Wednesday, 22 February 2017

From winter to summer - My visit to South Africa

I am fortunate enough to be a Visiting Extra-Ordinary Professor at Northwest University. It is one of the older universities in South Africa on three campuses at Potchefstroom, Mafikeng and Vanderbijlpark. My work was in ‘Potch’ as the locals call it, and the area around it, as well as attending and speaking at the Educational Association of South Africa annual conference.

It was my second visit to work with their Leadership Research Group on projects of mutual interest, and to learn more about South Africa, and in particular the challenges facing the education system both in schools and in Higher Education. In HE, the ‘Fees must fall’ Campaign has been a very strong push to the government to the way they structure fees in higher education, and the campaign, which was initially violent protest, has settled down to sustained campaigning by activists.

In the leadership group, we compared the challenges facing educational leaders in South Africa with those in England. Colleagues were particularly interested to hear more about the academisation of the English system, with thoughts that it might end up, like much policy, coming to South Africa. We also looked at the personal and professional challenges faced by leaders in a system which is highly unionized, and Principals have very little say in the staff that work in their school.

Visits to local schools showed some of the specific concerns of educators locally, such as teenage pregnancy, abuse, and child parenting due to lose of parents through aids. In one local township school, we saw how the school had worked with pupils and parents to make sure that hunger did not stop young people learning. As well as the food given out by the government, the school encouraged unemployed mothers from the township to sell food in the dinner hour.

Where once the local primary schools were white, affluent and spoke Afrikaans, now affluent black parents are bringing their children into town to schools. Language instruction was also in English and the local language, Setswana. Meanwhile poorer pupils in the township may still face a 5+ mile walk to school.

We also learnt about the changing demographics of the area around the university.

The vice principal at one of the secondary schools we visited talked movingly of the history of the school, which has transformed over the last ten years from a place no one wanted to go, with under 30% in the national exams, to a popular school with over 65% and rising in the national exams.

In particular, she talked about her passion for education, despite being firebombed out of school in the years prior to Mandela’s release. Her passion for learning and her students was self-evident. It reminded me, as did the entire visit, of educations potential to transform lives.

Photos by Megan Crawford

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From winter to summer by Megan Crawford is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Schoolboy errors

Did you make mistakes when you were in school? I certainly did. In fact all of my classmates also did. Often we were scolded for our errors and sometimes we were even 'punished' for getting something wrong. One of my classmates was rapped across the wrist with a ruled because he was writing with his left hand (he was left handed).

I remember being told off by my teacher for writing out the number eight wrongly in my exercise book. Instead of writing it as a smooth flowing figure of eight as I had been shown, I wrote two conjoining circles. What disobedience!
For this deviant behaviour I was made to sit in the head teacher's office during break time writing out the number eight time after time 'as it should be written'.

One of the barriers to creativity in education is where teachers insists on one answer or one way of doing something. Another is a prevailing atmosphere in some classrooms of fear of failure. These and several other related barriers to creativity were discussed during a keynote session which featured Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg, British author Richard Gerver and myself, in Seoul at the Global Leaders Forum. We had been invited to speak on creativity in education.

There was consensus between us. We all agreed that failure was an important component of creativity, and should be built upon rather than dissuaded. Too often, students are fearful of making mistakes, which limits their willingness to experiment, explore and take risks. We talked about gaming, where users are always trying to exceed their own previous scores, and learn to perfect their skills through constant iteration and failure. Richard talked about encouraging students to 'colour outside the lines' while Pasi remarked on the powerful incentive of 'doing better next time'. We discussed assessment methods and concluded that in most countries these are too restrictive, and often assess superficial levels of knowledge.

Our conclusion was that 'school boy' errors are inevitable, and that mistakes and failure should be turned to the advantage of the student rather than becoming a dark cloud that hangs over an academic record. I'm glad I failed at school in some areas, because, although it was painful at the time, I have learnt many life lessons - not least that success is often hard earned, and we should never give up. One final thought - students don't fail. They just discover new and better ways of doing things. For me, the acronym FAIL will always mean 'First Attempts In Learning'.

Photo from Flickr

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Schoolboy errors by Steve Wheeler was written in Seoul, Korea and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Just for me learning

I took part in a very interesting panel discussion with several other keynote speakers during the Adult Learning Symposium last week, in Singapore.

The theme of the conference was 'Future of Work, Future of Learning', which sent a clear message to delegates that the two are inseparable. One of the questions from our audience, largely made up of learning and development professionals, was about how we could optimise learning in organisations. One of the panellists answered by saying that 'Just in Time' and 'Just Enough' learning should be possible and sustainable for workplace learning in most companies. I completely agreed with him, but added that we could go farther, and that 'Just for Me' learning is now also achievable, through a number of emerging trends in learning and development.

One trend is BYOD - bring your own device, which is happening in workplaces across the globe. Employers support their staff as they bring their personal devices such as smartphones and tablets into the workplace, enabling a technical infrastructure that scales to the screens being used. Clearly there are security and privacy issues to be addressed, but another trend is that learning is now becoming more untethered and we are witnessing a decline in the use of training rooms. Employers are discovering that productivity and effectiveness can be increased if learners stay in their workplace or remain mobile as they learn, rather than requiring them to travel to, and spend time in a 'training place.' Digital delivery of content can personalise learning, enabling learners to work at their own pace, and in a place and at a time that suits them. The final trend is the personal learning environment, which is made up of the learner's own tools and technologies, their personal learning network, and any other content, events and experiences that help them to learn what is needed to be successful in their work.

We have come a long way since the 'Just in Case' curriculum. Now employees can be kept up to date and knowledgeable, and their skills developed personally, through the appropriate application of networked technologies. 'Just for Me' learning will epitomise the next decade of learning and development.

Photo courtesy of the Adult Learning Symposium

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Just for me learning by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

The future of universities #EDENchat

Universities have never been under so much pressure. The unfavourable global economic climate has impacted as severely on our higher education institutions as it has in every other sector of society. Years of financial turbulence have prompted cuts, cuts and more cuts. Adverse media coverage coupled with hostile political pressures have put many of our universities in jeopardy. Rises in student tuition fees have placed universities in danger of closure in South Africa, United States, and elsewhere. Many are wondering what the future holds for higher education, and with so many graduates unemployed, who can blame them?

The next #EDENchat will discuss whether and how universities can innovate and change to survive in this century. Are traditional universities anachronistic in the digital age? Do students still need to attend campus, or can they learn at a distance? Is the predominant style of teaching at universities still the lecture, or are other methods coming to prominence? What role will research play in the future of universities? Are the newer, mega-universities better placed to cope with global changes, and will they threaten the traditional campus based universities? What will universities need to do to survive and thrive in the coming years?

Join us tomorrow on Twitter at 1900 BST (2000 CET) for a lively discussion on the future of the university.

Photo courtesy of Brunel University on Flickr

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The future of universities #EDENchat by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Testing times

Kay Chapman, a lecturer at the Plymouth Institute of Education writes about the changing nature of examinations in English schools. This piece first appeared in The Western Morning News and the Plymouth Evening Herald:

With the A level and now the GCSE results out, attention is again on grades and exams. The examination system in England has been under scrutiny for some time and the changes that have taken place have been given publicity, but how far do people understand what has been happening and why?

I often hear people say that “exams are getting easier and we’re not as good as other countries”. Could there be another point of view? Teachers are very well trained, both through their Initial Teacher Training and their continuing professional development. This training and development covers all aspects of teaching and learning including assessment. Teachers are au fait with the different kinds of assessment used in GCSEs and A levels and are skilled at preparing the students for the variety of challenges they will face. GCSEs and A levels use a variety of ways of assessing students’ knowledge and understanding including data response questions, essays, report writing and short answers and calculations.

The whole examination system is more accountable and transparent than say, 25-30 years ago. Over that time examination boards, what are now correctly termed Awarding Bodies, have developed the ways in which they communicate with teachers. Past papers and mark schemes are readily available and there is a great deal of support material available. There are teachers’ guides and post-examination reports that give details on how an exam paper has been marked or coursework moderated. Students can request their papers back and there is a greater degree of analysis of the results data available. As part of their Initial Teacher Training and continuing professional development, teachers develop their practice using these resources to best support their students.

As well as this students themselves are aware of the demand on them. Often they are secure in knowing what grade they are aiming for and how to achieve it. They are questioning and keen learners who want to achieve the best they can so that they can progress to further study or a job with training.

Teachers and students are adept at adapting to change. At GCSE one major change is the return to terminal assessment, which means taking most exams at the end of the two year course. Most teachers themselves took GCSE and A levels that were modular, so it is no surprise that this change is viewed with concern. The content of the courses is being made more challenging and there will be more longer questions in order to allow more in-depth answers. Coursework has mostly been removed, apart from some subjects that have practical elements such as art. Perhaps one of the most noticeable changes will be the change of grading system from the current A* to E to 9 to 1 with 9 being the top grade.

A levels are also changing. They will no longer be made up of an AS grade plus the A2 year. Instead, there will be a two year A level or a one year separate AS level that will not count towards the A level. Exams will be at the end of the course and there is a decrease in the amount of coursework.

These changes are arguably the most significant since the introduction of the GCSE in 1988. Before then O levels and CSEs were mostly terminally assessed, had longer questions and O levels had challenging content. The teaching profession adapted to these changes and results at GCSE generally have improved year on year.

The Department for Education and Ofqual have made these changes in order to ensure qualifications in England are “fit for purpose”. Part of the reason is international comparison. There has been publicity surrounding the country’s position in international educational ranking such as PISA. The new GCSE grading 9-1 designed to aid international comparisons; a grade 5 is comparable with the average test scores in countries that rank in the top 10 PISA league. When schools set targets based on these grades and achieve them, the effect should be to lift us up the PISA list.

The question I rarely hear asked is how meaningful are these international comparisons? How can we compare education in England with education in Singapore or Finland? Having just considered how exams have and are still changing in England, it is also important to consider the nature of the tests upon which these international comparisons are made. If a GCSE in 2015 looks different from a GCSE in 2018, how can a PISA test be compared with a GCSE in 2016?

Photo source: Flickr

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Testing times by Kay Chapman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Mind your Grammar

Evidence-based practice or personal opinion-based policy – proposed return of selective grammar schools

The recently announced British Government policy of opening more Grammar Schools with selective entry at age eleven is simply a more drastic example of ability grouping, alongside the streaming and setting of pupils that currently occurs in schools internationally.

Ability grouping in education has been extensively researched over the past 30 years with remarkably consistent findings from the various major reviews of studies.

One such review, from the Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit, cited in the 2016 White Paper on Education, concludes,

“Overall, setting or streaming appears to benefit higher attaining pupils and be detrimental to the learning of mid-range and lower attaining learners. On average, setting or streaming does not appear to be an effective strategy for raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils, who are more likely to be assigned to lower groups.”

This finding is consistent with those from other major sources of reviews of research on ability grouping that are available through google searches. These reviews consistently show that ability grouping is not an effective strategy for improving academic achievement in schools.

This is also consistent with my own research on the topic, conducted in New Zealand, which found that schools recognized that ability grouping did not improve overall levels of academic achievement but used it anyway. The high school study is linked below.

Given the weight of evidence against the use of ability grouping to improve overall achievement, why would any government seek to support the increased use of what might be viewed as one of the more draconian forms of it?

Is it because the real intention is to benefit the few higher performing pupils at age eleven, who are disproportionately from wealthier families, at the expense of the majority of pupils?

Or is it because policy makers are simply unaware of the many evidence-based strategies for improving educational achievement that can be identified from several sources, including the Teaching and Learning Toolkit referred to above?

This is a debate that is bound to grow over the next few years.

Professor Garry Hornby

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

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Mind your Grammar by Garry Hornby was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Gender, stereotypes and sustainability

One of the Institute's science education lecturers, Kelly Davis, has recently published some research around gender in the context of environmental sustainability. Whilst gender and sustainability might at first glance seem to be two unrelated issues, Kelly argues that they are connected - women are under-represented in science education, which plays a central role in school strategies to raise awareness of environmental issues. She suggests that one of the reasons females are under represented in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects in schools in due to gender stereotyping and an 'unconscious bias' by some that these subjects are solely a male preserve. Clearly, female scientists have as much to offer as their male counterparts, and lecturers in higher education involved in initial teacher education should strive to combat stereotypical thinking and challenge unconscious bias, to pave the way for a more equitable gender balance in STEM education, she says.

Here's the abstract of Kelly's article, published in the journal Science Teacher Education. The full article can be read at this link

As a lecturer in science education, the concept of environmental sustainability is heavily embedded within my teaching.  This article aims to highlight the links between gender and sustainability.  The sustainable development agenda 2030 states that one of its targets is to ‘achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’ (United Nations, 2015).   However, the reality is that women are still under-represented in science, technology, engineering and mathematical (STEM) fields (Penner, 2015).  This article explores the issue of this under-representation of women, and also specifically looks at changing practice within a primary science teacher training programme.  The article not only explores gender equality for women, but also for men, highlighting the stereotypical barriers trainee male primary school teachers encounter.  The issues of ‘unconscious bias’ and ‘stereotype threat’ are also discussed and changes in practice recommended.  The article highlights the fact that teachers and higher education professionals are in the fortunate position where they can facilitate change; after all, education is the key to a more sustainable future for all (Nevin, 2008).

Nevin, E. (2008) Education and sustainable development, Policy and practice: A development education review, (6), 49-62.
Penner, A. M. (2015) Gender inequality in science (347), 234.
United Nations (2015) Sustainable Development Goals. Available online at this link. (Accessed 9 March, 2016)

Photo by Pexels

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Gender, stereotypes and sustainability by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.