Category: Education (page 1 of 55)

The problem with ‘grit’

If you’re an educator, parent, or in any way interested in the development of young people, it’s been impossible to escape the term ‘Grit’ in the past few years. The Wikipedia article for Grit defines it in the following way:

Grit in psychology is a positive, non-cognitive trait based on an individual’s passion for a particular long-term goal or end state, coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve their respective objective. This perseverance of effort promotes the overcoming of obstacles or challenges that lie within a gritty individual’s path to accomplishment, and serves as a driving force in achievement realization.

The article goes on to mention the origin of the term:

The construct dates back at least to Galton, and the ideals of persistence and tenacity have been understood as a virtue at least since Aristotle.

Finally, and tellingly:

Although the last decade has seen a noticeable increase in research focused on achievement-oriented traits, strong effects of Grit on important outcomes such as terminal school grades have not been found.

So why is this such a buzzword at the moment? I’d argue that it’s an advanced form of victim-blaming.

Almost all of the research cited by proponents of Grit was carried out by Angela Duckworth. As this post by Iowa State University points out, “an analysis of 88 independent studies representing nearly 67,000 people shows that grit is really no different than conscientiousness.”

However, Grit is far from a neutral term, and no mere synonym. It has been appropriated by those on the political right with books such as Paul Tough’s How children succeed : grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character effectively saying poor kids just need to try harder. This is obviously incredibly problematic, and the reason I see Grit as a form of victim-blaming. The attitude from proponents of Grit seems to be that poverty is a self-education problem.

Fascinatingly, a recent Washington Post article digs further than just the etymology of the term to discover why the term was popularised:

My longitudinal analysis shows that the conversation originated in the late 19thcentury, and was never focused on “at-risk” children. Instead, grit was understood as an antidote to the ease and comfort of wealth, which produced spoiled children who lacked the vigor of their ancestors. The remedy was to toughen them up. While some families took this cause seriously (elite boarding schools in the early 20th century proudly advertised their Spartan living conditions), the easiest way to impart grit was through literature. The celebrated Horatio Alger books were written and sold as instructive tools to teach middle and upper class children about the virtues that came from struggling against hardship.

Now, of course, society is all too quick to embrace the grit narrative and apply it to poor and minority children. The irony is that these kids were traditionally seen as already having grit! It was the louche upper classes who needed a kick up the backside.

The clincher for me, and the final nail in Grit’s coffin, is that the data supplied as ‘evidence’ for the importance of Grit is fundamentally flawed. Returning to the first article:

The most well-known data source on grit is based on West Point cadets who complete basic training at the United States Military Academy. According to one paper describing these cadets, those with above-average levels of grit are 99 percent more likely to finish the training than cadets with average levels of grit. However, Credé says the original data were misinterpreted. His analysis shows the increase in likelihood is really closer to 3 percent, rather than 99 percent.

“It’s a really basic error and the weird thing is that no one else has ever picked it up. People just read the work and said, ‘It’s this massive increase in people’s performance and how likely they are to succeed.’ But no one had ever looked at the numbers before,” Credé said.

Given that schools (in the US at least) are now measuring ‘Grit’ and ‘Joy’ levels in their cohorts, I think it’s time to push back on such blunt instrument. Let’s stop poorly-researched, damaging buzzterms being used as a stick with which to beat the under-privileged.

Image CC BY Daniel X. O’Neil

3 Types of EdTech Baggage: Toolsets, Mindsets, Skillsets [DML Central]

3 Types of EdTech Baggage: Toolsets, Mindsets, Skillsets

My latest post for DML Central has just been published. Entitled 3 Types of EdTech Baggage: Toolsets, Mindsets, Skillsets it was prompted by a Quentin Blake-esque sketch from Bryan Mathers that made me laugh.

So, in this post, I want to challenge the assumption that those resisting the adoption of a particular technology are neo-Luddites. I’m basing this on my experience in schools, universities, and now as an independent consultant working with all kinds of organisations. I see a much more nuanced picture than is often put forward. Assuming people should “get with the program” can, after all, be a little techno-deterministic.

I’d love your feedback on the post itself, so I’ve closed comments here to encourage you to do so!

Click here to read the post in full

Caring doesn’t scale, and scaling doesn’t care

Last night I had a really enjoyable dinner and thought-provoking conversation with Sirkku Nikamaa, her husband Mark, and Dr Mike Martin. We talked about many and varied things, including social reproduction, elite performance, and the current state of the English education system.

On my way home, I saw that my former Mozilla colleague Geoffrey MacDougall had tweeted a question which led to a short exchange:

Both the conversation over dinner and the subsequent Twitter conversation reminded me of a short video clip that Graham Brown-Martin shared featuring Prof. Keri Facer:

The problems we face in trying to change the education system are at least threefold:

  1. Parents want the best for their kids and they often believe this is through gaining credentials that are the results of high-stakes testing.
  2. Politicians want to impose their worldview on the next generation of the electorate through the education system.
  3. The filters we use (e.g. elite university admissions) to separate out people into social roles are extremely narrow and confining.

I was struck that I didn’t really have an answer to Geoffrey’s question about teaching subjects and skills that I usually equate with a private school education. Nor did I have a response to Mike’s question about how to scale something like the Oxbridge tutorial system.

At the end of the day, it’s difficult to scale almost anything that makes a really profound impact on people’s lives. I’m the person I am today because of supportive parents who are my biggest fans, because of a really interesting History teacher I had growing up, an inspiring university lecturer, a former boss who believed in me. The list goes on.

The purpose of this post isn’t to provide answers, but to point out that I’ve now come across a number of people who have had an elite education who are genuinely interested in how others can receive the same. The problem is, of course, that caring doesn’t scale, and scale doesn’t care.

Image CC BY-NC Macroscopic Solutions

The title of this post comes from an O’Reilly article. It’s unrelated, unless you’re a developer.

Deliberate Practice and Digital Literacies [DMLcentral]

Deliberate Practice and Digital Literacies

My latest post for DMLcentral was published while I was away on holiday this week. It’s entitled Deliberate Practice and Digital Literacies and in it I apply some of the insights from Kathy Sierra’s book Badass: Making Users Awesome.

Read the post

Comments are closed here, but I’ve cross-posted to Medium, so you’re welcome to recommend or reply there, as well as at DMLcentral.

Note: the Medium version of this post has a great ‘fried egg’ image created by Bryan Mathers that’s much better than my attempt in the original article!

A Decentralized System for Education and Assessment

A few months ago I wrote a post for DMLcentral entitled Peering Deep into Future of Educational Credentialing. In it, I was looking at the possibilities of the blockchain technology that underpins Bitcoin.

More recently, I’ve been looking at Ethereum, ‘crypto-fuel’ that can create new, autonomous systems and so I asked on Twitter:

I looked further into the website Gordon suggested: A Decentralized System for Education and Assessment. It’s an interesting, if slightly technocratic and techno-solutionist, read. Here’s a flavour:

The long term goal is the foundation of a fair, just, and meritocratic society, in which individuals, regardless of personal factors, have the freedom to learn and grow with each other, judged solely on individual achievements. The society would function on a ruleset unalterable by any malicious centralized power, categorizing the skillsets of each individual and giving others the information necessary to place those individuals within society. This provides the basis for a society based on action and fact, with each individual serving their best role in the larger whole.

I emailed Jared, the guy behind the site asking how I could help (I’d already submitted a pull request to make a minor update to the site). He replied that the work “is still very preliminary” with the two big decisions currently being:

  1. What kind of channel to set up for primary communication
  2. Which platform to build on (Ethereum, Eris Stack, Forking bitcoin or tendermint?, etc)

He’s open to other ideas, too, with the best place to discuss all this on this subreddit. I’ve closed comments here to encourage you to jump into the conversation there.

Image CC BY-NC-SA Bryan Mathers

Taking Another Look at the Digital Credentials Landscape [DMLcentral]

Taking Another Look at the Digital Credentials Landscape [DMLcentral]

My latest post for DMLcentral is up. Entitled Taking Another Look at the Digital Credentials Landscape, I attempt to clear up some confusion in the Open Badges landscape about various terms.

Here’s an excerpt:

In the early days of talking about Open Badges, I feel that we conflated several important points: the ability to issue micro credentials, bypassing traditional gatekeepers to learning, and the Open Badges standard itself. What I’ve tried to do in this post is, to some degree, begin to tease these apart. The important innovation is the interoperability and standards-based approach.

I’ve closed comments here to encourage you to leave them on the original post.

Click here to read in full on DMLcentral


Identifying, scaffolding, and credentialing skills in an ever-changing digital environment [#celt15]

The recording of my keynote at last month’s #celt15 conference in Galway is now available. I had a great time over there talking about digital literacies, Open Badges, learning pathways, and more!

If you don’t see embedded media above and below, you’ll need to click through on these links:

Note: the place the organisers originally posted it requires Flash so I’ve re-uploaded it to YouTube. If you’d like to comment on this, please do so over at their original post!

Setting an Agile School Rhythm [DMLcentral]

My latest post for DMLcentral is up. I’ve been thinking about agile workflows and team productivity a lot recently and, in this post, I attempt to apply it to (formal) education environment. Give it a read and see if you think it works!

Click here to read

Thanks again to Bryan Mathers for the great header image!

Note: I’ve closed comments here to encourage you to reply on the original post.

The Increasing Significance of Social Media in the Learner Journey [FE Week]

The latest issue of FE Week features a supplement from City & Guilds. I’m consulting almost full-time with C&G until September, so I was delighted to be asked to collaborate with Bryan Mathers on this article (as well as the one I shared yesterday!)

Use social media platforms with your eyes wide open

With the exception of perhaps Snapchat, the extended moral panic around social media seems to be coming to an end. It’s therefore a good time to take stock of what the last ten years have brought us in terms of connecting with one another through technology – and how we might be best able to use social media for learning.

Interestingly, although new services pop up on a regular basis, it’s increasingly the case that social media incumbents quickly purchase their emerging competitors. For example, the messaging platforms WhatsApp and Instagram were purchased by Facebook, while Twitter has bought a whole host of smaller companies including TweetDeck and the video livestreaming platform Periscope. With the billions being spent in these deals, it’s worth remembering that there are a whole host of smaller, independent, open source alternatives out there that better respect your privacy (e.g. Telegram and Cryptocat).

Despite well-founded concerns around corporate and government surveillance when using social media platforms, there are nevertheless a number of unique opportunities that they provide. We should use these platforms with our eyes open, and encourage learners to do likewise. The following three advantages of social media presuppose teaching in a way that includes social media as part of the everyday learner journey.

1. Access to expertise

With the best will in the world, we as educators cannot be experts in everything we teach. One thing that social networks have brought us is the ability to follow the everyday work and contact people who, in previous generations, would have been inaccessible. Students can follow debates that public intellectuals and experts in a particular field are having today. This can lend a vibrancy and freshness to learning that textbooks and other ‘static’ media cannot provide.

This expertise can also be tailored. There are countless examples of experts leading and participating in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). What’s more, many of these experts, particularly in the field of education, are incredibly generous with their time, interacting with both teachers and students around the world. Social media has truly democratised access to expertise.

2. Developing professional networks

The equivalent of the ‘little black book’ from days past can now been seen as the professional networks built by an individual. Professional social networking is often seen as the preserve of sites such as LinkedIn but, increasingly, we’re seeing this as more than merely a graphical front end on an email database. There are other, more nimble ways of communicating. For example, ‘tweetchats’ around a hashtag are a way to bring together people interested in the same topic for a short and intense period of time. The best known of these are #edchat (global) and #ukedchat (UK-specific) but there a whole host of these listed in this blog post. Some are subject/stage-specific.

Professional networks are important for teachers, but they’re extremely important for learners looking for their first job, or those attempting to move into their next job. In a time of funding pressures and a focus on employability, introducing learners to professional networks is an increasingly-important role for teachers. Learning is about both what you know and who you know, providing the opportunity to translate knowledge and skills into action.

3. Teacher automation

While a phrase such as ‘teacher automation’ sounds somewhat dystopian, one thing that technology is particularly good at is freeing humans from repetitive, routine tasks. For example, Sian Bayne and teachers on Edinburgh University’s E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC created a ‘bot’ that was programmed to respond to very particular queries posed by students. Using the hashtag #edcmooc the bot responded in an ‘if this then that’ way to queries such as ‘When is the first assignment due?’

One of the biggest reasons teachers give for leaving the profession is administrative workload. If we can help mitigate that through the appropriate use of technology, then we should. Semi-autonomous agents (i.e. ‘bots’) provide one way in which we can shift our focus from routine and repetitive tasks towards thinking about learning in new ways.


From a ‘slightly odd’ thing to do ten years ago, social media has become one of the primary ways in which we interact with friends, family, peers, colleagues, and learners. The networks we use to communicate all have benefits and drawbacks, inbuilt biases and tendencies. However, the question is not whether we should use these platforms, but how.

The most forward-thinking organisations and institutions are thinking about the ways social media can simultaneously improve the learner journey, reduce teacher workload, and drive down costs. Doing so takes a change in mindset and having to learn new things, but as educators that’s exactly what we should be modelling to learners.

Image CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers

The Increasing Significance of Technology in Further Education [FE Week]

The latest issue of FE Week features a supplement from City & Guilds. I’m currently spending pretty much all my time consulting with them at the moment, so I was delighted to be asked to collaborate with Bryan Mathers on this article as well as another (which I’ll post tomorrow).

Can you adapt to a changing landscape?

It goes without saying that this is a time of unprecedented change in Further Education. This is perhaps most evident in changes around funding but, in addition, an increasing drive towards data-informed decision making means the whole landscape is changing. At times such as these, it’s easy to feel powerless and it’s tempting to fall back on what we know – the tried and tested. However, as Darwin pointed out:

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” (Charles Darwin)

Change is part of life. Sometimes it happens quickly, sometimes slowly. On some occasions it’s imposed, and at other times it happens organically. However change happens, we should be ready for it and use it to our advantage. In other words, depending on our stance towards it, the uncertainty that change provides can be viewed as either a problem or as an opportunity.

Particularly during times of change, technology is often presented as a panacea, a cure-all to the problems we’re facing. For example, there are possibly hundreds of solutions promising to ‘fix’ your issues around:

  • student retainment
  • efficiency savings
  • learner attainment

However, by itself, technology rarely provides a holistic solution or way forward. Rather, it is people and culture that drive change within organisations. Human agency remains key.

Technology is useful. There are certain affordances it provides that can greatly help us. These technologies are often those that we consider commonplace. For example, we (and especially students) take for granted the use of free instant messaging apps such as Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Instagram – or video conferencing tools such as Skype, Google Hangouts, and FaceTime. As the author and educator Clay Shirky states, “communication tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.”

We don’t have to jump on the latest shiny technology, trying to retro-fit it into learning and teaching practices. Doing so is rarely beneficial. Instead, we should use increasingly-mature technologies to streamline and/or extend the core mission of educational organisations. One such example of this might be Open Badges. This is a global, interoperable system that allows for the trusted issue, exchange, and display of digital credentials.


There are many FE colleges – particularly in the North-East of England and Scotland – who have begun experimenting with Open Badges. The technology itself includes a built-in audit trail making verification easier, but the crucial difference between those using badges successfully and those not at all is organisational culture and people’s mindsets. Those places set up to embrace change understand that colleagues require at least two things to be successful when integrating any new technology:

1. Space to breathe – can colleagues ‘play’ with technologies without fear of an impact on their workload or professional identity?
2. License to innovate – will colleagues be sanctioned for stepping outside the status quo?

One of the most valuable things that educators can be given is time to reflect on their practice. For example, thinking about ways in which Open Badges can be used in a local context often acts as a ‘trojan horse’ for much wider professional conversations. At City & Guilds we’re using Open Badges as a conversation starter to think about the way we issue qualifications and credentials beyond 2015. All of us are faced with a changing landscape, and we can choose to spot opportunities as well as identify problems.

There’s no doubt that, whether it’s learning analytics, big data, badges, communications technologies, or something else, there will always be technological determinists as well as doom-mongers. Happily, the future is not fixed, it’s wide open. We can choose to adopt a playful, yet professional, stance towards technology – recognising it as a strand of equal weight with culture and people.

Images CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers