Wednesday, 24 May 2017

iPads: game changers or money paperweights? New study tells us little

'Computer: activate holo-deck, In the Night Garden sub-routine.'

An interesting and problematic study from Northern Ireland about iPads in early-years settings hit the interweb today. Interesting because it makes some extraordinary claims about their efficacy that, if true and replicable, could revolutionise the way we teach in those settings; and problematic because  that ‘if’ has a lot of heavy lifting to do.

The study ‘Mobile Devices in Early Learning’ was carried out for two years and involved 650 pupils in five Belfast primary schools and five nursery schools.

‘Schools which took part were in some of the most deprived areas of the city.
They were each supplied with sets of iPads for nursery, primary one, primary two and primary three classes.’ (1)

What did they find? Fans of chalk boards and cuneiform look away now:

  • The introduction of digital technology has had a positive impact on the development of children's literacy and numeracy skills
  • Contrary to initial expectations, principals and teachers report that the use of iPads in the classroom has enhanced children's communication skills
  • Children view learning using handheld devices as play and are more highly motivated, enthused and engaged
  • Boys appear to be more enthused when using digital technology, particularly when producing pieces of written work (2)

Impressive stuff, and these findings represent prizes we all value: improved gateway skills, engagement, enjoyment, motivation. Game over for sceptics surely? Alas, one Boss-level obstacle remains. Is it true?

The quotes above are taken from a news website, which only describes the authors' findings. But in order to understand if the research findings are robust, and that they flow from the iPad intervention, we need to be able to access methodology, study design, attainment measures and so on. We need to hear a critical voice to contract with the claims. Otherwise we could just say anything. 

Thrilling sub-heading supported by weak evidence in paragraph 14

What’s wrong with reporting like this? In my opinion, it's unhelpful. In fact I think taken as a whole it makes the business of knowing how to educate children harder. Because if we want to make sure that what we do with children in classrooms is useful rather than frivolous, it’s important that claims of efficacy are matched by evidence, and extraordinary claims matched by extraordinary evidence. This project set the Belfast Regeneration Project back £300K, with change back for a Solero- or a teacher’s salary for a decade if you prefer. School budgets are finite systems and getting more finite by the year.

'Sir! This intervention appears to based on weak findings.'
When we report unconfirmed results like this without challenge, the intellectual landscape of education discourse is changed subtly. This news report will be cited somewhere, by someone who wants to bring a cache of iPads into a school, and someone somewhere will say ‘OK’. That’s great if they have the effect they claim, but what if they don’t? At best a waste of money and time. In fact, that’s also the ‘at worst’ scenario, because children- especially children in deprived areas, don’t have second chances, or time for expensive substitutes for teaching time. When we report research without question, it enter the collective psyche as factual: ‘iPads make kids smarter and happier.’ But what if they don’t? And I don’t have skin in this game. I love iPads. But I also loved Tom Hardy’s performance in Taboo, and I’m not using that in any lessons soon because there is no obvious reason for me to do so.

Show me the money

Ok, so go beyond the slightly breathless news report. Where is the research itself?

The article doesn’t link to anything we can look at, so a quick search reveals that this study is:

‘Gray, C., Dunn, J., Moffett, P., & Mitchell, D. (2017). Mobile devices in early learning. Developing the use of portable devices to support young children's learning. Stranmillis University College: A College of The Queen's University of Belfast, 24.05.2017’

To the website, Robin. Over at Stranmillis University College, we find a link to a press release, where one of the report’s author’s makes these claims:

“The study’s findings showed that, in the five participating schools, all of which were located in catchment areas of high social deprivation and academic under-achievement, the introduction of digital technology has had a positive impact on the development of pupil literacy and numeracy skills. And, contrary to initial expectations, principals and teachers also reported that their use had enhanced children’s communication skills, acting as a stimulus for peer to peer and pupil to teacher discussion.” (3)

There’s a link at the bottom of this breathless review, but it doesn’t work- happily the study is elsewhere on the website (4).

Surely here at last we'll find evidence that robustly stands the claim up? Well, in my opinion, it's a bit disappointing. Why?

1. Completely subjective self-reporting: If you were hoping to find some evidence that children's literacy or numeracy had been demonstrably improved in an objective way, you will go home with empty pockets. All the evidence collected in this areas was in the form of semi-structured interviews with teachers, school principals, student focus groups and parental questionnaires. So the teachers (small focus groups from each of the 5 schools and pre-schools) said things like 'I think they've improved their literacy.' How do we know this? How can we separate any gains from normal progress, or progress attributable to other interventions or processes? 

2.  Questionnaire response rate: 27% (after a second push- the first response was 8%), which seems to my mind to be a poor response. We have no way of knowing how representative this is (although I'll suggest 'not very')

3. Possible design biases: schools were selected to participate in this project based on their commitment to the project, their pre-existing use of ICT and iPads in the school, and their commitment to use iPads in the future, as well as a troubling commitment to 'The benefits of developing literacy and numeracy skills to be gained from the use of iPads.' So, to summarise: schools that were enthusiastic about iPads, already used them and believed they had big educational benefits, participated. 'Person who likes x, thinks x is good' isn't so much a research finding as a disappointing maxim in a fortune cookie. 

4. Variable usage: schools used them at different times, with different apps, in different ways, with different children. In some schools they were used more than others. It seems very hard to discern if like is being compared with like. 

5. Funding. This whole program came about because the Belfast Educational & Library Board was awarded a grant from the Belfast Regeneration Office to 'develop an ICT program.' Was there sufficient critical examination of the need to do so in the first place? Every study needs to suspend disbelief in its own utility, and question its own existence.

6. No control group. What is this intervention better than?

Duvet days: no longer a get-out from teaching.
This study' findings may well be found to be correct, and I’m sure that the authors and everyone involved has the best of intentions and conducted themselves with scruples and integrity. That’s not in question. But questions are all we have at this stage. All we are holding in our hands is a fog of grand claims and optimism. Do iPads turn frowns upside down? Do they turn light bulbs on above confused heads? Are they just a novelty or a distraction? We can’t tell, not from this. A day of terrific press is great for the University, but doesn’t help the debate.

Never mind the quality, feel the tech

I’ve looked at a lot of research that often gets used to support positive claims for the utility of tech in the classroom, and often they don’t stand up in court. Some of the most duplicitous research I have read in this area uses proxies of success that are entirely subjective or impossible to substantiate. ‘tech has the potential to do x’ is the same as ‘tech has not done x yet.’ And ‘boys appear to be more enthused when using digital technology’ could be uncharitably responded to with a ‘so what?’ and a ‘oh really?’ and a 'did it take a £500 iPad to do that?'

And that’s important, because schools are poor and kids don’t often get second chances when they come from deprived areas. Universal, free education is one of humanity’s greatest inventions. Wasting that is a sin, and a theft from people with nearly nothing. Who would rob a child, from a family with nothing but debt?  

Other people's children

Public money needs to be spent as carefully as if it were our own. Other people’s children need to be taught as carefully as if they belonged to us. No child should endure the loss of their right to an education, no matter how digitally it is dressed. If iPads and their ilk can bring benefit to the table, then let them demonstrate it in public. Let everyone see how well they work, and if they do, the truth will be unmistakeable. But when claims are made without data that substantiates it appropriately then we have a right to ask if our money is being spent wisely. This matters. Ominously, the report suggest that:
'These findings should inform the future rollout of similar initiatives and will be of interest to practitioners, policy-makers and parents.'
Ireland, I love you. My family migrated from Ireland. I wish you and your beautiful island nothing but fortune and love. For the good of your children, and the wealth of your nation, and the prospect of better things to come, I suggest that you use these findings wisely. Keep your hands away from the cheque books for now and wait until better data supports swapping out precious resources for digital magic beans.

I'll end with a lovely quote from Piaget, which starts the report:

'The principal goal of education is to create men and women who are capable of doing few things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done—men and women who are creative, inventive, and discoverers, who have minds which can be critical, can verify, and not accept everything they are offered (Piaget,1973).'

Be critical? Verify? Not accept everything we're offered? I couldn't agree more. 

(2) Ibid

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Money buys luck. Everyone else needs to work hard

'Look darling- straight A*s again.'

In Florence Foster Jenkins (2016), Meryl Streep plays the eponymous New York heiress socialite who was determined to succeed in her chosen profession of opera singer despite the cruel blow fate had dealt her by making her both tone deaf and a terrible singer. Hugh Grant plays Hugh Grant playing her husband, who simultaneously supports her ambitions while deflecting any of the obvious and natural checks and balances that the world typically offers hubris, such as criticism or anything resembling sincere feedback.

It’s an odd film in some ways, but surprisingly engaging. Despite Streep’s world-class ability to inhabit, humanise and broadcast the lightest of frailties (the irony, of course being that her superhuman ability is here deployed to convey the talent vacuum that is Jenkins) the moral narrative of the film appears to ask us to accompany its ambitions in an eccentric direction. We are asked to sympathise with her great fall from self delusion when she finally realises her ambitions of releasing a record and performing at Carnegie hall, with the concomitant mockery public exposure entails. No one could enjoy to see someone flayed alive by critics, but it hard to conclude that she deserves our sympathy for this acrobat's tumble into just desserts.

She's so lucky

Successful men and women frequently claim to be self made. If they are sensible, cautious and humble they will acknowledge the debt they owe to the people and circumstances that allowed them to blossom. And if they are wiser still, they will acknowledge the debt they owe to sheer, dumb luck. That isn’t to deny their often Olympian efforts from within their own reservoirs, but to account for the reality that success and failure exist within an often unforgiving ecosystem. How many Mozarts died of smallpox? How many Hawkings or Bransons or Bolts never got to a blackboard, a board room or running track? And how many Paris Hiltons or Kardashians watch us from the opera boxes of privilege because their talent was the good fortune to be born in House Lannister?

Jenkins survived and thrived in an arena that would normally have devoured and digested her because she possessed that adamantine shield that saves us from all but the most inevitable of life’s indignities: pots and pots of lovely money. Unearned status and a room full of coin are the ultimate edge in the great game of life. When Jenkins finally, finally saw her very first bad review, she keeled over and fainted, and the film’s plot beats tapped out a tragic tattoo on her behalf. Meanwhile I’m thinking, ‘Boy, I read two worse reviews for my last book before breakfast. Where’s my biopic?’ If you’re going to ask us to care for a character’s sine wave of fortune, then it’s probably best if what’s at stake matters to those of us looking up at Heaven.

If you teach, you’ll find Jenkin’s professional woes unremarkable or even intelligible. When you teach children who come from backgrounds where there are no golden tickets, no second chances, no parachutes or safety nets, where there are no trust funds to cushion you from a cruel world, then perhaps you’ll sympathise kore with the queue of unsuccessful pianists whom Jenkins dismisses before they even had a chance to audition, because the one she chooses was fortunate enough to play a melody that flattered her sentimental memories. Their hard work, their presumed virtues meant nothing to the whim of a woman who could afford to pay New York’s finest vocal coaches to bootlick and lie to her.

Everyone has potential- so what?

The children we teach mustn’t be lied to. When they stumble it is our duty to tell them where they tripped, not to congratulate them on how well they fell. When what they do is not wonderful, they need to know how unwonderful it was, and crucially, what the next step to wonder might be. Because they will be competing in a world where others will begin the race with a head start, one of the worst things we can do is to accept work below a pupil’s capabilities without comment. Effort is important, and its perpetual invocation is to be encouraged and imbedded as the fuel that makes everything else possible. But not just effort: achievement. We speak glibly about wanting to help pupils to achieve their potential, but potential is a weasel term unless you grasp exactly what it means. Most of us have extraordinary potential in so many fields. Almost any one of your children could climb Everest or graduate from Cambridge if they wanted to sufficiently, and are shown the way. But potential is nothing but a ghost. Being, doing, these are the things to which we rightly aspire.

I was once at a school where the head teacher wanted- rightly- to inspire and motivate pupils to believe in their dreams, by showing them short musical clips from Youtube that repeated simple aspirational messages about struggling and striving while music rose and surged in the background. If you have ever seen 500 bored faces watching yet another of these seemingly endless videos, you’ll understand why ambition, effort and inspiration can’t be taught as easily as a parcel is delivered. One of my omni-late sixth formers summed it up. ‘Sir, missing assembly isn’t being late. They'll just be showing another inspirational video.’

Money beats paper, scissors, rock

Florence Foster Jenkins is a perfect example of ‘when you win they call you a winner.’ Never ask someone with a trust fund how to get rich. The children we teach will, for the most part, be unencumbered by the golden armour of invincible privilege. When they leave school they will not be given jobs because they believed in their dreams, followed their heart songs or stayed true to who they are. This is not a Disney film, unless Disney have branched out into dystopian real-life dramas where evil frequently conquers good. Life is only a box of chocolates if you imagine that the strawberry creams have been replaced by gelignite and may blow your teeth out, and some of the caramels contain arsenic.

In the great Scissors, Rock, Paper game of life, the best we can do is teach them how to make each hand and what to do when fortune inevitably marks their card. They will succeed because we have believed in them enough to raise them as they need to be raised, not how they would like to be. Because we taught them that luck is beyond their control, but effort, applied and focussed like a laser on the unglamorous minutia of education was the most magical thing that was still within their power to obtain, and ours to nurture.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

I just countersued- Prince Ea: the same old arguments in a shiny new video

Judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree and it’ll spend a lifetime thinking it’s stupid
Albert Einstein

You’ll see this quote everywhere. Its memorable and tidy and superficially convincing. It’s often accompanied by the cartoon at the top of this post (in which the goldfish is in a bowl on top of a tree stump, which makes me think damn that goldfish is a really good climber already).

Except Einstein never said it. It’s a perfect example of how the Internet has resurrected the principle that a lie can get half way around the world before the truth can get its boots on. A glib, seductive claim untroubled by veracity or evidence. This is how the video ‘I just sued the school’ starts. It’s also very much how it continues.

Fans of 19th century educational clichés dressed as slick, radical innovation are in for a treat, in a short film/ advert/ performance by hip-hop inspirational speaker Prince Ea called 'I just sued the School System' released in 2016. (It’s already had over 5 million views. I can only imagine how many staff meetings and assemblies have already pored over it.) 

To be honest fans of these ideas are rarely not in for a treat, as such proclamations are common as pigeons and as old as coal. Did you see Ken Robinson’s magnum opus in this area? I’d be more surprised if you didn’t. His TED talk 'Do schools kill creativity?' (12 million views) is currently the industry standard in this territory. And a few years ago a keen young rapper called Boyinaband took up the torch with his viral ‘Don’t stay in school.’ (14 million views) As you might gather, they think schools are rubbish. 

I’ve made hay out of both of these before. See here for my review of Ken Robinson's oeuvre and here for my thoughts on Boyinaband. They position themselves as radicals, innovators and disruptors of ancient paradigms. But their arguments are straight out of the 19th century and the first wave of romanticism and progressive education. Their arguments are thin at best, and rely more on an appeal to the emotions than fact. But the problem with ghosts and wraiths is that you can’t knock them out with the biggest haymaker. It's hard to put gas in a box. 'What is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence', as the clever Hitchens brother once said. But what if they won’t be dismissed? What if people still believe? What if they prefer the ghost?

The People vs The School System

Let’s look at the video. For a start you notice the production values. This is well designed, scored, cast and performed. Prince Ea is sincere, convincing and convinced. The rhetorical dimension is beautifully executed. Set in that Neverland trope, a mythical court of truth and goodness, he plays a young Atticus Finch/ Torquemada, holding the school system to account for its many crimes- here gamely represented by a sneering, old white man. Righteous vigour versus infirmity and privilege. Which is great because for a minute I thought he was going to play the obvious rhetorical tropes.

Over 6 minutes we’re treated to a shopping list of every educational cliché: schools are no longer fit for purpose; schools haven’t changed in 150 years whereas cars and telephones are unrecognisable, and so on. Some of the charges laid are quite remarkable. Apparently schools:

  • Kill creativity
  • Kill individuality
  • Are intellectually abusive
  • Turn millions of people into robots
  • Are guilty of malpractice

These kinds of allegations stagger me with their casual vilification of educators. Millions of people work in the systems he describes, grafting and straining and giving every damn they can, only to be told by an incredibly successful product of that system (Magna Cum Laude in anthropology, University of Missouri) that they are 'abusive'. It pretends to make a distinction between attacking ‘the system’ and the people who inhabit it. ‘They’re not the problem. They work in a system.’ This is the rhetorical equivalent of someone in a pub saying ‘No offence, but’ before telling you your kids are ugly. ‘The system’ isn’t just some administrative miasma or dystopian fantasy bureaucracy like HYDRA or SMERSH. It’s composed of the people within it, many of whom may disagree with this policy or that, but who for the most part give far more of a damn about making it work than…well, someone who has time to make inspirational videos for a living.
No corpse of an idea is too ripe to have lipstick applied and paraded: ‘I did a background check. You were made to train people for factories. Straight rows. Short breaks.’ No, no it wasn’t. For a thorough deboning of this myth, see here. This misunderstanding of how and why public schooling was created is indicative of the quality of analysis throughout. And besides, does anyone really think that contemporary schooling is designed to create factory workers? How many factories have counsellors, art and drama, Glee and chess clubs? You didn’t do a background check. You just read Ken Robinson with a highlighter pen.

You might as well claim that redcurrants and White Christmases were the same thing because they were both colours. Could it be that rows are an efficient way to seat students to see what the teacher is doing? Could it be periods of work followed by brief spells of rest are a pretty sound way to get things done? No, obviously they are instruments of tyranny. ‘We all have a past,’ he tells us. ‘I myself am no Gandhi.’ You got that right. Gandhi was informed.

Fashionable in the 80s

The video is peppered with unintentional hilarious goofball moments. ‘Scientists tell us no two brains are the same.’ Cue a scientist in the stand holding a plastic brain. Conceivably this alludes to the theories of multiple intelligences or perhaps even learning styles like VAK which have been so comprehensively blown up by contemporary neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Such ideas are common tropes in pseudo science, and used to justify multiple sins in classrooms. Of course our brains aren’t identical- otherwise we’d be the same person- but they work pretty much the same way, aberrations notwithstanding.

The process by which we all learn is remarkably similar in function and execution. The drive for entirely personalised learning, like so much of this video, was hip about ten years ago, but has been challenged repeatedly since. Teachers are actually pretty good at spotting where students are with their baseline knowledge, and working out what to teach them next. Neuroscience doesn’t teach us that- classroom experience and solid subject familiarity does. I don’t fret about what kind of brain little Jessica or Jasmine has; I ask myself what do they need to learn next. While the narrator is fretting about cookie-cutter education and ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ (does it ever?) paradigms, teachers are getting on with the job. He seems to think we stand there and lecture for an hours to our students and the devil take the hindmost. Which ignores all of the questioning, feedback, and discussions that take place. 

To the narrator, it’s 'educational malpractice' for one teacher to stand in front of twenty children . Meanwhile I’m thinking ‘Man, that's a pretty good ratio, I wish all my classes were that small.’ He calls it ‘horrific.’ He says it’s ‘the worst criminal offence ever.’ Perspective, reason, evidence, propriety all self-immolate in a gas station conflagration of hyperbole. I can only guess how he describes murder.

Teachers are underpaid, he claims, apparently walking back the charge that we are worse than carpet bombers, which is nice of him. ‘Doctors can perform heart surgery,’ he says. ‘But teachers can reach the heart of children.’ And I’m reminded of Owen Wilson’s con artist in Wedding Crashers. ‘You know how they say we only use 10 percent of our brains? I think we only use 10 percent of our hearts.’ It makes a decent inspirational coaster, but as an argument it lacks something.

And ‘Curriuclums are created by policy makers who have never taught a day in their lives.’ For a man who sells inspirational mugs, this is pretty brave stuff. And ignores the obvious mechanisms that curriculums usually go through before they ever see a classroom, which involves substantial input or design by teachers. But, y'know, facts

Bullsh*t Bingo

If you had ‘Uses Finland as an argument’ in the sweep stake then prepare to collect your winnings, as he does indeed, go there like the SAS. ‘They have shorter school days, good wages, and focus on collaboration instead of competition.’ They also have a population of five and a half million and a winter 100 days long. Plus they’ve started to fall down the international league tables despite still having all of these things. And many have argued that their prior dominance was founded on existing cultural factors.  Education tourism is a sin, or as Prince Ea might put it ‘the greatest tragedy known to humanity ever including the great flood.’ Probably. And besides, Singapore does pretty well too, despite it representing a system closer to the human power cells of the Matrix than the antediluvian Eden of Scandinavia. Oddly, he does mention Singapore but doesn’t develop this apparently argument-shredding counter example.

By now he’s going full pelt and the clichés are like buckshot. He mentions Montessori schools as a shining example of what he sees as a solution, despite the fact that nobody can seem to get that child centred model to work on anything apart from very tiny children- probably for the very good reason that child-led enquiry is perfectly natural and useful in the infant stage, but pretty terrible as a way to accrue second-order propositional knowledge, ie academic subjects. He name checks
the Khan Academy, because it’s apparently against the law to be a groovy thought leader in education without advocating flipped learning, despite the enormous chasm of any substantial evidence that teaching yourself academic subjects is of any use to any but the most motivated, mature, and crucially, already able. Try getting that to scale up to ‘most kids in general.’

Summing up

The framing device here is a courtroom, so allow me the same conceit: J’accuse. His solutions aren’t real world solutions. The children he talks about aren’t your average kid from your average home. His solutions suit the wealthy, the middle class, the children of supportive and culturally literate homes. His crepuscular arguments are delivered with passion and intensity, so allow me an equivalent intensity: the solutions he proposes are divisive, unrealistic, costly, and promote social immobility, illiteracy and the disenfranchisement of children- particularly those from backgrounds of social and economic disadvantage. They signal boost the already privileged at the expense of those children who happened to be born in the wrong neighbourhood, the wrong family, the wrong ethnicity, the wrong tax bracket. They are well-meant, no doubt. But so are people who promote the boycott of vaccines.

This kind of muddled, goofy optimism, these charming and harmful nod-along singsong aphorisms should be resisted at every opportunity. Education is far from perfect. In fact, it’s in a bit of a pickle. But that doesn’t mean chaos is preferable to the hot mess we’re in. There are solutions. But they won’t be found in this Hallmark Card, Silicon Valley, cartoon fantasy where schools are villains and every child is a butterfly. We cannot Eat, Pray, Love our way out of our problems. It’s going to take a lot more than reheated leftovers from a brainstorming session out of an advertising agency.

Why do you hate children?

You want children to be creative? Great; so do I, and just about every other teaching professional. The way to make that happen is to stop pretending that creativity is some kind of magic, mysterious thing that happens when you put children on bean bags and get them to design a poster, and realise that humans are naturally creative and the way to encourage the expression of that faculty in a developed and mature way is by teaching them. Teaching them bags of beautiful, fascinating domain specific knowledge and skills, the scales and arpeggios of creation. Mozart and Shakespeare mastered their classics and chords long before they wrote operas and sonnets. 

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury I put it to you that education is unwell, but it needs medicine, not homoeopathy and voodoo magic. But as Abraham Lincoln once said, ’Don’t believe everything you see on Youtube.’

Case dismissed.