Tag: reform

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

Why educational reform is like Jenga.

I’ve just been playing Jenga with my six year-old son and it struck me how it’s a partial analogy for how educational reform (or any kind of reform, for that matter) works.

If you remember, the aim in Jenga is to build the highest tower possible by removing bricks from lower down the stack. Eventually the whole thing becomes so unstable that someone makes a false move and it collapses.

When educational reform moves quickly it might look like things are getting better by some ‘objective measure’ (e.g. height of tower / PISA results) but significant gaps can be left. Unless these gaps are backfilled, the whole thing is in danger of falling down.

Of course, this isn’t a perfect analogy as it presupposes a finite number of bricks of a uniform shape and size. And it also assumes everyone’s trying to play the ‘game’ by the same rules…

Image CC BY-NC-SA jose.jhg


Why I spent my twenties unlearning my teenage years.

In 2008 I removed myself from Facebook. It’s only this month that I’ve re-activated my account. I’m connected to over 4,000 people on Twitter, but only 7 on Facebook; I ignore connection requests on the latter. For me, Twitter is a forwards-focused social network, whereas Facebook is backwards-leaning.

In fact, the difference between the two was put even more pithily than that (on Twitter, of course) as:

Facebook is for people the people you went to school with; Twitter is for the people you wish you went to school with.

In 2009 I returned back to the North-East with my nascent family after a 6-year self-imposed exile in Doncaster. Like many ex-pats (especially Scots for some reason?) whilst I was living down there I remembered the place I grew up through some kind of mental rose-tinted glasses. The dissonance hit me hard when I came back – as I explained last year in You’re doing it wrong.

Upon my return I saw the area for what it is: broken. The story of my teenage years isn’t a particularly uncommon one: able boy gets bored at school, doesn’t achieve his grade potential, yada yada yada… It was only when I began to study Philosophy at university that I learned that it was OK to be interested in the way the world worked, alright to have an opinion based on values and beliefs, and fine to be seen reading books.

Regret is a wasted emotion, but I feel something close to that having been brought up in the area I was. It’s an uneven playing field, for sure. I feel this emotion especially for those who haven’t managed to escape an area and a mindset that is, to put it quite bluntly, a cycle of despair now several generations deep.

The biggest thing I had to unlearn from my teenage years? A (disguised) lack of self-worth that so often manifests itself in the arrogant, and sometimes aggressive, behaviour of young men. Any time you see someone ceaselessly bigging themselves up it’s likely that this is the underlying problem. Some people attempt (and succeed) in escaping this through religion, some through work, some through sport and some through transformative relationships. I suppose that, whilst it’s an ongoing journey, I’ve achieved some of that self-worth through all of these at some point. Others, it’s sad to say, haven’t.

The above is one of the reasons I’m joining with others to form Purpos/ed. Whilst I’ll do everything I can to make my children confident and full of self-worth, they will spend a significant part of their formative years in a formal educational  environment that could be as damaging to their character as my schooling (almost) was to mine.

Let’s start building the capacity to change that.

The difference between ‘crowdsourcing’ and being lazy.


Image CC BY-NC-SA Samuel Stroube @ Flickr

I don’t usually get involved with things explicitly concerned with education in the USA. But there’s been one issue recently that prompted me to reflect on a wider concern: the difference between ‘crowd-sourcing’ and just being lazy.*

In fact, it’s more than being lazy. It’s taking a concept and twisting it for your own ends to look like you’re doing something you’re not. It’s an attempted shortcut to being seen as ‘innovative’. It’s bandwagon-jumping instead of hitchhiking. 🙁

The current Wikipedia definition of ‘crowdsourcing’:

Crowdsourcing is a distributed problem-solving and production model. Problems are broadcast to an unknown group of solvers in the form of an open call for solutions. Users—also known as the crowd—typically form into online communities, and the crowd submits solutions. The crowd also sorts through the solutions, finding the best ones.

When done well, the results can be outstanding. Take, for example, The Guardian‘s decision to open up and make available the 700,000 documents involved in the UK MP expenses scandal. They received over 20,000 responses highlighting irregularities.

However, crowdsourcing is something that can be done very badly and for the wrong reasons. Take, for example ISTE’s decision to ‘crowdsource’ the Keynote speech for its 2010 conference. On the face of it, and for those involved with ISTE, the idea must look cutting-edge and innovative. It’s got a Digg-like voting system for proposals and has created a buzz about the conference on Twitter and blogs. However, although it looks as if it’s ’empowering’ people, it’s actually doing the opposite.

As Miguel Guhlin points out,

…I’m tired of hitching my carriage behind some writer’s idea of what could be in business but is designed for education since they’re the chosen keynoter. While research may say something, the fact is, research has been speaking up for years in school change and reform…and you know what? People aren’t listening.

Go and read Miguel’s post in full, but to summarize it briefly here, he says that expecting a keynote to change things at the coalface means putting faith in the following process:

  1. Educators go away and learn how to use a tool to the extent that it becomes part of their practice.
  2. The tool is appropriate to use within the context of their school and educators are free to use it as they wish.
  3. Educators are able to get their school leadership onboard and stay at the institution long enough to make a difference.
  4. Parents offer little or no resistence to flattening the walls of the classroom through the use of Web 2.0 tools.

Put in that way, it’s clear that ISTE’s decision is far from revolutionary. As Miguel states, it’s time for a ‘radical reboot’ in national and interational approaches to innovation in education. Isn’t it ironic that we use a lecture format to encourage teachers to be innovative and move away from such a format? 😉

So if you’re a leader and are looking to be innovative, please do look about you to see what others are doing. But once you’ve done that, go back and think about what the objectives of your organization/business/conference/whatever actually are. Then see if the process/innovation/tool that you’ve come across is appropriate. Ask yourself if you’re going through the process/using the tool for the right reasons.

Do you know of any other examples of thinly-disguised laziness?

* That thinking was started by reading Charles Leadbeater’s We-Think: mass innovation, not mass production (my review forthcoming)

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Why governmental educational reforms fail.

failing_streetI’m sure that I’m not the only teacher sick of wave after wave of governmental reforms, tweaking and general tinkering about with the education system in the UK. We all know it needs changing, but it needs changing root and branch, not some remedial (and expensive) tree surgeon work!

The trouble with tinkering is that it prolongs the problem and means that year after year of students entering school for the first time don’t start off on the right foot.

It hit me in the shower this morning that the model Thomas Kuhn set out in his seminal work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions applies here. For those (like me) who find diagrams easiest to understand, here’s one that gives an overview:



Think of Einsteinian physics replacing the previous model based on Newton’s work:

  1. Normal science – everything seems to work under Newtonian physics so people get on with ‘doing science’.
  2. Model drift – some anomalies mean that some ‘fiddling’ has to be done or scientists have to compensate for the shortcomings of Newtonian physics.
  3. Model crisis – there are now so many anomalies that it is interfering with ‘normal science’ taking place. This would happen at the atomic level with Newtonian physics.
  4. Model revolution – a time of great upheaval where scientists propose new theories and models to explain the phenomena. Think of the early 20th century when Einstein came up with his Theory of Special Relativity.
  5. Paradigm change – a model that explains the phenomena and allows science to move forward is settled upon and ‘normal science’ begins again.

I hope you can see already how this model pertains to educational reform. Although Kuhn’s model is of the order of a ‘grand narrative’ there is, I think, much explanatory power behind it.

If Kuhn’s model is applied to top-down government-funded educational reform then ‘normal education’ (akin to ‘normal science’) cannot progress. Teachers (akin to the scientists in the original model) have very little or no control over where their discipline is headed. There’s also the lack of an adequate feedback loop to explain the anomalies.

Finally, the clincher for me under this model is that governmental top-down reforms in education don’t take into account context. This is of fundamental importance and the biggest reason, to my mind, why such reforms fail. Using the Kuhnian model, the length of ‘normal education’, the number of anomalies, and the possible alternatives are dependant upon any number of local factors and features. In fact, not only is every Local Authority likely to be different, every school is likely to be different.

(read more on Kuhnian paradigm shifts here)

What are YOUR thoughts? Does the Kuhnian model work for you? :-p

(image credit: Failing Street by Chris Daniel @ Flickr)

Schools and the Procrustean Bed: are we really ‘personalising’ learning?

‘There is something about the Procrustean bed about schools; some children are left disabled by being hacked about to fit the curriculum; some are stretched to take up the available space, others less malleable are labeled as having special educational needs.’ (C. Bowring-Carr and J. Burnham West)

Procrustean BedI mentioned the above quotation in a blog post way back in 2006. I was concerned then about the various ‘agendas’ in education, and that’s even more the case today. The ‘personalising learning’ agenda is supposed to be about tailoring educational experiences to each and every child yet, in 2009, we still have classes of 30 or more children with one teacher standing in front of them. The focus seems to have moved onto technology as some type of ‘saviour’. In that respect, it’s sad to see Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), compulsory in English schools since the beginning of this academic year, being used simply as file repositories.

Whilst some schools may talk about ‘appropriate’ or ‘accelerated’ entry, it’s difficult to see how this is in the best interests of students. In most cases it’s a strategy for schools to squeeze as many exam passes from their students as possible: whilst those studying the highest level of exams have extra lessons in those subjects, those at the other end of the spectrum are re-taking basic examinations until they pass them. It’s hard to see how this completely examination-focused approach is ‘personalisation’ in any important, meaningful sense.

What is needed is a complete rethink – of the curriculum (based on competencies?), of learning spaces (like any of these Futurelab suggestions?), of the structure of the school day, of staff/students ratios and relationships, of the nature of ‘schooling’ and education in the 21st century.

What do YOU think? Is ‘personalisation’ working in YOUR school?

(image taken from this university course page – assumed fair use)

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