Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Looking at some big stuff other than basketball

Upon returning from the first basketball practice of the season yesterday, I opened up my email to find a reply to a question/request that I sent out to Tony Wagner last week following my last blog post.  In that post I concluded with a question, and thought it might be interesting if Dr. Wagner had an opinion he might like to share.  Just to refresh, here’s the question again:

If society were to adopt new educational approaches that recognize best practice, or maybe even disruptive practice, what considerations in terms of the legacy systems already developed, must we address?

The reply from Dr. Wagner wasn't what I'd hoped for but was completely understandable.  It follows:

Thanks for the kind words, Dean.  No time for this right now.  Besides, I answer this question in the new last chapter for the paperback edition of the book.  You are welcome to quote or reference.
Tony Wagner, Ed.D.
Innovation Education Fellow
Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard

So the good part was that Tony Wagner was kind enough to extend a professional courtesy in a respectful way, and the less hoped for part was that I was now going to have to go back to the book and create a synopses answer from the final chapter and the afterword of his book.  After reading both chapter and verse again, here is what I thought stood out. 

Under the heading, 
Creating Accountability For What Matters Most; 
the case of the 2008 Virginia Beach Public Schools system wide ‘strategic planning’ change effort is highlighted.  In it, Jim Merrill (Superintendent VBPS) is quoted:

“It’s the hardest work I’ve undertaken in my career” Jim told me recently.  “We’re trying to effect change at scale, and we have to ‘play on two playing fields’ at once.  We’re still being judged by the criteria for ‘Adequate Yearly Progress’ and state accountability standards, while we are holding ourselves to a much higher standard.  We have to succeed at both.  It’s hard but it is the right work to be doing.”[i]

So my answer formulation process began with a comment from a superintendent who recognizes that a complete departure from legacy infrastructure is nigh on impossible.  Because ultimately some form of integration must be present in a change effort, taking on the challenge of adopting new (dare we say disruptive) approaches, increases the work not by a double (4+4), but by a factor of two (4x4).  . 

A direct statement on page 263 in Dr. Wagner's book conclusion section elaborates on this:

Finally, it should be obvious that there is no way to teach the competencies of critical thinking, problem solving, effective communication, and assessing and analyzing information, and so on without teaching academic content.  Subject-content material is what you think and write about, and problem solving is initially best understood and practiced as a part of the study of math, science, and social studies.  But in today’s world, academic content must be the means by which we teach core competencies – rather than through merely memorizing (and often forgetting) academic content for its own sake.  Students can always look up when the Battle of Gettysburg took place, or who General Sherman was, but they can’t just Google the causes of the Civil War and make sense of what comes up on the screen.  To understand such an issue, you have to know how to think critically, and you need a broader conceptual understanding of American history, economics, and more.  As we’ve seen, these skills and this kind of knowledge are rarely taught or tested in high schools today.[ii]

This recognition by Dr. Wagner appears to confirm the fact that any legacy learning system(s) must be addressed, and in all likelihood cannot be abandoned, if for the simple reason that: learning has many components, and each component has different facets that can't be ignored.  But the absolutes around what we address (what stays, what goes) at each level is still up for debate. 

The next step was to bring this information into the context in which I work, which led me to an initial examination of the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI) website.   The AISI initiative (ongoing for around 10 years) can best be described as the place where ‘new approaches’ to learning are given a blessing by the local provincial government.  It is also the place where government sanctioned improvement efforts will be shared.  To anyone who has worked in scientific or experimental design situations, you know that the works performed by private industry or scientific research-park organizations are usually kept secret as the results are considered proprietary information.  These trade secrets are often monetized through either competitive advantage use (lower cost, higher quality processes and products as a result of the work) or sale (for example $1.5 billion raised from the disposal of Nortel patents after the company declared bankruptcy). 

In either case, the nature of the work performed in the R&D effort is of a sophisticated enough nature that there is a sense that the development effort will generate proprietary gains that are greater than the R&D costs. As mentioned in the last post (Some Reasons for Un-change), for-profit enterprises use R&D as a tool for increased profits.  Ineffective R&D that leads to losses rather than profits won't survive.   In education, where profiting isn't the goal we quickly find out that educational R&D is to be shared. Now I realize that the argument ‘for the greater good’ is going to be rained down upon me as the reason for this (and by the way, I’m all for the greater good).  Let's start with who pays for this research in Alberta.  It is the government that pays, so they get to make the rules around how the results get used. One of the results of this greater good utility through government support is when shared information results in fewer mistakes being made, and in education that makes a lot of sense.  There is also a fear that people will withhold discoveries if we suddenly put a price on what we've learned through our research.  Despite these solid arguments, I am going to argue that there are some fundamental flaws that manifest themselves when an incentive system is in place that fails to recognize the true personal value (ownership rights) of unlocking learning innovation.  This is especially the case when private industry still exists as an accepted part of our societal infrastructure.  I’m also going to argue that if someone can generate a learning innovation that is of a great enough value that it has the potential to be monetized, it is probably going to have to be of a type far more similar to that work performed to create innovation in the for-profit domain.   

As the next step down the answer path, here is what AISI says about itself:

AISI is a bold approach to supporting the improvement of student learning by encouraging teachers, parents, and the community to work collaboratively to introduce innovative and creative initiatives based upon local needs and circumstances.

By going to the following link you can find out more, while this fact sheet spells out things like goals, measures and data analysis.  In many respects this type of funding initiative on the part of the Alberta Government has generated some solid work that can be said to have improved instructional design and pedagogical outcomes.  What can also be said is that virtually none of the 2000 sponsored projects have come up with answers on how to solve the ‘factoring of effort’ problem that Jim Merrill and Tony Wagner allude to.  Additionally, these projects fail to address another important area that I outline next.

Within the AISI results repository are two documents, one, a University of Alberta study by Jim Parsons and Kelly Harding -Research Reflections About When Schools Work Well: 21 Specific Activities for Improving Schools, and the other, Colloquium on Large Scale Improvement Implications for AISI 2008.  Both begin the process of meta-analyzing some of the project data gathered so far.  Unfortunately neither document can be said to contain the secret formula that solves some of the common dilemmas of integration.  Digging a little deeper, you can go and look at any specific educational improvement project as project summary results.   The section “What did not work” speaks to the challenges faced by a multitude of educational improvement projects in Alberta.  Here are two frequently cited reasons (synopsized) for integration failure:

·      Compromise Challenge – where oscillating between old and new practice rather than adopting a discrete third way, eventually ends up compromising the hoped for systemic improvements or gains that were originally envisioned
·      Initiative fatigue/capacity limitations – Resources (human and capital) are used up before real change to the byproduct of the integration effort can be seen as self sustaining

These, and other reasons appear time and again when education reformers take on the large task of paradigm/shape shifting.  From the Colloquium document just mentioned, you can get a taste for how the educational establishment accepts the likelihood for failure baked into adopting new approaches when they state:

The (AISI) research draws on the traditions of school effectiveness and school improvement. School effectiveness is more directed to finding out what works in education and why. School improvement is practice and policy oriented and intended to change education in the desired direction. In the orientation on outcomes, input, processes, and context in education, both approaches have much in common. Today the two traditions are usually merged (Creemers, 2002, p. 343). Combining the two perspectives has led to using the school improvement vehicle and the school effectiveness knowledge base to enlarge our understanding of how schools operate and possibilities for improving them. By combining elements of both traditions, mixed methods rather than either quantitative or qualitative ones are used for description and explanation (Hopkins, 2001, p. 57). [iii]

This statement can be interpreted in a variety of ways, but I would argue that 'mixed methods' are used as more than descriptors.  From my perspective while working with this process for 7 of the last 10 years, the typical research and development process, which is iterative in nature, has been modified in school improvement efforts to constantly (due to the combining function) bring into question/doubt that which has supposedly been proven to be effective or ineffective.  Where conventional R&D explicitly states both quantitatively and qualitatively what has been observed, educators use something labeled “mixed methods” as a way of explaining things.  I believe that this approach hides the facts.  Even accepting that understanding is enlarged or possibilities have increased, the way educators use the evidence as an end rather than a means to an end, is somewhat unsettling.  Further evidence of this belief that evidence is an end rather than a means to an end landed in my inbox the other day when the provincial government asked me to provide feedback to a questionnaire titled: Welcome to the Preliminary Ideas for the Development of Guiding Principles for Curriculum Design-Online Engagement Opportunity.  Participants were asked to provide feedback to a series of statements using a four-point scale (agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, disagree).  Two statement examples follow:

            Curriculum evolves in response to emerging student and societal needs.
This idea is important to guide future curriculum development.

            Curriculum enables student-centred learning.
This idea is important to guide future curriculum development.

These “guiding” statements ask for an opinion on whether courses that are taught, should include something that can be identified as student-centred learning and should evolve with current contexts.  Has all the research (2000 research projects in Alberta alone) not been able to say empirically what the answers to these questions are?  Is it any wonder then, that when parents ponder a decision that has to be made between legacy ways of teaching and learning, and better ways of teaching and learning, those advocating for the latter are accused of living in a world of opinion rather than fact?  It would appear that when we go all the way back to the original question,

If society were to adopt new educational approaches that recognize best practice, or maybe even disruptive practice, what considerations in terms of the legacy systems already developed, must we address?

…our (Society’s) biggest challenge is that most of the current research work done in education has not definitively established what ‘Best Practice’ actually is.  Add to this what Jim Merrill mentioned when attempting to integrate his two worlds, and the magnitude of what needs to be overcome (starting with how we restructure education improvement initiatives) begins to parallel the world of very large numbers.  The consideration of what we address (what stays, what goes) floats in a world of sometimes-effective current processes and sunk costs in the work invested so far, with all of the implications that are attendant to that reality. 

Unless you posses the resources of a Bill Gates, anyone ambitious enough to take on this kind of challenge will most likely want to see some sort of personal benefit that is commensurate with the effort that will be required.  Additionally, the resources that will be needed to research the outcomes desired will need to be more aligned to the practices of private industry.  At this point the question society will want answered is, whether the cost of such an effort will generate the 'equivalent' of greater profits.   

Someone reading this might jump to the conclusion that I am advocating for the removal of educators from the professional learning process, but in fact quite the opposite is true.  What I am saying does mean  that professional learning should not be confused with real R&D.   Real R&D does generate a best practice model that is not up for argument.  And when real R&D is applied to probable outcomes (which is what education deals with most of the time) it won’t make a case for certainty, but it can make a case for what is most likely to happen should best practice be followed.  

Does this mean that education ≠ invention?  At least as things currently stand, that appears to be a true statement.

[i] (Wagner, 2008)
[ii] (Wagner, 2008)
[iii] (McEwen & Milard, 2008)

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