

If you could have a day off tomorrow to learn anything you wanted, what would it be? Have a think now…

There could be so many things you or I could learn in a day, probably the vastness of choices would make it so hard to decide. It might be connected to other people. It might be working with experts. It be making something, or finally learning to finish something. Imagine the pathways that one day of learning might open up for us? OK, now back to reality. Sorry.

Today across parts of Australia, children undertook testing for NAPLAN, the National Assessment Program – Literacy And Numeracy, to help the Government work out how well our children spell, write, add, subtract, etc. A lot of anxiety happens around NAPLAN. Schools become dominated by it. There’s the idea that a lot is riding on how well the students do, because it reflects how well the teachers do, leading to how effective the school is. Sure, I get it. I can understand the pressure. What I can’t fathom is the learning.

I hear that some schools let primary school students watch a movie after their NAPLAN test was over. I hear some schools are giving students the Friday off from school after all the testing they’ve endured over the week. Are these meant to be rewards? Are they an acknowledgment that testing is hard work? The preparation, the testing, the recovery – all this for what are otherwise incredibly disconnected experiences from real learning.

You know what hard work is? Changing the system of education. If you’re reading this then you probably have a very good idea of what challenges this kind of change brings. Seeing education evolve isn’t going to happen with NAPLAN. It keeps us firmly planted in the traditional mindset that testing, scores, and buckets of testing data is going to give us insights into how to help education be better, be more effective; be better funded? Today I came across this video about the ’10 Expectations’ of school from the people at Leaving to Learn. The video does a very good job of defining the things that make school work, giving teachers and students a sense of purpose and engagement. The irony is that these ten expectations are more like ten challenges – because schools don’t work this way. These expectations would scare many schools.

As the video explains: these are imperatives. And to think that schools might evaluate themselves by these? Now there’s a test I’d like to see implemented. These imperatives suggest that current schooling is full of disconnected learning: we give kids the pieces, in the form of lots of separate lessons, hoping that somehow they will figure out how to make a whole. What it ends up creating are lots of ‘holes’ – ones that I’m sure existed for all our school experiences as well.

This thinking leads nicely into another piece of the puzzle: the content king. Education is dominated by content. It is saturated by it, driven by it, and confused by it. And in the world of the internet, content has multiplied millions and millions of times, in all its forms, from catalogues to cat videos, from testimonials to tweets. What we’ve gained in the technology though, is the ability to finally make connections with our learning, in real time to real places and people, really, really fast. The web scares schools too – because, just like the big bad world outside the walls of the school, the internet is waiting to chew up our attention, making us mindless, thoughtless, and selfish victims. Or so Nicholas Carr would have us believe.

Something about this logic seems all wrong. Just like the logic of NAPLAN tests. It makes sense at first, but the more you consider how the web is empowering nations of people who haven’t had the chance to learn what they really wanted, to help innovators and inventors iterate faster than ever, then you have to wonder whether Carr has simply watched too many cat videos. If you only go by the numbers then we all think Gangnam Style is the world’s greatest ever music video. The long tail of the web should make us think twice. ‘Disconnected learning’ in this context, can also relate to those moments when we are absorbed in thinking and learning deeply through the web on a key topic, a key talk, a moment of inspiration. If we need to make time to refocus, think deeply, meditate away from all the distractions of this world, then education is still not making the grade.

As a final footnote, last night I played Commander Chris Hadfield’s now famous video cover of ‘Space Oddity‘ to my two little kids. They were amazed. The questions came thick and fast. We went to his Google+ page to have a look at his other exploits and commentary while he was at the space station. More questions. More wonder. More opportunities to learn. I found it quite amazing to see these two little children discover there was another world in space, where the laws of science weren’t quite the same as on Earth. It gave them new perspectives, and a reason to connect with their learning.

Testing the regime

So much of our education has relied on tests. Every single person on the face of the earth who went to school, or finished university, or even got their driver’s licence, has sat some form of test. This means sitting on your own with a test paper, answering various types of questions within a time limit. I would go so far to say that we cannot perceive anyone being good at anything unless they were tested on it.

Since reading this very interesting article two days ago by Professor Peter Nonacs on ‘Why I let my students cheat on their Game Theory exam‘ my thoughts on testing have been stirred again. What makes this experience with Nonacs’ students in Behavioural Ecology at UCLA so interesting was that it was time spent reflecting on the purpose and function of testing that led him to take a different approach. It was also probably the fact that the course he was teaching challenged and observed systems and patterns that had him thinking in this frame of mind. His revelation that “life is games” is profound. It is in our nature to respond to challenges and circumstances differently and diligently, depending on the established environment. Needless to say, his students were pretty perplexed. After all, how could we find out if people are good at anything if they don’t take tests?

Across the world education is being strangled by tests. Tests that provide huge amounts of data. The data-nerds are having a field day with all that information gleaned from tests. Politicians and governments are lapping up comparative results and and ranking data sets as if testing meant everything in setting education policy – it’s like the Cold War of Tests. Sure I love numbers and data too, especially if it’s presented in one of those funky infographic or visualization mediums, but we are so easily blinded to the simplicity of statistics (once they’ve been explained to us!). Governments have created curriculum systems that can almost only be measured by testing in standard and standardised ways, thereby crippling the emphasis on social, emerging and creative intelligences; the very things that education is most often held to account for.

So what would happen if you stopped testing children at single tables, on their own, repeatedly throughout the year? Well anarchy surely? My god, how would we ever know how a child can apply themselves if they aren’t forced to regurgitate an answer within a set time? How would we ever complete our reports? For all the talk of the wonders around formative assessment, testing is still the ‘summative’ cop-out for not having the rigour in place. Furthermore most of these¬† ‘official’ tests (for VCE, high-school, NAPLAN) are never seen by the teachers, let alone the students. Even then the results come so late, that passing or failing becomes ‘oh well’ or ‘oh yeah’. By contrast some of the most compelling strategies about effective testing means reducing the feedback loop to zero; there being no lag between answering and getting a response on your progress. Leading educator Alan November has often shared these approaches within a wider system of how schools need to reform. The problem is that assessment, ironically, is always the last thing to be considered in curricula reform; sometimes deliberately.

Tests are here to stay, let’s face it. The conception and execution of them on the other hand is up for rewiring though. Just like Nonacs’ lesson on Game Theory, the notion of how a test plays out can be flipped on its head slightly. It could start by letting students bring their textbooks or novels into an exam. It could shift to having students creatively collaborate on their tests; with the right kinds of questions. It might mean the test being highly practical, or being extended over a period of time to allow depth, much like a game. Or it could simply mean letting students bring every know laptop or device into a test, and let their ability to apply and navigate the device be one measure, while their digital literacy and strength of networks be another in ensuring their responses are unique and efficient. Which is the outcome Nonacs’ class was heading to, and an outcome that some innovative schools are tackling too. In these environments anarchy doesn’t reign at all; new skills and new forms of sharing emerge and new types of respect are formed.

Of course the maths and hard-core science groups would baulk. They’re the same ones who screamed and tried to block Wolfram Alpha when it appeared on the scene. Actually the real push of this regime of testing sweeping the globe is probably the result of the hard-core education traditionalists when they discovered the internet [sounds good, but no]. All these embedded systems¬† and curricula, trying to keep everyone honest by making sure only you, the test paper, and a pencil define the capacity of your brain. Maybe if I were an artist this would make sense; and I’d probably come up with a creative way to illustrate the test too.

As educators we have to be better at the process of testing and better designing tests. Thirteen years of school is a complete waste of time if all we’re doing is preparing kids for a couple of exams, so that some might get a chance to go to university. Ironically, it’s universities which are looking at testing with fresh eyes. Their systems of educational accountability are different. If there was a ‘NAPLAN for university’ you’d see otherwise.

I’m fearful where all this testing will lead and the fake systems of accountability they create. I’m fearful that teachers won’t have the courage or the energy to come up with alternatives. Many others have grappled with the challenges tests create at the very core of what an education means, and like others, traditional tests died the moment my phone could Google the answer.