Saturday, 7 December 2013

Rethinking Adaptive Learning

The buzzwords in education circles recently are ‘Adaptive Learning’. Computers are to analyze how a student responds to different presentation styles and serve up more of what works best.

'Adaptive learning is an educational method which uses computers as interactive teaching devices. Computers adapt the presentation of educational material according to students' learning needs, as indicated by their responses to questions and tasks.'

Sounds good so far. This should mean that students will learn more efficiently and presumably at their own pace. The argument goes that the learning gaps between higher and lower achievers will close and that students will have increased confidence.

Still sounds good. But is this all there is to learning? Is successful learning what happens when presentation of content is absorbed and the student can complete some practice exercises?

The teacher presents something new, the student practices it and it is supposed that the student is now able to use the new 'knowledge' in real world situations. I failed to learn French this way. My teacher presented some new grammar, we did a load of practice exercises but (in our case at least) we never got to use what we learned. I experienced practicing a rule. I did not experience using French. The grammar and the vocabulary may as well have been numbers or symbols.

If we assume that ‘learning’ is the ability to hold onto and to be able to regurgitate enough knowledge in order to pass a standard test, then the answer is yes. For governments eager to improve PISA rankings, the answer may be yes.

If however, we believe that all real learning starts with experience, we need to question the role that Adaptive Technology can take within a learning cycle that might look like this:

The student experiences something new, conceptualizes how new knowledge fits in their world, practices and then applies the concept. The model is a circle allowing new experiences to affect an adjustment of concepts. The teacher's role is to facilitate experience and provide opportunities for practice and application.

Here are 5 things that we need to be careful of when building Adaptive Technology into the learning process:

  1. We must take care not to mistake interaction with technology for interaction with content. Interactivity should be included for pedagogically sound reasons. Gamification, for example, is only relevant if it makes the understanding and absorption of what is to be learned more relevant, easier to understand and motivational.
  1. We must not throw out pedagogy that we have worked so hard to refine for the sake of introducing technology. Adaptive Technology relies on identifying a student’s Learning Style, and yet recent evidence suggests that the Learning Styles Inventory (LSI) has serious flaws.
  1. We must not reintroduce a failed model of teaching and learning. There is a danger that because the P-P-P model of teaching suits Adaptive Technology that we will accept outmoded models as inevitable.
  1. The student should be in control of the learning process – not a computer. So called ‘self-directed learning’ requires the student to figure things out themselves (or experience learning) and not have a computer serve up only one type of question that the computer believes the student is capable of answering.
  1. We must label new technologies as what they are and NOT as what we would like them to be. Adaptive Technology presents content in the way that the computer deems a student will find easiest to reproduce. It will then serve up practice exercises. And that is it. The computer cannot tell if a student can apply this knowledge in the real world, cannot judge a student’s engagement or happiness and cannot determine a student’s talents.

So let’s call it what it is – Adaptive Practice. That’s better! Now I feel more comfortable with it. Adaptive Practice can fit very nicely into an E-C-P-A model of learning and most other models I can think of.

The danger of ‘Adaptive Learning’ then is in the label. We are given the impression that this is a solution that will change the way we learn and that all we need to do is sit students in front of a machine and the rest will take care of itself.

For learning is to be rich and meaningful, let’s recognize that Adaptive Practice may have a place in the process but is not in any way sufficient on its own as a model of learning.
  'Too often we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve.'  Roger Levin

Monday, 23 September 2013

There is no such thing as ‘best practice’.

'If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.'   
Abraham Maslow, The Psychology of Science, 1966.

A ‘Birmingham screwdriver’ is the one tool used by the lazy for all purposes – i.e. it is a hammer!  You are not a leader if you apply the same concept, methodology or technology to all problems.  In fact, if all you see is problems then you are not seeing opportunities.  Leaders see opportunities everywhere, even in the problems they face.  

Leaders have many tools in their box of tricks, not just a Birmingham screwdriver.  The non-leader will look for anything that looks like a nail so they can hammer it down – crossing off ‘solved’ problems, usually internal, from their to do list so that they ‘achieve’ more than others. A leader looks for opportunities to solve others’ problems, usually external, so that people – customers and staff – feel appreciated. They ‘do’ with people, not to people.

Beware the term ‘best’ practice.  ‘Best’ means there can be nothing better. A non-leader will latch on to best practice and apply it to everything in front of them that they can frame as a problem, like the man with the Birmingham screwdriver.  A leader will always believe in ‘good’ practice but will also always look for a new tool, a new collaboration, a new idea to make it better.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Manager or Leader – which best describes you?

The table below is my attempt to separate the traits of Managers from those of Leaders.  There are roles for both Managers and Leaders of course, and things are never quite as clearly defined as this table suggests, but for me this is a useful comparison that helps me modify my behavior if I feel I am slipping into the (more comfortable) role of managing when I should be leading (or vice-versa).  Personally I find that when riskier things aren’t going as well as I expected that my frustration leads to behavior from the left hand column when what is needed are the traits from the right hand column.

Demands obedience, controlling, trusts no-one fully

Objective is to repeat previous results but a little more cheaply or a little more efficiently

Cuts costs, limits variation

Plays it safe

Takes the credit

Points out flaws and criticizes mistakes

Makes decisions, gives answers

Has a short term view, focused on profit

Accepts the way things are done

Maintains and improves processes
Trusting, inspires trust in others, vulnerable

Heads for uncharted territory

Sees possibility, embraces innovation

Takes risks

Credits others

Recognises and praises accomplishments, sees mistakes as opportunities to learn

Asks questions to encourage others to solve problems, enables answers

Has a long term perspective, focused on the future

Challenges the way things are done

Develops people

Do you recognize yourself in this table?  Are you happy with where you find yourself and is your behavior what is best for your business?  Challenge yourself now and then – its what leaders do!

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Ask Students What Their Education Should Look Like

Recently in Thailand and beyond, the media was abuzz with stories of ‘Frank’, the high school student who started a Facebook campaign to abolish the mechanistic school system in Thailand.  Schooling in some Asian countries demands military-like discipline from students in order to produce a homogenized, compliant and a near-identical set of adults.  In Japan, for example, for much of their school lives, hair length and hair color are regulated.

Frank and his ‘friends’ want to transform the purpose of Education and encourage ‘free-thinking’.  What they are seeing is that society’s demands of them as adults and citizens are vastly different from the adults they are taught to become. The strict conformity of some Asian school systems highlights the gulf between what is taught and what is needed, but in most countries it is fair to say, I believe, that there is a disjoint between the objectives of Education systems and the needs of societies.

Education produces adults who are:
Economies need adults who are:

So what to do?  Much is written and said about how Education needs to change but little actually gets changed.  But if even the students themselves can recognize that something is wrong then its time we all listened. 

Sunday, 16 June 2013

The Optimist, the Pessimist and the Physicist

The Optimist says: 'This glass is half full.'
The Pessimist says: 'This glass is half empty.'
The Physicist wonders why they are using the wrong glass.

We are often encouraged by trainers and professional development consultants to 'think out of the box' or 'out of the square'. The implication is that by changing the parameters, we may find more creative solutions to our problems. The assumption though is that we have correctly identified the problems we have.

Both the Optimist and the Pessimist have assumed that there is not enough water in their glass. The Physicist wonders why the Optimist and the Pessimist are using the wrong glass to hold the right amount of water. This is not looking for a creative solution to the 'problem', but a redefining of the problem itself. Rather than 'thinking out of the box' the Physicist has thrown the box away.

Many will have heard the story of the boy who fills his bucket with stones, but then discovers that there is still room for pebbles and then still more room for sand and then water. Recently at a PD session we were told by a consultant that if the bucket were the employees' total working hours that there was a limit to what would fit in the bucket. Until one employee pointed out that the consultant's idea of the bucket was that all employees work from 9 to 5 with a break for lunch. She redefined the problem by removing the 9 to 5 restriction – not by requiring more hours from each employee but by freeing up resources employees need to do their jobs efficiently. She threw away the bucket.

'Thinking out of the box' first requires a box (or a bucket). Once we have defined a box for ourselves we limit our ability to think beyond, not just out of those limits.

Get rid of the box!

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Excellence in Mathematics

Michael Evans of the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute speaks to ‘Today’s Schools’ about ICE-EM, a series of textbooks for school years 5 – 10 that matches the Australian Curriculum for Mathematics.

The International Centre of Excellence for Education in Mathematics (ICE-EM) is managed by the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute, a consortium of 27 university mathematics departments, CSIRO Mathematical and Information Sciences, the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Australian Mathematics Trust.  ICE-EM was set up to strengthen education in the mathematical sciences at all levels - from school to advanced research and contemporary applications in industry and commerce. ICE-EM is funded by the Australian Government through the Department of Education, Science and Training.

The original ICE-EM Mathematics series has been rewritten and developed for the Australian  Curriculum for Mathematics, while retaining the structure and approach of the original titles.

Friday, 22 March 2013

What's stopping you achieving remarkable growth?

‘A ship is always safe at the shore – but that’s not what it is built for.’   
Albert Einstein

Why is it that organizations fail to innovate?  Why can a company with a good track record and a sound core business miss out on opportunities it is presented with?

Executive management has become all about metrics, about maintaining and growing existing market share and about predicting future growth – right down to the last cent.  This is a company like a ship moored at the harbor where it is safe from the uncertain nature of the open sea.  The open sea is too risky.  We don’t know what’s out there or if the weather will turn.

But this same executive management urges its employees to come up with out-of-the-box remarkable new ideas for generating extraordinary growth.  This has to be done without upsetting the normal operations of the company and its predictable, budgeted-for growth.

This is a mixed message to staff.  And what they will hear loudest and clearest is that they are to do nothing that will upset the predictable future – in other words, business as usual or ‘the way we have always done things’.

And thus no radical ideas ever get out-of-the-box.  The staff are hearing that they are not to take the ship out of the harbor, but to somehow explore the uncharted high seas from safety.  The ship stays in the harbor where everything is predictable.

Want to be innovative and achieve remarkable growth?  Take a risk!   Sail out from the safety of the harbor into an uncertain, unknown, exciting future. Or settle for what you’ve got.