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Education

The advent of educational genomics?

One of the first overseas school trips I accompanied was to the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual conference. Looking back, I feel immensely privileged to have been able to work in a school that supported giving students in year 12 the opportunity to visit a world leading scientific conference.

Most of the material was way above the heads of even these academic high achievers, however I could see the value for them in pure inspiration. For many kids the days contained many lightbulb moments. Kids would be super charged with ideas that, while they may not have understood all the details, they could see how they connected to what they were learning in school. These were certainly intellectually high challenge events for a 17yo.

I remember, as an accompanying teacher, feeling like I was undergoing solid subject specific CPD and many of the workshops that I attended as a Masters-degree holding biologist were concerned with a topic known a pharmacogenomics. This was 2009, the Human Genome Project had concluded four years earlier and there was much discussion about the applications of this research.

Pharmacogenomics holds, crudely, the promise that essentially, one day, we will be able to have our individual DNA sequence read quickly, in a GPs surgery, and drugs tailored to our particular genome. That medicine can be tailored to us so that we all get treatments that are most effective for each of us individually.

There is no doubt that this is the way that medicine is moving, albeit slowly and it is likely that if the light’s don’t go out on civilisation we will see some version of this in the next 100 years.

Reading Robert Plomin’s Blueprint it was striking to read a psychologist begin to explain how 50% of the variance of intelligence within a population can be explained by genetics. This means that the biggest, stable, correlation of educational outcomes is with the DNA within an individuals genome. Plomin goes on to explain that the shared environmental influence of children attending the same school and growing up in the same family accounts for only 20% of the variance in school achievement (and only 10% at university).

This claim begs the question as to what are the implications for education if genetics is the best predictor of educational success?

As  Plomin is keen to stress these predictions are probabilistic and not fatalistic. Just because genetics is accounts for 50% of the variance of educational outcomes, this does not mean that kids with the “right” genetic mix are pre-determined to do well, just that, on average, they will. He argues for going with the grain of genetics, and, in the case of parenting, working in a way that exposes children to opportunity but develops children alongside what they appear to be interested in.

I found many of these ideas fascinating and I am left with the question – will we soon be in the time of educational genomics? Will we be able to sequence our DNA and from the information have an insight into our psychology in such a way that we can tailor instruction to be optimal for us?

I suspect that the differences in the DNA and psychological make up in the 1st and 2nd standard deviations of the population will be so small as to make tailoring of instruction as effectively meaningless. The fact is, that children need, for a host of reasons, to be educated communally, and this creates a whole host of issues with regards to the personalisation of education.

Still it is an interesting idea..

Categories
Education Teaching & Learning

Philosophy 4 Children

This week on Sunday and Monday I took part in Philosophy 4 Children training at our campus. One of our curriculum objectives in Secondary is embed the concepts of Theory of Knowledge (a core component in the IB Diploma Programme) horiztonally and vertically through the Secondary Curriculum. The TOK course is concerned with developing students conceptual understanding of how knowledge is produced and utilized across the subject areas. It challenges kids to think about how knowledge claims can be justified and supported.

At the same time, our primary colleagues have been exploring how Philosophy for Children (P4C) can be used to improve children’s abilities to reason, justify and explain their ideas about broad topics.

One of the benefits of working in a K-12 school is that we can combine PD between Primary and Secondary which allows for some eye opening sharing of teacher classroom practice. This training provided a good opportunity for me as a curriculum leader to not only learn about P4C as a concept and teaching tool, but also to see how it might enable Secondary teachers to get a better grip of managing dialogue and understanding of abstract concepts in the TOK course.

During the training we encountered a variety of warm up activities that can be used to get thinking and discussion going, as well as a full P4C inquiry which is a structured 11 step process for generating a conversation about an abstract question. I am not going to write up all the activities that we did in this post as I tweeted an ongoing thread throughout the training detailing all of the tasks we used.

The first observation I had was that the P4C model of inquiry is highly structured, providing a scaffold for all learners (teachers included) to work through their thinking about a topic. Following the 11 steps from a real stimulus to a discussion about an abstract concept allows even someone who is relatively unconfident in this area to succeed in generating thinking and discussion.

Commentators who were following my thread were quick to point out that int there experience, P4C training was some of the best training for TOK teaching that was available.

Indeed, it became immediately apparent to me that the 11 step full inquiry is a perfect model for generating knowledge questions, one of the key, and most difficult steps for TOK learners to get. Here is a method that can be directly applied in TOK classrooms to help students unpack knowledge questions from a stimulus or real life situation. With practice, I am confident that many teachers would be able to use this model to help them develop TOK thinking.

In other secondary subjects, this model can also help teachers and students to unpack TOK concepts related to their subject area. For example in natural sciences, some of the key TOK concepts relate to models, uncertainty, inductive and deductive reasoning, falsifiability among others. Using the NoS statements from the subject guides with specific real life examples like models used to predict climate change as a stimulus, this model could be directly applied in the IB Biology classroom to help teachers and their students generate knowledge questions from examples in their syllabus.

Recently, I have been thinking about how I can get my IB biology students more engaged with real world issues or deeper conceptual questions like “what is life?”. I have lots of ideas for stimuli but beyond creating a DART or questionnaire linked to the podcast, video or reading I was at a loss as to how to generate deep thinking and discussion.

This tool, I believe, has given me the key to help my students, think about and generate questions in response to stimuli, and provide a basis for fruitful discussion about the topic of interest.

For example, I am thinking about how I can really engage my students with the issue of climate change, so that as well as learning about it from the biology syllabus, the learning develops real meaning and significance for them so that they are inspired to run a CAS project around the issue etc. I had an idea of using some of the recent planet earth documentary as a stimulus but was unsure how to use it. Now, myself, the Lang B teachers and the geography teacher are collaboratively planning to address this topic in sequence and we will think about how we can bring the 11 steps inquiry into our planning.

I am convinced that P4C is an excellent foundation for TOK, both of which are programs that can help student think and question more deeply as well as become more engaged with big ideas and questions.

P4C is broad, it is concerned with thinking about any of a range of concepts that could be thought of as philosophical. TOK is narrower in focus, and, in a Venn diagram, would sit inside the concepts of P4C. P4C can be focussed on knowledge, TOK is concerned only with inquiry about the nature of knowledge. Both programs are concerned with linking the real world stimulus to the abstract theoretical concept. The P4C 11 step scaffold provides an excellent ladder to allow learners to move between the real and the abstract.

Categories
Education Teaching & Learning

Side effects in Education

Recently, in my NPQSL course we have been asked to reflect on the question “What is the moral purpose of education?” Education can be argued to have many moral purposes, and it comes down to an educators point of view; this is an opinion that I think many teachers and leaders would accept.

For example you could argue that the moral purpose of education is to allow individuals to experience a fulfilled life where they can experience and appreciate the whole of their humanity. You could also argue that education’s purpose is to serve society and better the community at large.

Where ever you stand on this spectrum, the very fact that there is a difference of opinion here makes education, as a profession, a little unique. Doctors, for example, would largely agree that the moral purpose of education is to save life.

In what works can hurt, Yong Zhao asks if educational research should be concerned with side effects in education. However appealing this analogy is misleading. In medicine there is a clear moral purpose: do no harm. This is a moral purpose that all medics subscribe too. Medics are driven by the desire to save and prolong life.

No single unifying moral principle exists in education and different schools and different teachers have different moral purposes.

Yong Zhao cites the medical profession as one that requires researchers to investigate side effects as well as the main affects of interventions. In light of calls for educational research to adopt similar methodologies to medical research and become more scientific he argues that this is an area that is overlooked.

Educational research is exclusively focussed on what works without looking at how much it hurts.

Reasons for this may be that education is universally perceived as good, although I would argue that medicine is also. I think the reasons that the education does not consider side effects so much is that the moral purpose of education is much less clear. As well as, this damage due to eduction may take a very long time to be observable and you can only measure that which can be observed – also there are huge numbers of conflating variables.

Zhao writes that education is dominated by a narrow focus on cognitive abilities derived in a small number of subjects measured by standardized tests so that scores in these tests become the measure of effectiveness. Other outcomes are rarely measured so we don’t know about any adverse effects.

More evidence is unlikely to stop the battles within education, but a consideration of side effects might. The education pendulum swings but there is really no progress. I can agree with some of this as any look at the history of the debates does see that these arguments do go on quite a way back.

A way forward to resolving the traditional/progressive debate may be the consideration of both main and side effects in education interventions.

Zhao highlights that direct instruction is effective but can stifle creativity and reduce confidence. He cites the progress of some Asian countries, where students have a lot of knowledge drilled into them but students suffer from lack of confidence, versus Western countries where students know less but have more confidence, as evidence that what works can hurt.  I wonder if this may be a relic of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Student may well be further along the knowledge curve and therefore less confident.

Many interventions that have sought to improve reading scores have reduced access to other subject areas, by eliminating subjects to make more time for reading prep. The negative effects of these interventions are now well documented: reducing access to other subjects only serves to reduce literacy scores.

I do think that by focussing only on what can be measured can lead us down the wrong path. Measurement is important and does have a place, but there are elements of human life that we don’t know how to measure or have barriers to measuring like cost and time. We shouldn’t ignore these areas.

Categories
Books Education

Notes on Trivium 21c

Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21c was an absolute delight to read. Thought provoking and enlightening it presents an eloquently articulated history of the educational ideas and, through this radical history, a persuasive argument for the great synthesis of traditional and progressive teaching methods, united via the ancient arts of the trivium.

The trivium in teaching

The trivium of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric, originally used as the basis of the school curriculum in the middle ages are explored from a variety of different paradigms and meanings for Robinson to final expound his view of how this mantra could be utilised in modern schooling.

Grammar, Robinson argues, is not only the teaching of the rules of the language arts but is equivalent to the transmission of all of the basic facts and building blocks of knowledge that make up a particular discipline or subject. Grammar is also the transmission of the structure and rules of culture, which, of course, encompasses all the academic disciplines as well as other elements. To Robinson, modern grammarians are those of us on the traditionalist side of the great education debate on methods. Grammarians value knowledge and the methods best shown to help students gain this knowledge.

Dialectic, to Robinson, is the art of critiscm, skeptiscim and questioning of grammar. It is an art that needs to be taught in order to enable future adults to be able to think clearly about and with knowledge, in order to not simply be absorbers of knowledge but users and producers of it. Dialectic is important as it allows students to manipulate and use the knowledge acquired through grammar, by questioning it, reflecting on it and potentially rejecting or changing it. If grammar represents tradition, then dialectic represents progression; the dialecticians are those of us in education who aspire to the more progressive methods in the great educational debate.

The third art of the trivium, rhetoric, is the art of communication. Not only should learners be taught to acquire knowledge through grammar, taught to question it through dialectics but they should also be taught to communicate their thoughts through the arts of rhetoric.

Should the purpose of education serve the common good or enable someone to live a good life?

As someone who has moved from being deeply religious to being so no longer, I found myself agreeing with Robinson’s sentiments that curiosity is not best served by prejudice and that teachers must not model the closed mind of someone who thinks there is only one path that leads to meaning or, I guess, truth. In this vein he asks us to attempt to live, as teachers, with the uncertain position of holding the traditional and the progressive together, investigating ideas from across the range of opinion.

Robinson asks if all teachers in any given school understand the narrative of a the curriculum? He argues that only by seeing how their part fits into the wider curriculum can teachers deliver an education to students that allows them to be knowledgable, critical and reflective. He claims that students must learn the unifying concepts, the concepts that come up again and again, of each discipline again and again. This put me in mind of Thomas Khun who claimed that expertise as a scientist only arrives through exposure to many examples. Scientists are experts because they have been able to generalise from the many specific examples and they apply this knowledge in new scenarios.

Robinson also claims that teachers must move away from omniscience, which reminded me of an early career conversation a chemistry teacher who claimed that not knowing in a teacher is a sign of weakness, and that students don’t like it. I agree with Robinson that all teachers need to honest about what society doesn’t know, they need to embrace the uncertainty in their discipline.

A good teacher has mastered the core knowledge and more of their discipline as well as holding an appreciation of what society doesn’t yet know in their field.

We need to understand that teachers should have the authority to teach but recognise that all knowledge is probable and uncertain.

Teachers should use language in such a way that ensures uncertainty has its place.

Robinson’s book draws on many sources and aside from his main argument is highly informative of the history of educational ideas. His arguments are compelling and interesting but the book is worth reading not only for this but also for your education in the history of educational ideas that it draws upon. This book has helped me begin to see the synthesis of the progressive and traditional narratives and has got me wondering about how I can go about making argumentation an important part of my biology classroom in the second stage of the trivium. How can I use debate to really challenge kids to think and learn all sides of an argument? How can I introduce students to the, Dissoi Logoi in science, the art of seeing both sides of an argument as true within their contexts. Instead of dialectic argument as being right vs wrong we can make both as right. Dual thinking explores the possibility that both sides can be right.

Categories
Education

Learning in the age of Dataism

Last week, I outlined in this post how modern schools and the modern western education system are built on the principles of humanism, showing how many of the modern assumptions in education are based on humanist claims. For example the roots of what is termed progressive education are based on post-romantic ideas about the beauty of individual experience, an idea that is also the underpinning of capitalism and democracy; two ideas that are practical manifestations liberalism, a creed of humanism. On the other hand ideas within the modern traditional approach to education are rooted in the idea that all humans are created equal and as such have rights to an equal education; an idea that has its roots in Communism, another humanist tradition. In this post I want to explore how the ideas of Noah Harari, written in Homo deus, may relate to the modern education system.

Harari contends that society at large may soon be leaving the age of humanism and entering an age of dataism. Dataism is defined as an emerging ideology in which information flow is seen as the supreme value. It is used to describe the mindset created by the emerging significance of big data.

Harari goes on to argue that Dataism, like any other religion, has practical commandments. A Dataist should want to “maximise dataflow by connecting to more and more media”[8], and believes that freedom of information is “the greatest good of all”. Harari also argues that Aaron Swartz, who took his life in 2013 after being prosecuted for releasing hundreds of thousands of scientific papers from the JSTOR archive online for free, could be called the “first martyr” of Dataism

Big data is only just beginning to make inroads in education and yet already we are seeing its potential. One of the areas that I have begun to witness this is in university guidance. All ready platforms are springing up that aim to utilize big data to help students make sense of the options available to them. Companies like BridgeU use algorithms to help locate universities and courses based on student preferences. Information flow here is already quickly becoming the supreme value and will allow individuals to make slicker, more efficient, choices, perhaps with a lot of time saved to boot. On one hand, this appears to be at odds with the individual focus of human university counseling. Indeed some colleagues have told me that they prefer the platforms, like Unifrog, that have less of a data driven, algorithmic, inhuman agenda. But I actually think that these systems have the potential to improve the lot of many individuals by freeing up time and making research on an overwhelming range of options more focussed. Sometimes less is more.

Elsewhere, big data is behind standardised testing programmes like those administered by CEM and the success of many new pedagogical applications that aim to help to apply scientific findings of learning to course material like the textbooks developed by Kognity.

On the face of it, information flow as a supreme value could seem to be at odds with the current paradigm of education: humanism. Isn’t it the love of more data that can drive poor interventions in schools, like when schools require more frequent testing and measurement of progress, so that students and teachers alike are pressured into making decisions to maximise progress? Often these interventions come at the demise of learning, causing poor behaviours like teaching to the test and cramming. Or how about when teacher spend hours agonising over data collection and data entry instead of planning the next teaching sequence?

Schools love data. Whether it is data on student progress or on student performance, teachers and senior managers love it. However, in some ways many schools have gone through the dataism paradigm already, and come out the other side. The debate, in the UK at least, is shifting away from purely data driven measures of progress to measuring quality of education, by including curriculum measures, something far more qualitative than quantitive. While schools love data they are also fundamentally humanistic in nature. Whatever the motivations of educators have been historically, education is an affair of the human experience. It is a someone who is being educated. It is a someone who is having their mind and thinking patterns altered in someway.

In a sense, though, knowing is data flow. While information and knowledge are not the same thing, knowing relies on using information. It is how the mind works with information that results in knowing. And so, if society were to progress into an age where data would reign as the supreme good, education would still be able to maintain its focus on the individual experience.

Harari analyses human history through the idea of dataflow, the new emerging modern value. He  writes that “the crippling thing about religion is that it reduces data flow“. By this he means that modern religions, are not innovators in religious experience. They are conservative and restricted by holding onto old and outdated traditions and values. I know this first hand. Growing up in my evangelical family I was not allowed to read books by David Hume because he was a “humanist”. This conservatism restricts knowledge transfer to and development within the individual, thus from a dataist point of view: religion restricts dataflow.

Schools, then, could well be institutions that, through learning of knowledge, promote dataflow. Education could develop a dual purpose, the traditional humanist purpose of educating the individual for their benefit or societies, and the modern purpose of ensuring that dataflow is maximised and made efficient through the education of individuals as producers and consumers of data.

If this is right, perhaps this is more cause to be concerned with the fad of 21st century skills. In this previous post I partially outlined why there is no such thing as generic skill acquisition. Real 21st century skills will require lateral thinking, stress management and an ability to see the big picture as well as know the details and have expertise. All of this requires knowing. The more you know, the easier it is to learn more. Yes, humans may never be able to outcompete computers for what they can know but that doesn’t mean we should give up learning. Actually we need to give more careful thought to what our students do know.

One of the areas where dataism and big data may well come to play a larger role in the education system and also benefit the liberal philosophy of many schools is through personalised learning. The ability of big data, algorithms and artificial intelligence to tailor learning experiences to individual needs to is already being seen in a plethora of learning applications and websites that are adaptive in formative assessment and tailoring of content. I imagine that we will see a lot more of these tools becoming available in mainstream schools as we progress through this century.