The cost of admission to the unlearning zone

picture of dull classroom (pubic domain)I describe some of what I do as ‘unteaching’, so I find this highly critical article by Miss Smith – The Unlearning Zone –  interesting. Miss Smith dislikes the terms ‘ unteaching’ and ‘unlearning’ for some well-expressed aesthetic and practical reasons: as she puts it, they are terms “that would not be out of place in a particularly self-satisfied piece of poststructuralist literary analysis circa 1994.”  I partially agree. However, she also seems equally unenamoured with what she thinks they stand for. I disagree with her profoundly on this so, as she claims to be new to these terms, here is my attempt to explain a little about what I mean by them and why I think they are a useful part of the educators’ lexicon, and why they are crucially important for learners’ development in general.

First the terms…

Yes, ‘unteaching’ is an ugly neoligism and it doesn’t really make sense: that’s part of the appeal of using it – a bit of cognitive dissonance can be useful for drawing attention to something. However, it is totally true that someone who is untaught is just someone who has not (yet) been taught, so ‘unteaching’, seen through that light, is at best pointless, at worst self-contradictory.  On the other hand, it does seem to follow pretty naturally from ‘unlearning’ which, contrary to Miss Smith’s assertion, has been in common use for centuries and makes perfect sense. Have you ever had to unlearn bad habits? Me too.

As I understand it, ‘unteach’ is to ‘teach’ as ‘undo’ is to ‘do’.  Unteaching is still teaching, just as undoing is still doing, and unlearning is still learning. Perhaps deteaching would be a better term. Whatever we choose to call it, unteaching is concerned with intentionally dismantling the taught belief that teaching is about exerting power over learners to teach, and replacing it with the attitude that teachers are there to empower learners to learn. This is not a particularly radical idea. It is what all teachers should do anyway, I reckon. But it is worth drawing attention to it as a distinct activity because it runs counter to the tide, and the problem it addresses is virtually ubiquitous in education up to, and sometimes at, doctoral level.

Traditional teaching of the sort Miss Smith seems to defend in her critique does a lot more than teach a subject, skill, or way of thinking. It teaches that learning is a chore that is not valuable in and of itself, that learners must be forced to do it for some other purpose, often someone else’s purpose. It teaches that teaching is something done to students by a teacher: at its worst, it teaches that teaching is telling; at best, that teaching involves telling someone to do something. It’s not that (many) teachers deliberately seek these outcomes, but that they are the most likely lessons to be learned, because they are the ones that are repeated most often. The need for unteaching arises because traditional teaching, with luck in addition to whatever it intends to teach, teaches some terrible lessons about learning and the role of teaching in that process that must be unlearned.

What is unteaching?

Miss Smith claims that unteaching means “open plan classes, unstructured lessons and bean bags.” That’s not the way I see it at all. Unlike traditional teaching, with its timetables, lesson plans, learning objectives, and uniform tests, unteaching does not have its own technologies and methods, though it does, for sure, tend to be a precursor to connectivist, social constructivist, constructionist, and other more learner-centred ways of thinking about the learning process, which may sometimes be used as part of the process of unteaching itself. Such methods, models, and attitudes emerge fairly naturally when you stop forcing people to do your bidding. However, they are just as capable of being used in a controlling way as the worst of instructivist methods: the number of reports on such interventions that include words like ‘students must…’, ‘I make my students…’ or (less blatantly) ‘students (do X)’ far outnumber all others, and that is the very opposite of unteaching. The specific technologies (including pedagogies as much as open-plan classrooms and beanbags) are not the point. Lectures, drill-and-practice and other instructivist methods are absolutely fine, as long as:

  1. they at least attempt to do the job that students want or need,
  2. they are willingly and deliberately chosen by students,
  3. students are well-informed enough to make those choices, and
  4. students can choose to learn otherwise at any time.

No matter how cool and groovy your problem-based, inquiry-based, active methods might be, if they are imposed on students (especially with the use of threats for non-compliance and rewards for compliance – e.g. qualifications, grades, etc) then it is not unteaching at all: it’s just another way of doing the same kind of teaching that caused the problem in the first place. But if students have control – and ‘control’ includes being able to delegate control to someone else who can scaffold, advise, assist, instruct, direct, and help them when needed, as well as being able to take it back whenever they wish – then such methods can be very useful. So can lectures. To all those educational researchers that object to lectures, I ask whether they have ever found them valuable in a conference (and , if not, why did they go to a conference in the first place?). It’s not the pedagogy of lectures that is at fault. It’s the requirement to attend them and the accompanying expectation that people are going to learn what you are teaching as a result. That’s, simply put, empirically wrong. It doesn’t mean that lecturees learn nothing. Far from it. But what you teach and what they learn are different kinds of animal.

Problems with unteaching

It’s really easy to be a bad unteacher – I think that is what Miss Smith is railing against, and it’s a fair criticism. I’m often pretty bad at it myself, though I have had a few successes along the way too. Unteaching and, especially, the pedagogies that result from having done unteaching, are far more likely to go wrong, and they take a lot more emotional, intellectual, and social effort than traditional teaching because they don’t come pre-assembled. They have no convenient structures and processes in place to do the teaching for you.  Traditional teaching ‘works’ even when it doesn’t. If you throw someone into a school system, with all its attendant rewards, punishments, timetables, rules and curricula, and if you give them the odd textbook and assessment along the way, then most students will wind up learning something like what is intended to be taught by the system, no matter how awful the teachers might be. In such a system, students will rarely learn well, rarely persistently, rarely passionately, seldom kindly, and the love of learning will have been squashed out of many of them along the way (survivors often become academics and teachers themselves). But they will mostly pass tests at the end of it. With a bit of luck many might even have gained a bit of useful knowledge or skill, albeit that much will be not just wasted and forgotten as easily as a hotel room number when your stay is over, but actively disliked by the end of it. And, of course, they will have learned dependent ways of learning that will serve them poorly outside institutional systems.

To make things far worse, those very structures that assist the traditional teacher (grades, compulsory attendance, fixed outcomes, concept of failure, etc) are deeply antagonistic to unteaching and are exactly why it is needed in the first place. Unteachers face a huge upstream struggle against an overwhelming tide that threatens to drown passionate learning every inch of the way. The results of unteaching can be hard to defend within a traditional educational system because, by conventional measures, it is often inefficient and time-consuming. But conventional measures only make sense when you are trying to make everyone do the same things, through the same means, with the same ends, measured by and in order to meet the same criteria. That’s precisely the problem.

The final nail in unteaching’s coffin is that it is applied very unevenly across the educational system, so every freedom it brings is counterbalanced by a mass of reiterated antagonistic lessons from other courses and programs. Every time we unteach someone, two others reteach them.  Ideally, we should design educational systems that are friendlier to and more supportive of learner autonomy, and that are (above all else) respectful of learners as human beings. In K-12 teaching there are plenty of models to draw from, including Summerhill, Steiner (AKA Waldorf) schools, Montessori schools, Experiential Learning Schools etc. Few are even close to perfect, but most are at least no worse than their conventional counterparts, and they start with an attitude of respect for the children rather than a desire to make them conform. That alone makes them worthwhile. There are even some regional systems, such as those found in Finland or (recently) British Columbia, that are heading broadly in the right direction. In universities and colleges there are plenty of working models, from Oxford tutorials to Cambridge supervisions, to traditional theses and projects, to independent study courses and programs, to competency-based programs, to PLAR/APEL portfolios, and much more. It is not a new idea at all. There is copious literature and many theoretical models that have stood the test of time, from andragogy to communities of practice, through to teachings from Freire, Illich, Dewey and even (a bit quirkily) Vygotsky. Furthermore, generically and innately, most distance and e-learning unteaches better than its p-learning counterparts because teachers cannot exert the same level of control and students must learn to learn independently. Sadly, much of it is spoiled by coercing students with grades, thereby providing the worst of both worlds: students are forced to behave as the teacher demands in their terminal behaviours but, without physical copresence, are less empowered by guidance and emotional/social support with the process. Much of my own research and teaching is concerned with inverting that dynamic – increasing empowerment and social support through online learning, while decreasing coercion. I’d like to believe that my institution, Athabasca University, is largely dedicated to the same goal, though we do mostly have a way to go before we get it right.

Why it matters

Unteaching is to a large extent concerned with helping learners – including adult learners – to get back to the point at which most children start their school careers – driven by curiosity, personal interest, social value, joy, delight – but that is schooled out of them over years of being taught dependency.  Once misconceptions about what education is for, what teachers do, and how we learn, have been removed, teaching can happen much more effectively: supporting, nurturing, inspiring, challenging, responding, etc, but not controlling, not making students do things they are not ready to do for reasons that mean little to them and have even less to do with what they are learning.

However, though it is an immensely valuable terminal outcome, improved learning is perhaps not the biggest reason for unteaching. The real issue is moral: it’s simply the right thing to do. The greatest value is that students are far more likely to have been treated with the respect, care, and honour that all human beings deserve along the way. Not ‘care’ of the sort you would give to a dog when you train it to be obedient and well behaved. Care of the sort that recognizes and valorizes autonomy and diversity, that respects individuals, that cherishes their creativity and passion, that sees learners as ends in themselves, not products or (perish the thought) customers. That’s a lesson worth teaching, a way of being that is worth modelling. If that demands more effort, if it is more fallible, and if it means that fewer students pass your tests, then I’m OK with that. That’s the price of admission to the unlearning zone.

 

Recording of my TCC2016 keynote: The Distributed Teacher

This is the recording of my keynote at the TCC2016 online conference, on the nature of learning and teaching: the inherently social, distributed nature of it, why e-learning is fundamentally different from p-learning, and how we harmfully transfer pedagogies and processes from physical classrooms to online contexts in which they do not belong. If you want to watch it, skip the first 5 minutes because there was a problem with the sound and video (I hate you, Adobe Connect): the talk itself begins at a few seconds after the 5 minute mark.

Downloadable slides and details of the themes are at https://landing.athabascau.ca/file/view/1598774/the-distributed-teacher-slides-from-my-tcc-2016-keynote

Address of the bookmark: http://squirrel.adobeconnect.com/p1bvy7grca7/

Teaching

I have received awards for my teaching at the University of Brighton and Athabasca University, and am a National Teaching Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, UK.

In the past I have taught courses on a wide range of computing and education topics, including information technology, learning technology, networking, pedagogy, research methods, and learning design.

At Athabasca, I currently teach the following courses in the School of Computing and Information Systems:
Undergraduate
COMP 266 – Introduction to Web Programming
COMP 282 – Social aspects of Games
COMP 283 – Effective Use of Facts and Myths in Computer Games (temporary stand-in)
COMP 350 – Green Computing (under development)
COMP 470 – Web Server Management
Graduate
COMP 602 – Enterprise Information Management
COMP 607 – Ethical, Legal and Social Issues in Information Technology
COMP 635 – Green ICT Strategies
COMP 650 – Social Computing

I am also supervising a number of undergraduate and graduate projects, essays, theses and dissertations

Awards etc

Awards

Teaching Excellence Award, University of Brighton, 2005

National Teaching Fellowship, Higher Education Academy, UK, 2005

President’s Award for Research and Scholarly Excellence, Athabasca University, 2012

Craig Cunningham Memorial Award for Teaching Excellence, Athabasca University, 2015

Miscellaneous prestige indicators

JISC: UK’s Top 50 most influential HE professionals (2015): https://www.jisc.ac.uk/blog/uk-higher-education-social-media-influencers-named-05-oct-2015

AACE: Top 20 in Social Media to connect with (2015) : http://blog.aace.org/2015/03/22/top-20-in-educational-technology-to-connect-with-through-social-media/

 

Awards for published works:

Educator of the Year Award, Social Media 2015

Editors’ Choice Award for Top Paper of 2011, IRRODL

Outstanding Paper award, E-Learn 2008

Best Paper award, CELDA 2007

Outstanding Paper award, E-Learn 2007

Best paper award, ICALT 2006

Top paper award, Webnet 99

How Do You Motivate Kids To Stop Skipping School?

Not like this!

This article starts with the line ‘it seems like a no-brainer’  and indeed it is. The no-brainer solution to low attendance is to make the schools relevant, meaningful and interesting to the kids.

However, bizarrely, that is not what seemed obvious to the writer of the article, nor to the ones that carried out this harmful and doomed research, who thought the obvious answer was an incentive scheme, and inflicted it on 799 kids, mostly age 9. Basically, they told the kids they would get two pencils and a cute eraser if they turned up 85% of the time during the 38-day study.

It seems that they did not bother with a literature review because, had they done so, they would have found out right away that rewards are totally the opposite of what is needed to motivate kids to attend school. There is over 50 years of compelling evidence from research on motivation, in many fields and from many disciplines, that demonstrates this unequivocally and beyond any reasonable doubt. The only possible consequence of this intervention would be to demotivate the kids so that, at best, they might revert to former behaviours at the end of it, and that many would be even less likely to attend when it was over.

Unsurprisingly, this is exactly what they found. The reward program did indeed increase attendance while it was in effect  (this is the allure of behaviourism and why it still holds sway – it does achieve immediate results) and, when it was over, kids were indeed even less motivated to attend than they had been before, exactly as theory and empirical research predicts. In fact, many of the kids got off very lightly: formerly high attenders and those that were not great attenders before but that succeeded in getting the reward only fell back to baseline levels as soon as it was over, which is actually pretty good going. A more significant reward or longer study period might have had worse consequences. Unfortunately, the effects on the ones that were the real target (those who were initially low attenders, 60% of whom failed to meet the goal) was disastrous: once the intervention was over, these already at-risk kids were only a quarter as likely to attend as they had been before the intervention began.

One of the surprised researchers said:

“”I almost felt badly about what we had done,” she says. “That in the end, we should not have done this reward program at all.”

Almost? Seriously. This borders on child abuse. I generally think of research ethics boards as an arguably necessary evil but, when I hear that experiments like this are still going on, I could easily become a fan.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2015/05/22/407947554/how-do-you-motivate-kids-to-stop-skipping-school

The new axis of evil — Canada: One third of American 8th graders think we live in a dictatorship

You could look at the ‘fact’ that a third of American 8th grade students think Canada is a dictatorship as just another tragi-comic indictment of the US educational system, or of the blindness of the US to the existence or validity of any other country, or of a failure to get the message across about Canada, or that the message about Stephen Harper’s style of government actually has got out, albeit in a slightly distorted form. All likely have a glimmer of truth.

But, actually, the headline from The Province newspaper is false: I am pretty sure that very few US 8th graders really think that Canada is a dictatorship. They just don’t know. It was just a vaguely plausible option on the MCQ (note that the actual candidate answer did not mention dictatorship, though it was implied), so they made a disinterested guess because that’s what they have been taught to do. There’s no belief implied at all.

Should a kid in early teenage know about the political systems of other countries? Why? On the whole, things matter if they matter to those around you, and/or because you are curious about how they work, and/or if it has relevance to things you do or want to do. it is far from clear that any of these conditions is true for the kids in question.  If it is forced down your throat with the threat of reward (or punishment) but no one you care about cares about it, it doesn’t inherently interest you, and it doesn’t address any actual need you have, then why on earth should you learn it? But why are the kids not interested enough to know this? The answer lies, I think, in the means used to discover what they do not know.

Exam - public domain

 

Educational systems that are designed to churn out kids that get the right answers on tests like this have two main options. The first is to build rich, curiosity-driven learning communities in which teachers and learners share the journey, enthusing one another, supporting one another, discovering paths, sharing delight in their discoveries, and overcoming challenges together. This is how learning happens lastingly, efficiently and meaningfully. But, and it’s a big but, such a path may not cover what will be on the test at the time the test needs to be taken. There’s a great deal of intrinsic reward in such a path for all concerned but the extrinisic reward structures (most especially those tests), for both teachers and students, tend to actively militate against it. It certainly doesn’t help when all (teachers and students) are forced to do the same thing at the same time in lock step, whether it makes sense, interests anyone or has any relevance or not. The second path to getting those test results is much more direct: apply coercion (reward or punishment) and make students ‘learn’ what will be on the test. With enough pressure, it can work well enough to get the required test results, even though in the process it has disempowered teachers and learners, forced them into a controller/controlled relationship in which maintenance of discipline becomes a major teaching function and, as a result and perhaps most heinously of all, has likely destroyed any innate and lasting interest in the topic for the vast majority of students. To add the final cherry on top, the vast majority of what has been ‘learned’ will be forgotten once the need to pass the test has passed. Only the greatest teachers and most passionately interested learners can overcome this systemic failing. It’s not the kids that are ignorant. It’s the people who designed and continue to support the system used to teach them.   

Address of the bookmark: http://www.theprovince.com/news/national/axis+evil+Canada+third+American+graders+think+live/11063581/story.html?utm_medium=referral&utm_source=pulsenews

Why do we not ban use of cellphones in online learning?

Banning mobile phones is cargo cult science is a good, laudably brief, dismissive, critical review of the dangerously-reported recently published study by the London School of Economics that, amongst other things, shows a correlation between banning of mobile phones in schools and improved grades. As the title of the post suggests, the report does not show that banning mobile phones in schools is what improves grades in any way at all, despite the fact that the report writers do seem to believe that this is what they have shown: indeed, they recommend banning mobile phones as a cost effective measure to improve grades! That is so opposite to the obvious conclusion it is not even funny. To me, it shows a terrible failure at a massive systemic level. It’s not cellphone use that’s the problem – it’s the teaching. More precisely, it’s the system of teaching. I am sure that the vast majority of individual teachers are doing wonders, under extremely adverse circumstances. But they are doing so in a completely broken system. 

The interesting thing for me is that this would never come up as an issue for online and distance learners. Well, almost never: perhaps occasionally, study guides might recommend you set aside undistracted time for some (not all) kinds of study and webinar leaders might suggest that participants switch off phones and other distractions. But this is only at most a bit of practical advice, not an edict.

The point here is that command-and-control teaching methods of traditional classrooms have no meaning or relevance in online learning. This makes it all the more odd that we continue to see substantially the same pedagogies being used for online teaching as those found in the over-controlling environment of teacher-led classrooms. Obvious culprits like lecture-based MOOCs are just the more visible tip of this weird bit of skeuomorphism but the general principle runs across the board from instructivist textbooks through more enlightened uses of social constructivist methods in discussion forums. Too often, implicitly or explicitly, we act under the illusion that how we teach is how people learn, as though we still had students trapped in a classroom, controlling (almost literally) their every move.  The unholy and inseparable continued twinning of fixed-length courses and the use of grades to drive student progress is very much to blame, though a lack of imagination doesn’t help. These technologies evolved because of the physics of classrooms, not because they are good ways to support learning. In almost every way, they are actually antagonistic to learning. Online learning can, does and should liberate learners, giving them control. So let’s stop teaching them as though we were the ones in charge. It is crazy that we should voluntarily shackle ourselves when there is absolutely no need for it.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.educate1to1.org/banning-mobile-phone-is-cargo-cult-science/