The Power of Concern

“I have a lot of concerns about it.”

Dr Lisa Durragh, Auckland University

A newspaper headline I read this morning reads: Researcher urges caution over use of online platforms: ‘I have a lot of concerns about it’. To add fuel to the headline’s impact, the report quotes Auckland University academic Dr Lisa Darragh as saying she was “quite stunned” by the widespread use of online platforms in New Zealand schools based on the research she had done.

This journalistic endeavour aimed at capturing one’s attention certainly worked! I read it all – only to find that the bulk of the article actually reported on the ways schools and educators are appropriating digital technologies to address concerns they have about their students’ learning and to support what they do in their classrooms.

Many of the examples offered by the teachers and school leaders interviewed will resonate with others around the country. They mention the use of tutorial systems to engage learners while a teacher is working with another group for example, or the use of online video clips that enable learners to ‘rewind’ their learning to suit the pace that works for them. None of these approaches is ‘fool-proof’ in its implementation, but they do illustrate ways in which educators are exploring innovative ways of addressing the concerns they have about how to better serve the needs of their learners.

As it turns out, a key concern of Dr Durragh is that many of the platforms being used are commercial, so they were designed to make money and collected huge amounts of data about how users were using them. A valid concern, as are many of the other questions raised by Dr Durragh – but does that warrant the headline?

As an educator I also have many concerns about the issues facing teachers, schools, students and parents in our every changing world. For example, I am concerned about things such as…

  • what happens to our data when we subscribe to all of these online platforms?
  • what is the threat of AI, not only to teaching, but to the future of our society and democracies?
  • how do we achieve equity when the cost of devices and connection is prohibitive for so many?

And I could add dozens more – but these are just the concerns around our use of technology. I also have concerns – serious concerns – about broader aspects of our education system, including…

  • what is the real reason behind the reported drop in levels of literacy and numeracy for our ākonga?
  • how can we alleviate the burden of ‘overwhelm’ that so many of our teachers and school leaders are feeling, resulting in so many leaving the profession and us failing to attract high calibre candidates to the profession?
  • why are we so slow to respond to the signals of social, political, technological and pedagogical change?
  • where do the lines of responsibility lie for the growing concerns about young people’s behaviour – in and out of school?
  • how do teachers keep up with the fast pace of change in education and society so that their teaching remains relevant and meaningful?
  • how can teachers be expected to address the learning needs of every learner within the structures of our existing system which are predicated on one teacher with one class?

For some concerns like this keep them awake at night, while for others they act as the catalyst for seeking to find ways in which to address them – often in surprising and unexpected ways. Ways that are truly innovative and which pave the way for others to follow.

Innovation has always featured strongly the history of our education system. For decades we’ve been innovating in the ways we work with learners, often involving the appropriation and use of various forms of technology to support that. This is how we address the concerns we have.

For a decade (last century) I was employed as a lecturer in Educational Technology at the Christchurch College of Education. To a lot of people this simply appeared to be a course focused on how to use the various tools at our disposal in the classroom – OHPs, whiteboards, movie projectors (yes, I still have a copy of my projectionists certificate) and, as they emerged, computers!

But these things are merely the ‘tools’ in the hands of an educational technologist. From its historical beginnings, the discipline of educational technology was originally less focused on the idea of technology as an artefact (e.g. overhead projectors, whiteboards, computers etc.) and more on the notion of technology as a way of thinking in order to solve problems or take advantage of new opportunities (which is also a foundational understanding of the technology curriculum here in New Zealand). The quote below captures this idea…

Educational Technology is the field of study that investigates the process of analysing, designing, developing, implementing, and evaluating the instructional environment, learning materials, learners, and the learning process in order to improve teaching and learning.

Loyola School of Education, Maryland

The thing is that this sort of thinking will often manifest itself in the development of some sort of physical artefact as part of the solution. In the early 1920s Sidney Pressey, an educational psychology professor at Ohio State University was exploring the value of a drill and practice approach in teaching and learning in order to establish those basic understandings required (e.g. multiplication tables, spelling words etc.). He developed a machine to provide items to students in his introductory courses, claiming that this mechanical device could:

Lift from her [the teacher’s] shoulders as much as possible of this burden and make her free for those inspirational and thought-stimulating activities which are, presumably, the real function of the teacher.

Hypertext History of Instructional Design

A decade later, B F Skinner developed a pieced of apparatus to text the impact of various stimuli on animal behaviour – which became affectionately known as the Skinner Box. Of course, we all know of the influence of Skinner’s work in education as one of the pioneers of behaviourism as a theory of learning.

Even then these sorts of innovation weren’t without criticism and concern. One of the most common criticisms of the Skinner box, for example, is that it does not allow animals to understand their actions. (Yet, curiously, many educators went on to embrace the concept of behaviourism as a key part of their pedagogical practice.)

As time went on more innovative thinking led to solutions involving all sorts of technologies that made their way into schools and classrooms, with a growing emphasis on appropriating things that had been developed for other purposes, such as overhead projectors, the ‘banda’ machine or synchronised tape-slide machines. In more recent times, of course, we’re seeing the same thing happening with computers and other digital devices, online platforms, augmented reality and AI for example.

Often it was the concerns expressed about the operation of our schools and schooling system that provided the motivation for innovation in an effort to better serve the needs of our learners. For example concerns about the traditional classroom approach focused on a uniform teaching methodology and curriculum that may not cater to the diverse needs, learning styles, and abilities of individual students led to a multitude of innovative strategies, and, ultimately to the development of theories about personalised learning.

Or consider the emphasis on memorisation and standardised testing as the primary means of assessment which raised concerns about prioritising the regurgitation of facts over deep understanding, critical thinking, and practical application of knowledge, and has led to the exploration and implementation of innovations in how we measure success and make assessments of learning.

As educators have sought to take advantage of the affordances of digital technologies, concerns are constantly being raised about the perceived negative impacts – including things such as the impact of excessive amounts of screen time, exposure to cyber-bullying, content biases etc. These concerns make for more great headlines!

Here’s a recent one – ChatGPT might doom us all, but it won’t replace teachers – expert which quotes Simon McCallum from Victoria University (cited as an expert in artificial intelligence) saying there is a place for tools like ChatGPT in marking students’ work, but it is not a replacement for genuine human teachers.

Which appears to be contradicted by this one – AI likely to spell end of traditional school classroom, leading expert says in which UK Prof Stuart Russell says technology could result in ‘fewer teachers being employed – possibly even none’.

Who’s right here? How do we decide? And is the headline actually representing what the quoted ‘expert’ is saying anyway?

My pondering in writing this simple post is to acknowledge that having concerns about the changes we see happening in our system, particularly when we regard the possible impacts on young learners is perfectly natural. It’s a part of who we are as humans – it’s the work of our in-built ‘safety antennae’, providing the checks and balances we need to survive and thrive into the future.

But we mustn’t let our concerns lead us into the death spiral of conspiracy theory and negativity where we become captured by ‘click-bait’ headlines, mistaking them for having some sort of legitimacy or authority in and of themselves.

We need to appreciate and release the ‘power of concern’ and allow that to motivate and lead us to understand what the real issues are and to explore what the solutions might be. That, in a nutshell, is the essence of innovative pedagogy.

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