Reflective Professional Development

A literature review of four texts, which have influenced both my practice and understanding; helping to shape me as a professional.

Introduction

As a classroom teacher, I am in a state of conflict. On the one hand, I have formed a rationale about the purpose of education, deeply immersed in the pedagogy of co-dependent, ‘student centred’ learning. On the other, I am forced to perpetuate a system of education concerned more with league tables than  “educating the whole child” (Robinson, 2006).  I believe that there is continued ignorance on the part of governments to recognise and respond to the technological, social and cultural shifts that are complicating the education landscape (Facer, 2011). New learning models are constantly emerging, while a growing number of educators recognise the need for change. At least in this, I find some sense of resolution. The research and experimentation that continues to take place, particularly surrounding educational technologies, can provide the classroom teacher with the tools needed to offer their students a 21st century education.

Literature Review

The research into ‘minimally invasive education’ conducted by Mitra et al (2005), poses significant questions for classroom teachers.

"Thus, it was observed that, even in the absence of any direct input, mere curiosity led groups of children to explore, which resulted in learning… This leads us to believe that any learning environment that provides an adequate level of curiosity can cause learning among groups of children." (Mitra et al, 2005, p2)

Not only does the research suggest that computers can offer a meaningful and valid method for learning but a question mark could be placed over the need for classroom teachers to support learning. The references to “learning environment” and “curiosity” can be transposed onto more traditional learning spaces. Where learners are offered the opportunity to “explore”, their curiosity is piqued, fostering learning, therefore it could be suggested that it is not the technology that is causing the learning but the unstructured model of learning itself. It is also worth considering the extent to which the ‘teach to the test’ methodology widely appropriated in secondary education works in direct contrast to this. Is it the case that teacher-led instruction reduces curiosity?

Ken Robinson (2006) contends that we (society/schools/teachers) are killing creativity; wasting children's talents. He suggests that an important factor in fostering creativity is allowing children to get things wrong, to make mistakes. If they are not prepared for this they will lose their willingness to take risks. He asserts that by the time most children have become adults they have lost that willingness because in education making mistakes is seen to be the worst thing you can do. In his words people are "educated out of creativity” (Robinson, 2006). Again, this is arguably a resultant factor of the ‘teach to the test’ philosophy adopted by schools in an effort to move up the league tables. It could be argued that the ‘minimally invasive education’ experimented with by Mitra et al, is more conducive to allowing learners to not only satisfy their curiosity but to also take risks and maintain their creativity.

Mitra et al, conclude by stating that they believe “the acquisition of computer literacy is not dependent on schools or teacher instruction.” (2006) It is suggested in their findings that the ‘MIE learning stations’ foster peer-to-peer and group based learning. They also contend that due to the lack of time constraints, the learners who used the ‘MIE learning stations’ were more immersed in their learning. This is in sharp contrast to the control groups who were taught in far more traditional circumstances, with less actual learning time. While the observational data implies that the learning was deeper for those students using the ‘MIE learning stations’ it fails to address the age difference between the learners. The learners using the MIE learning stations were significantly younger (KS2) to the students in the control groups (KS3-5). It is therefore worth considering what impact the young age of the learners using the learning stations had on their willingness to explore and interact?

Both Mitra’s experiments with ‘MIE’ and Robinson’s concerns surrounding creativity have significantly impacted on my classroom practice. I have sought to incorporate a significant amount of student-centred / student-led learning experiences within (and beyond) my classroom. Adopting technology has similarly focussed on individualised learning, opting to use laptops or mobile devices. I try, as often as possible, to provide learning activities that are open ended, reliant on students finding their own way. I am pleased with the success I have had in adopting such approaches although I am aware that such an approach is neither easy nor commonplace.

Questions remain about whether schools (and teachers) can foster creativity within a system of education that is set against it? Facer (2011) argues that the focus on league tables and national targets has reduced the "autonomy of schools to explore their educational purpose with their community.” (Facer, 2011, p20-21). She contends that the result of this is students and parents are opting out, seeking education elsewhere, providing it themselves or choosing not to participate at all. I would therefore argue that there is credence in questioning the nature of attendance itself. Belshaw (2011) contends that the traditional notions of attendance, are being challenged by ubiquity of devices that allow learners to access online content. He suggests that physical attendance is no longer necessary in the age of mobile devices. He also does not see a difference between the value of face-to-face and online interaction. Of this, I am sceptical. I would suggest that face-to-face interaction is pertinent for learning due to potential ambiguities within online environments. However, Facer (2011) agrees with Belshaw suggesting that there is a move towards seeing education as a "remote" activity and that the value of face-to-face interaction has been reduced due to improvement in the richness of online media and social interaction.

"An individual could fail to be concentrating whilst listening to someone face to face whereas online they’re highly engaged." (Belshaw, 2011)

While I would agree that for some learners “online” can be as engaging as offline face-to-face experiences, learners are likely to be as easily distracted online as they may be offline.

Additionally, Belshaw sees a potential turning point for universities on the horizon, with more likely to offer online courses and qualifications. The example he sites is an MBA course offered by the London School of Business and Finance. Since Belshaw wrote this article MIT have prepared and recently launched 'MITx', an online portfolio of courses that will be delivered entirely online. Courses such as these could be massively influential in the changing landscape as social, collaborative and personalised approaches to learning continue to evolve.  

Both Belshaw and Facer’s acknowledgement of the role technology is having in changing both the nature of learning and what we understand as attendance has significantly found a home within my classroom, and influenced my beliefs about learning. Technology provides an additional but not separate learning space where social interaction can be fostered to continue learning beyond the four walls. It has also resulted in investigative practice in to creative uses of technology seeking to enhance learning.

Like Robinson, Facer (2011) sees the changing ‘socio-technical’ practices emerging through the development of various Web2.0 technologies as having a significant impact on education. Again, more questions are generated. What do learner needs to know? How do we prepare students to tackle problems that don't exist yet? She goes on to recognise an emerging growth in making and connecting. This social collaborative approach to learning potentially leads to models of collective intelligence, again challenging traditional notions of schooling

"...the orthodox future we are using as a basis for designing our education systems at present is a myopic, largely implausible and highly selective vision of the future and is no longer 'fit for purpose' for equitable educational design and policy making." (Facer, 2011, p132)

Facer (2011) closes her book by arguing that current educational thinking around school and curriculum design is outdated. Her vision for schools is a blended space that combines the physical and virtual. I would contend that this already exists in many institutions. Tools such as VLEs and Google Apps offer a blended learning experience where students are able to develop and extend their learning. However, whole school adoption is difficult. While my own practices have evolved significantly to include virtual spaces, it has been difficult to evaluate and encourage adoption amongst other departments.

Both Robinson and Facer’s ideas about education and learning are progressive and resonate with me personally. The concept of “whole child” (Robinson, 2006) learning is inherent within their thinking about what the purpose of education should be in the 21st century. However, for their similar visions of education to become reality, there needs to be a significant shift either at the top of the educational ladder or at the bottom. Many of us, working in the classroom are left to experiment, to bring about change for our own students, if we are prepared to take those risks, weighed against the pressure to meet targets and get results. For change to occur, an acknowledgement that the current system of mainstream education is unsustainable is required. That has to come from the government, and my concern is that the research conducted by academics like Mitra and Facer will go unheeded.

Conclusion

The overriding theme across the four articles suggests that technology and socially interactive media are significantly impacting on the way young people learn (and how they might learn in the future). However, schools (en mass) are failing to keep up with these changes. While I may feel conflicted, trying to balance my values and beliefs about education with the demands placed upon me by senior leaders and the government, engaging with theory, experimentation, and critical reflection, give me the expertise and resource to challenge outdated practices. Moreover, I can use a range of tools and pedagogies to engage my students critically in personalised, creative learning.

References

Belshaw, Doug (2011) Student attendance in the digital age, JISC Inform, Issue 31, Retrieved, January 2012 from the World Wide Web on: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/inform/inform31/DougBelshaw.html

Facer, Keri (2011), Learning Futures: Education, Technology and Social Change, T & F Books UK

Mitra, S., Dangwal, R., Chatterjee, S., Jha, S., Bisht, R. S. and Kapur, P. (2005). Acquisition of computing literacy on shared public computers: Children and the "hole in the wall". Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 21(3), 407-426. Retrieved, April 2010 from the World Wide Web: http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet21/mitra.html

Robinson, Ken (2006) Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity, TED 2006 (Video). Retrieved, May 2010 from the World Wide Web:  http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html