Sunday, May 25, 2008

Can school change society or do we have to change society first to have a different school?

This week I attended a conference on the PISA and PIRLS surveys. As the conference had been organized by a teacher union there were some tension concerning the interpretation of the results of the surveys. If the results are poor, it could well be that not only the government but also the teachers have their part of responsibility because they may be doing a bad job or because they had their say in the defining of the curriculum in use. That neither the second nor the latter conclusion can be easily accepted by teachers and their representatives is easy to understand.

What was raised then, was that education may well be victim of circumstances set by society itself. Circumstances that were mentioned were growing individualism, consumerism and strong economic interests. From this perspective it is clear, that society is responsible for the disaster and that it should change first. But is it as simple as that? Maybe the science of complexity could help us out.

According to complexity theory, school is a complex adaptive system which is embedded in and connected to other complex adaptive systems. School is not loosely connected to society, it is an itegral part of society. The actors in the educational system are at the same time actors in other systems like the national economy. Furthermore, what makes school special, is it's long-term influence on an individual - from early childhood to adult life. And as schooling is continuously being extended, the probability is growing that it will have a strong influence on the individuals hence on society. So why shouldn't educational systems be in a position to change other social systems?

If there are doubts that school can change society, we have reasons to doubt that any subsystem (unions, non-profit organizations, governments, laws, family structures etc.) can have a considerable impact on the global system. Is this the case? If we turn to what the science of complexity tells us, I would say that the answer is yes and no.

What is highly probable is, that small changes in school, won't lead to major changes in short-term. At the same time some of the changes will have a long-term effect, but it is impossible to predict which of the changes will have a major effect, when this effect will be perceivable, and if this effect is going to beneficial. Changes in the curiculum, in the the training of teachers, in the way schools are organized will without any doubt, have a short-term impact on school life, but long-term outcomes remain unpredictable.

We have also to consider that while changes in the educational system take place, other subsystems change at the same time, influencing one another and the global system like the society in which they are embedded. We cannot stop the economical system from evolving to have enough time to analyse the impact of changes brought to education. This means, that we make decisions on assumption at a certain stage of a process an this process, or parallel processes are changing the conditions that have lead to these assumptions.

The question is now, how we should decide on what actions to take, if we have no possibility to identify what long-term outcomes an action or a decision could lead to.

In his book "Complexity and Creativity in Organizations" (1996), Ralph D. Stacey posts that "The criteria for quality actions become, not ends, but ethical considerations and criteria having to do with maintaining positions, keeping options open, retaining flexibilty, and revealing errors as fast as possible. The quality action is not one with a predetermined outcome, because that effectively excludes all creative actions, but the action that is morally good in itself, the action that keeps options open by allowing an organization to stay in the game (...)."

If this is true, which I believe to be the case, then we should invest time to define an ethical framework that would help us to choose between possible actions. We should also set conditions in which creativity of a large number of actors is possible so that through a double-loop learning process innovation is possible. The science of complexity also tells us, that there is no justification to an organizational model in which change is built on a decisional hierarchy where "a few do the thinking and the creating while the many do as they are told." (Stacey)

For all those who would like to know precisely what to do (stakeholders or teachers alike), who want to be in controle of the outcomes, who need a blueprint for change that they would then impose on others, and who think that self-organization only leads to disorder, this may not be a very satisfying position. From such a perspective there is no guarantee for success, not even a lot of control and obviously many actions will be futile and will have neither visible or beneficial short-term nor long-term outcomes. But if uncertainty is the price for creativity (and according to complexity science we need a lot of creativity to increase the probability of innovation and to avoid that a system gets stuck in a stable equilibrium) then, we should opt for uncertainty instead of top down control.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

"It is honesty, not rightness, that moves children." Herbert Kohl

During my three days trip to the French Atlantic coast I reread 36 children and Growing Minds, on Becoming a Teacher by Herbert Kohl.

H. Kohl is a great example of a reflecting teacher who is also a gifted writer. He is often qualified as "provocative" educator with "revolutionary" teaching ideas and methods. Considering that his beginning teaching experiences happened back in 1962, in a primary school class in Harlem, with 36 black children, they are indeed revolutionary.
But what stroke me most, is his honesty regarding his first steps in teaching, where he still stuck to the curriculum and tried to establish order and gain authority in his classroom while simultaneously trying to do innovative projects and bringing in his enthousiasm for teaching.
In my view, what he did is the same as most young teachers do (me included, when I started teaching), trying to merge or serve system expectations and a self-image of an innovative, skilled and respected educator.

What makes H. Kohl exceptional to me - as a teacher, not as a writer - is his self-criticisme, the conclusion he drew out of his daily experiences and his statements on the role of the teacher.

It's definitively a must read for every educator regardless if he/she is in his/her beginning or final years of teaching.

I don't want to spoil your pleasure of discovering the books by yourself so I won't quote to much from them, except for the title and the following :

"I've been involved with what has been called open or progressive education for over twenty years and found these concepts frequently misunderstood. One can teach Shakespeare, microbiology, computer math, as well as simple reading , writing and arithmetic, in open ways that leat do understanding, mastery, and occasionally love of the subject itself. To teach in an open way does not mean the loss of content, the indulgence of the whims of students, or the avoidance of complexity. On the contrary, it implies control of content, and the ability to deal with new and difficult ideas and concepts - in other words, the development of sophisticated thinking."

"In a boring classroom where learning is not much more than filling out forms and taking tests, ther's little reason to want to join back in once you've been separated from the group. (...)
Decent nonviolent discipline will only be effective in a learning environment where interesting things are happening. There is an essential relationship between the quality of content an the use of nonpunitive discipline strategies in any learning situation. Effective discipline is dependent upon building an attractive and comfortable world that children don't want to be excluded from, and not upon how you respond in any particular instance."

"Because they saw my researching they learned to do research. They wouldn't have learned had I merely told them to do it."

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Why do arrows never hit their target when used in combination with a teaching machine?

Evaluation by competences has become the new credo of schools and educational reform in many countries in Western Europe.
We all know that giving global marks to students in a subject like mathematics or reading is vague, subjective, and depending on only a few test situations and thus unfair. We also know that this evaluation practice doesn't take into account complex learning processes that students have gone through. This leads to the conviction that evaluation by competences will me more objective and more precise. And, according to a common belief, the more items are taken into account the more precise the picture will be.

But will splitting up complex knowledge into multiple items really improve evaluation? How many items do we need to be able to attest a student that he/she has good reading skills?
Will learning be more effective when we can assume that "teaching to the test" will be transformed into "teaching to the competence item list"? Has there been considered, what difference it makes if the teachers themselves are in charge of defining the items or if the competence lists are centrally defined and distributed to the teachers as normative targets?
What will be the effect on students once they have gone through a schooling system where "myriads" of items have to be taken into account, especially when school has not been able, up until know, to get rid of subtle reward and punishment practices? Are people aware of the possible contradictions between competence items and their contradictory theoretical roots?

An interesting article by Véronique Marchand illustrates how the "evaluation of competences proceeds through reductionism" and states that "the complex action which constitutes every act of thought is reduced to a succession of procedures that become an end in themselves". (English translation) (French version)

When reflecting on this subject, I can't help but thinking that, even if Burrhus Frederic Skinner is not necessarily the direct and only mentor of the approach, it could well be that in in the end he will.
Why? Because the main arguments that are use to "sell" the approach to 'evaluate by competences' like 'reduce or even eliminate failure', 'set reachable targets for everyone', 'increase students motivation to learn' etc. have all been used in a similar way by B. F. Skinner when he argued in favor of his operant conditioning instrument, the Teaching Machine. And we all know that any given school system tends to assimilate (make it similar to what is already in place) new concepts.

It is often said that, if you don't know the history, you are condemned to repeat it. This applies to teaching as well. If you don't know in which theories your teaching practices are rooted, you may be condemned to do what you tried to overcome or to do differently and better.

So you teachers out there, I invite you to analyse what is hiding behind the competence item before checking the box. The item is not necessarily what it pretends to be. And please don't forget to have a look back to the roots of your teaching.
Take the videos below as a start and listen carefully to what Skinner says about the "free will".

Oh yes, what about the title?
Read to Véronique Marchand's article to the end and you will get the explanation.

Some Reading Milestones

  • Towards reflexive method in archaeology : the example at Çatalhöyük (edited by Ian Hodder) 2000

  • The Book of Learning and Forgetting (Frank Smith) 1998

  • Points of Viewing Children's Thinking: A Digital Ethnographer's Journey (Ricki Goldman-Segall) 1997

  • Verstehen lehren (Martin Wagenschein) 1997

  • Computer im Schreibatelier (Gérard Gretsch) 1992

  • The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter. Uses of Storytelling in the Classroom (Vivian Gussin Paley) 1991

  • La cause des adolescents (Françoise Dolto) 1988

  • Scuola di Barbiana. Die Schülerschule. Brief an eine Lehrerin. (Edition of 1980) / read in German 1982
    Letter to Teacher by the Schoolboys of Barbiana (1970)
    Lettre à une maîtresse de'école, par les enfants de Barbiana (1968)
    Lettera à una professoressa (Original Edition) 1967

  • Vers une pédagogie institutionnelle (Aïda Vasquez, Fernand Oury) 1967

Documentary Films on Education

  • Eine Schule, die gelingt (by Reinhard Kahl) 2008

  • Les temps des enfants (Jacques Duez) 2007

  • Klassenleben (by Bernd Friedmann und Hubertus Siegert) 2006

  • Lernen - Die Entdeckung des Selbstverständlichen
    (Ein Vortrag von Manfred Spitzer) 2006

  • Die Entdeckung der frühen Jahre
    Die Initiative "McKinsey bildet" zur frühkindlichen Bildung (by Reinhard Kahl) 2006

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft - Wie in Deutschland Schulen gelingen (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft / Incubators of the future / Les serres de l'avenir; International Edition (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Journal de classe, 1ères audaces (1), Les échappés (2), Sexe, amour et vidéo (3), L'enfant nomade (4), Remue-méninges (5) (by Wilbur Leguebe, Jacques Duez, Agnès Lejeune) 2004

  • Spitze - Schulen am Wendekreis der Pädagogik (by Reinhard Kahl) 2003

  • Journal de classe, (by Wilbur Leguebe and Agnès Lejeune; Jacques Duez) 2002

  • Etre et Avoir (by Nicolas Philibert) 2002

  • The Stolen Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2002

  • The Angry Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2001

  • A l'école de la providence (by Gérard Preszow) 2000

  • Blue-Eyed (by Jane Elliott) 1996

  • A Class Divided (by Jane Elliott) 1984

  • Eye of The Storm (with Jane Elliott) 1970

Past quotes of the day

For every problem, there is one solution which is simple, neat and wrong. Henry Louis Mencken

Traveler, there is no path. Paths are made by walking.
Antonio Machado

The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Immanuel Kant

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. Albert Einstein

To paraphrase a famous quotation, all that is necessary for the triumph of damaging educational policies is that good educators keep silent. Alfie Kohn

We used to have lots of questions to which there were no answers. Now, with the computer, there are lots of answers to which we haven't thought up the questions. Peter Ustinov

I had a terrible education. I attended a school for emotionally disturbed teachers. Woody Allen

A professor is someone who talks in someone else's sleep. W. H. Auden

When I was an inspector of schools I visited one classroom and looked at a boys book. He'd written, 'Yesterday, Yesterday, Yesterday, Sorrow, Sorrow, Sorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Love, Love, Love.' I said, 'That's a lovely poem.' He said, 'Those are my spelling corrections.' Gervase Phinn

Real thinking never starts until the learner fails. Roger Schank

If what is wanted is a reexamination of schooling in terms of purpose, structure and process, then testing programmes are the wrong vehicle (...) Caroline V. Gipps

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Albert Einstein

Act always so as to increase the number of choices. Heinz von Foerster

Another way of avoiding teaching is by relying exclusively on a textbook, workbooks, and other commercially packaged learning materials. Teaching is reduced to administering a set curriculum without giving any thought to the substance of what the students area learning or to their particular needs. H. Kohl

The right to ignore anything that doesn't make sense is a crucial element of any child's learning - and the first right children are likely to lose when they get to the controlled learning environment of school. F. Smith

Learning is the human activity which least needs manipulation by others. Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful activity. - Ivan Illich

Too often we give our children answers to remember rather than problems to solve. - Roger Lewin

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. - Mark Twain