Contemporary education – what it is and what it should be

I’ve been going through some boxes which have been gathering dust in my garage (as I’m prone to do over Summer holidays) and have stumbled upon something which has me a little sad, a little perplexed and, if truth be told, a little angry.

It’s an essay I wrote in the early stages of my Masters of Education (Educational Technology) which I started in my 2nd year of teaching, 8 years ago. The topic? What role should technology play in contemporary education. However, more than just a discussion of technology, it was a lot more a discussion about contemporary education itself – the role of education in the present day, how it manifested itself in classrooms around the world, what role teachers played in all of that and what educational researchers, commentators and futurists thought of it all.

My initial smiles as I reminisced turned into a haunting realisation that this essay contained all the ingredients of what education could and should be vs what it was. And that none of this has changed since 2007. Or, really, any time in the 1800s.

Now I feel a little disheartened as well as being a bit angry. At myself mostly. I remember the person who wrote this essay – full of idealism, enthusiasm and a solid and unshakeable belief that we could change the path of education in general. I remember being so excited at all the different ideas and possibilities I was exposed to during my Masters study and where such knowledge and innovation could take education into the future. So when exactly did I sell out and go along the with the flow?

This takes me back to a life-changing presentation from Misty Adoniou earlier this year encouraging us to stage a revolution (albeit without a t-shirt and untelevised) where teachers stand up for what we know is right in education and push back against trends that aren’t in the best interests of the students we have in front of us. Particularly trends which are started by politicians and those who have a vested commercial interest. And, for me, this does include researchers who are in the pockets of big education businesses. I understand that research needs an outlet for dissemination and financial backing but wonder about those who choose to go down strictly commercial pathways rather than allowing their research to reach the most students possible, without the massive price tags of the educational publishing marketplace.

Next year begins a new chapter for me – I’m returning to the classroom after 3 years of visiting them as a literacy coach. I think I owe it to myself, my students, my colleagues and the profession in general to spend the rest of my holidays stoking the fire of the teacher ‘I used to be’ and start the year full of idealism, enthusiasm and that solid and unshakeable belief that we can (and should) change the path of education. My apologies if I come across as a little bolshy – Misty started it 🙂

literacy in the 21st century – what does it look like?

I’ve just finished reading a report by Henry Jenkins and others titled ‘Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century‘. As you would notice, I haven’t blogged much recently and the fact that this has moved me to do so should be testament to the effect it’s had.

The report shifts thinking about literacy from being an individual skill that we acquire in isolation to being something we gain and use through involvement with others. It discusses the ‘participatory culture’ that many youth are involved in through media and technology but which is lacking from many of our classrooms. The report also highlights a number of important skills – a set of ‘new literacy skills’ which participants need to be part of this culture.

I won’t go into great detail about the contents of the report other than to implore you to read it. Some of the ideas in it were ones I already had floating around as something I was conscious of in the classroom – the importance of promoting play and how to develop skills in multitasking.

However there were other ideas that I had never thought of before but that suddenly sound like absolutely perfect sense – distributed cognition and collective intelligence. I love this idea that intelligence is not something an individual has alone but is shared across their environment, artefacts they have access to and people they connect with. Looking at knowledge through that lens changes how we see students and their interactions with technological tools. A student accessing Google or using a calculator is not ‘cheating’ but using another part of their network of resources to complete their task. Why do we have to have all our knowledge in our head for it to be deemed valuable? Can’t it be considered equally valuable that we know where to get resources, how to use them and when they’re appropriate?

The list of potential literacy skills required to work effectively with new media is exceptionally valuable and would be a good one for all teachers to consider. I particularly liked a comment later in the report about how teachers shouldn’t see teaching these skills as an ‘add-on’ in what many see as already a bursting school day. We should see them as an integral part of how we teach literacy. Of how we teach in general.

I do understand the larger constraints that classroom teachers are subject to and how it can feel we have limited control over the day to day teaching that goes on in our classrooms. In Australian classrooms at the moment, the focus will, unfortunately, probably be on persuasive writing in a very narrow form thanks to NAPLAN testing which is due shortly. However I don’t believe this is an excuse to ignore reports such as these. It’s not about adding more into the teaching day, it’s about rethinking how we teach.

I think I’ve said enough for now although I’m sure this will be an ongoing train of thought…..

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my research in plain english

I’ve been inspired by the conversations on #phdchat on twitter to try to articulate my PhD research topic in an easily comprehensible way. If you’d like to read some other examples, go to the phdchat wiki. I still consider myself to be in the very early stages of my research and feel a bit bogged down by what my aims are so this is a particularly useful exercise at exactly the right time. In fact, while my general topic area is one I’m committed to and passionate about, I can see my actual research questions and focus changing the further my reading into current research goes. Anyway, here goes – comments and suggestions would be appreciated.


It is widely acknowledged that children’s experiences before they start school contribute to their development of literacy skills. In Australian schools, this is supported through the assessment of students at the beginning of each of their first three years of schooling to identify the experiences they have had and skills they bring with them into the classroom. Many of the classroom practices in the Early Years are then shaped by the experiences it is assumed children will have had at home (such as bedtime story reading or writing letters or cards to relatives).

However, what constitutes literacy outside of school has changed and continues to do so with the advent of digital technologies. By the time they come to school, children will have been exposed to and interacted with a range of technologies such as televisions, computers, mobile phones, ipods and games consoles. The skills they have developed to ‘read’ or interact with these technologies are different again to those that they require for interaction with books, paper and pencils.

My research focuses on the gap between the literacy skills students are bringing to the classroom in their first 3 years of schooling and what schools focus on as literacy during this period. This will involve a definition and analysis of children’s literacy practices at home and at school to see how digital technologies are used and viewed in both settings. I also intend to consider how teacher perceptions of the students’ ‘digital literacy’ skills alter their classroom practice.

If we accept that part of the role of education is to prepare students for full and active participation in society, this gap between literacy practices in-school and out-of-school becomes a crucial one. Potentially, such a gap creates a situation where students arrive at school already skilled in a range of literacy practices however are assessed in the classroom as failing because the in-school and out-of-school literacy practices do not match. It also raises questions about the relevance of classroom content and how this is preparing students for a technologically rich world that they are already experiencing outside the school walls.

web 3.0 and beyond

I attended a webinar this morning with Steve Wheeler, the presentation from which is above.

The salient point for me was the powerful combination of technology and social interaction – something which is obvious in the ‘real world’ but not always in our schools. While I agree that we can’t put all students in the ‘digital native’ basket and assume that they have the same level of digital literacies, we can assume that many of them are participating in self directed learning outside of school which involves a broad range of technologies and interactions with people beyond their own physical sphere. If we can find ways to harness that interest, the tools and the networks within a school environment, we will truly have the ‘personalised learning’ that is so often spoken about. There are certainly some educators I interact with through twitter and blogs who are making huge advances in this area, despite often overwhelming barriers.

how to teach with emerging technologies when you don’t know how to use them yourself

I’ve just started my PhD and, over the past year in preparation, have collected a heap of articles/reports/references which I am now beginning to plough my way through. I came across a report published by BECTA in 2007 titled ‘Emerging technologies for learning‘ and have just finished the section written by Marc Prensky. BECTA itself has been closed down with the UK change of government but the report is available in various places (click on the link above for one of them).

In volume 2, Prensky writes about how teachers will never be able to keep up with the technological skills and interests of the young people they teach. I don’t strictly agree with this view from all sorts of perspectives (and it is partly fodder for my own PhD research) however that is definitely a topic for a future post. I really liked his advice for schools and teachers about how they could and should still use the technologies as teaching and learning tools. He suggested that, rather than know how to use a particular type of technology, teachers needed to stick to what we know best – helping students select and use the right tools in an effective, responsible and meaningful way. We don’t need to know how to create a podcast to be able to help students assess their own creation of them. It can be enough to teach students where else they can go to learn rather than having all the knowledge and teaching them ourselves.

I guess all of this is resonating following recent discussions I’ve had with colleagues about blogging. Many saw the benefits for students but were reluctant to actually implement it, for various reasons. A major reason appeared to be fear/misunderstandings about the technology itself. As teachers, we still need to have an awareness of what the technology is, how it fits into the world and how people use it. We don’t, however, need to be experts in using it ourselves, just able to guide students towards tools that will help them figure it out. Obviously there are some of us who are more interested than others but that shouldn’t be considered a pre-requisite.

Certainly food for thought. Now back to the pile of reading…