Monday, August 18, 2014

Learning is about relationships - and it's complicated

network by michael.heiss, on Flickr
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An article by David L. Kirp in the New York Times, Teaching is not a business, criticizes two high-profile trends: the market approach to education with a focus on accountability, testing and league tables as well as the over-belief in disruptive technology. Turning schools and colleges into competitive businesses may be a politically popular strategy but he sees little evidence that it actually works. Competition simply widens the gap between winners and losers and strangles the vital roles of collaboration, community and support.

Firing teachers, rather than giving them the coaching they need, undermines morale. In some cases it may well discourage undergraduates from pursuing careers in teaching, and with a looming teacher shortage as baby boomers retire, that’s a recipe for disaster. Merit pay invites rivalries among teachers, when what’s needed is collaboration. Closing schools treats everyone there as guilty of causing low test scores, ignoring the difficult lives of the children in these schools — “no excuses,” say the reformers, as if poverty were an excuse.

This marketization of education is a quick fix that is easy to understand and provides superficial evidence of success with "good" schools and colleges rising to the top and "bad" ones closing down. The underlying factors behind students' underachievement are seldom given much attention.

While these reformers talk a lot about markets and competition, the essence of a good education — bringing together talented teachers, engaged students and a challenging curriculum — goes undiscussed.

Although the article deals mainly with the problems of treating education as a market the author also sees technology as a similar smokescreen that prevents us from dealing with the real issues in education. All the focus is on new tools and devices and far too little attention is given to discussing teacher development, student support and building a culture of learning. Despite my interest in e-learning and the role of technology in education I don't believe that it is the answer to better education. No amount of mobiles, laptops, tablets, social media, MOOCs or open educational resources will lead to better learning because learning is fundamentally about relationships. Many of the most crucial elements of learning are intangible: a sense of belonging, a safe and supportive environment with teachers and colleagues who inspire and support you, giving you regular feedback and challenging you. Technology however can help to create such a supportive environment.

Technology is important because it is so embedded in our workplaces and everyday life that to ignore it would risk making our education system irrelevant. Technology enables us to collaborate in ways that were simply not possible before and gives all schools access to knowledge and resources that were previously locked away or only accessible to a privileged few. The key question today is how do we create positive and supportive learning environments both in the classroom and online. There's a lot of focus on the drop-out rates in online courses but millions drop out of classroom education; even if they are still physically in the room they have dropped out mentally. Let's forget these endless and pointless discussions about whether classroom is better than online and look at how to make all forms of education more supportive, inclusive and empowering. All forms of education can be effective if the teachers and students are given the support and tools they need.

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