Students Voice: Continuum of Choice for the future of education


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How much and to what extent should we consider trust and student voice as we redesign education? This is the first year report of findings from the Future(s) of Education project (

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Students Voice: Continuum of Choice for the future of education

  1. 1. 1 How do New Designs for Education and Education Leadership Include Concepts of “Least Intrusive Education (LIE)? Or other forms of student- driven curriculum? A presentation at the European education research Association conference, ECER, 2009: Vienna, Austria, 28 September, 2009. By E. Alana James, Ed.D. Article Highlights • Introduction of the Future(s) of Education Project and the ideas behind it that drive change. • Discussion of the Hole in the Wall Project and its implications for the future of education. • Conclusion outlines a matrix of educational design choices between student/educator-driven curricula or processes Abstract The purpose of this study is to determine whether and to what extent ideas of student-driven curricula or “Least Intrusive Education” are provocative or interesting to an international discussion on the future of education. The scope covers one year of project development, and six months of online interaction. Methodology is mixed, based upon participatory action research cycles, analyzing data from weblogs, e-mails, articles, and a triangulated with quantitative evidence from a online survey. Findings suggest that the international community are considering whether and to what extent schools meet the needs of young people and are willing to entertain and discuss other possibilities. The study concludes that there is a continuum from educator-driven to student-driven choice on both the axis of curriculum and educational process. Limitations of this study are its very small sample size and the fact that, to date, data only include voices from a limited number of countries when compared to the diversity on earth. It contributes to the field of education by uncovering and delineating questions, to be addressed in the future by people concerned with the design of systems for education. Keywords future of education, student-driven education, least intrusive education, research, education, online education,
  2. 2. 2 You have to make choices if you want to change the world Introduction: Why the world needs changing and what we are trying to do about it Education is not rocket science, it is much harder than rocket science. No scientist would willingly take on an experiment with an unlimited number of variables in motion all the time. Prof. at Teachers College, 2004 The designers of education in the late 1800s saw the problem as relatively simple. In their time, cities were flooded with children previously living in rural communities, allowed to run free, causing havoc when their parents were at work in factories. Sitting children in rows, forcing them to adjust to timetables, and teaching them the basics of literacy and numeracy, made perfect sense. They could not have imagined the complexity of the global technological world our children will inherit. Could it be that the entire system on which education is based is outmoded and in need of revamping but, that because it is all we know, we have difficulty imagining anything outside this box? These are not a new ideas, building as they do on Dewey, Illich and others who pointed to both the necessity of democracy in bringing diverse voices together in learning, and the ways in which schools fail to capitalize on that potential (Hickman, 1998; Illich, 1971)? Indeed, even a quick perusal of current literature will show: 1) Education is a hard job, with little pay, and difficult work place environments. 2) Authors and publishers focus on efforts to improve schools while others point out that achieving consistent outcomes is a complex problem. 3) There are few strategic international efforts to develop new designs for education, at least partially due to enormous investment in the current infrastructure. This study focuses on the first year results from the Future(s ) of Education Project a project that aims to engender international conversation about new possibilities in education design. Individuals and participatory groups ask, “What do our young people need to thrive in the world they will inherit? A world that we cannot imagine.” The goal of the project is to refocus attention from what is wrong with education systems towards new designs that address challenges while making use of technological potentials. Over time, outcomes of the project will be measured by the numbers of diverse voices involved in the conversation by the end of the year and whether and to what extent startling or provocative ideas have been uncovered. Background It requires troublesome work to undertake the alteration of old beliefs. Education is a social process. Education is growth. Education is, not a preparation for life; education is life itself. John Dewey Schooling implies custodial care for persons who are declared undesirable elsewhere by the simple fact that a school has been built to serve them. Ivan Illich
  3. 3. 3 The two quotes above, introduce key considerations regarding the distance between education and schooling. Yet, it is commonplace, wherever one travels in the world to have people complain about their “systems of education” as though there were no difference between education and schools. Margaret Mead would suggest, as she did when she said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever does,” that while it is hard work, it is important that people work together and believe they can help change these realities. These are the key concepts behind the Future(s) of Education Project and my work as an independent academic. For the last six years, I have been pursuing the potential of using participatory action research (PAR) online, in networked groups, as a means of moving forward on complex issues in education. The first round of this work took place over five years as I facilitated a project in which 12 states in the US funded educators and community members. They used participatory action research to focus their work helping schools become more responsive to children and families experiencing homelessness (James, 2006a, 2006b, 2009; James & McKay Epp, 2007; James, Milenkiewicz, & Bucknam, 2008). I see two parts to the PAR process: First participants need to work together without hierarchy based on their other roles in life. Second the process they follow needs to support communication, action and reporting back so others can learn what they do. PAR does a good job of ensuring both as it guides participants through a three-part cycle: discovery, action- measurement and reflection. The project on homelessness developed into a web-based professional development project (WBPD) to meet financial constraints, changing facilitation of the project to an online environment. Six years ago, this was more difficult than it is today. Through the process, I experienced both the good and the bad in online communication and facilitation. WBPD ended in 2008, when the local advocates moved on to other work, allowing me to reflect on the positives and negatives of the project and to decide where I wanted to go next. The positives were that a web-based PAR network was extremely efficient in creating transformative change. Large numbers (12,000-15,000) of students and families were affected by the work and the transformational results adopted by the participants. About that same time, I was becoming enormously frustrated with educational systems designed during the Industrial Revolution. The following outlines the chain of thoughts that lead to this current project: 1. Globally the structure for education is similar, students sit in rows and study subjects determined to be important by others. This design developed and was useful during the Industrial Revolution and supports an underlying pervasive idea of human beings going to work in a factory type environment. 2. While the advance of technology has been touted by many as disrupting education, schools have been surprisingly able to adapt technology so that it merely replicates existing modes of education (Attwell, 2009). 3. After completing an extensive review of literature, I found authors writing on either what is wrong with education or how to fix schools, with few (none?) focused on whether and to what extent new designs may be necessary for entire systems of education. Work done by communities to expand options to include homeschooling, charter schools, etc. broaden the scope but do not address the underlying issues.
  4. 4. 4 4. As a Rotarian, I support effective international entrepreneurial solutions to complex issues such as developing drinkable water, etc. I yearn for the same entrepreneurial spirit to address the educational issues of the world. 5. I decided to use the process of online, networked PAR to investigate what would develop. The Future(s) of Education Project is a single person’s attempt to engender international discussion about new designs in education. Fortunately, it is a discussion many want to join. 6. In a world where content is ubiquitous, a key question becomes, how can we move education to be more student-driven? How can we engender creativity, curiosity and the zest that sustains transformation? Or, as the project asks: “What do our children need to thrive in the world they will inherit? A world we cannot imagine.” Context Figure 1: The Future(s) of Education Project Website A few philosophical and pedagogical ideas drove the development of the online environment for the Future(s) Project. First, George Siemens, (2005), reminds us that students decide what they will learn and how they will understand connections between ideas. Pedagogy that builds on the ideas of neuroscience goes on to remind us that it is useful if we facilitate multiple streams of processing content because, “What fires together wires together” (Begley, 2007; Read & Charles A. Dana Foundation., 2008). Finally, if we tie in the writing about personal learning environments (PLEs) and social networks, we come to understand web- based discussions as an interplay between decisions made by designers and end-users (Attwell, 2009; Granovetter, 1973; Laszio Barabasi, 2005; Wilson et al., 2006). In July 2008 the idea of the project was born. By the fall, I had attended conferences and found others interested in the project ideas. By the end of the year, the website was up and a small viral marketing campaign had begun. In January, February, and March of 2009 participatory groups began meeting and having local discussions around the question, “What to our children need in order to thrive in the world they will inherit? A world we cannot imagine.” The first participatory groups began to offer me feedback data beginning in January 2009. By late spring, it was clear that international voices in India, New Zealand, Uganda, and Panama, all of whom expressed interest in the project and who were adding content to the website, needed closer connections to the project. The result was the beginning of regular
  5. 5. 5 online synchronous meetings or web conferences. In May, June, and July 2009, meetings were held at 7 AM and 7PM GMT. Each set of meetings furthered the project. For instance, New Zealand reported on their use of core competencies as an alternative structure to standards based education, which was then taken up by educators in Colorado working on issues of students in foster care. Recently, it became obvious that local participatory teams alone were not going to engender an international network of ideas. Fortunately, volunteers who had experience in IT came forward with suggestions for reworking the website at with what they called “individual takeaways.” Recent additions to the site have included a survey, a space for educators to upload research, and redesigned navigation. Methods and Scope Participatory action research (PAR) is as much a philosophy as a methodological choice (Elliott, 2003). I see it as both. Philosophically PAR promotes the democratic power of the voice of diverse peoples to design their own worlds. Methodologically I adopt a three step cycle that assures I apply data collection and analysis techniques to the actions I take and forces me to formally reflect and use those reflections as data to drive future actions. Figure 3, below, diagrams resources of data and communication. Figure 3: Logic model for the futures of education project research This research project builds on the initial work by the Hole in the Wall Project (Mitra, 2007; Mitra et al., 2005) and seeks, in part, to discover whether and to what extent his ideas of least intrusive education (LIE) were interesting or provocative to online participants during the first year of discussion in the Future(s) of Education Project. For those unfamiliar with the Hole in the Wall Project, Mitra embedded computers in the walls of villages in rural India. Without instruction, 100% of the children in the villages learned to browse the Internet, learning an average English vocabulary of 200 words, even in locations where they have seldom, if ever,
  6. 6. 6 heard English spoken. The startling thing about the project, to educators, but perhaps not to parents, is the fact that this huge scale of learning was accomplished with no instruction. From this, Mitra coined the phrase “least intrusive education” (LIE) suggesting that children know how to learn and that we should not get in the way as they do so. The methodology employed in the study of the Future(s) response to Mitra’s work was mixed, based upon participatory action research cycles, analyzing data from weblogs, e-mails, articles, triangulated with quantitative evidence from an online survey. Findings 1. International survey respondents show an overwhelming willingness (88%) to consider and support alternative forms of non-traditional school education. The caveat on this finding is that, as is frequently the case with PAR studies, motivation to participate in the survey was likely driven by dissatisfaction with the status quo. 2. The first year participatory groups tended to centre their conversation on tensions with schools rather than on more strength-based approach of considering “What do our children need to thrive?” 3. The Hole in the Wall material was popular. Using a ranking system based on number of website hits, the Hole in the Wall video ranked 14out of 89 and documents about the project ranked 38 and 48out of 89. 4. When the Hole in the Wall Project came up during participatory discussions, it was linked with the work of Ivan Illich and whether or not schools were a useful design for education. What emerged was the dichotomy in the belief of whether or not young people are able to contain themselves and move forward based on an internal reference of control, or to what extent do they require external guidance? 5. Figure 4 (below) diagrams the topics of discussion across the network for the first six months. Many topics were covered, however all of the groups and individuals discussed the debate around this issue of the amount of guidance that children require. Figure 4: Mind map of discussions from participants and groups Conclusion
  7. 7. 7 LIE is at the far end of the continuum of conversation about how much control a young person should have on their education. Western educators entertainment versions of this idea when they discuss student-centred education, although in that case it is usually seen as a set of potential activities resulting from top-down curricular choices. As with constructivist theory, student-centred work is contained within the context of some other force telling the student and teacher what needs to be learned. I have come to describe the circumstance whereby students decide what they want to learn as student-driven learning. In this model, educators/facilitators help provide processes and direction so that that learning is efficient and inclusive of commonly agreed upon basics. The debate can be graphically organized across two continuums in a matrix as is shown in Figure 3 below. Educator-driven process. Students driven process. Educator-driven Educator-driven curricular choices with Educator-driven curricular choices curricula. professionals the guiding, and assessing delivered in online or other the entire process. modular context, so that students decide upon and employ skill sets and outcomes of their own choosing. Student-driven Student-driven curricular choices with Student-driven curricular choices curricula. adults facilitating process and skill sets with little or no adult facilitation that aid mastery. (LIE). Figure 3: Educator/student-driven curricular/educational choices If we look at the current educational systems, we see examples of emerging new designs that fit this matrix. Figure 4 gives some examples. Educator-driven process. Student-driven process. Educator-driven Current education in schools in much of The most flexible of online curricula. the world. The least flexible online education. education. Student-driven Doctoral dissertations or thesis work. Lifelong learning for students of all curricula. ages. Figure 4: Current examples of adult and student-driven process/curricula Next Steps Using the matrix above, participants, both within and outside the Future(s) of Education Project, can position themselves ideologically along these continuums. This should prove useful as discussions move toward the development of new designs. It is likely, in fact probable, that modular designs will emerge within each square. In fact, that would be a useful outcome, as this would help us develop the flexibility necessary to properly address student need, while allowing for student growth.
  8. 8. 8 If we go back to the question that drives the Future(s) of Education Project, “What do our young people need to thrive in the world they will inherit? A world we cannot imagine” we see that it is likely that we should be developing processes and styles of education within all four boxes as defined by the figure above. Some students are at a developmental stage where they require extensive guidance, while others are mature and require freedom to pursue the objects of their curiosity as they build skills and endurance. Limitation and Contribution The major limitation of this study is, of course, its limited size and scope. That should not prevent these initial findings from having a useful position as provocative material within the field of education, as we begin to discuss, “What is next?” References Attwell, G. (2009). Social software, personal learning environments and the future of teaching and learning (pp. 1-13): Scribd. Begley, S. (2007). Train your mind, change your brain : how a new science reveals our extraordinary potential to transform ourselves. New York: Ballantine Books. Elliott, J. (2003). Interview with John Elliott. Educational Action Research, 11(2), 169-180. Granovetter, M. (1973). The strength of weak ties: A network theory The American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), 1360-1380. Hickman, L. (Ed.). (1998). The essential Dewey, Volume 1: Pragmatism, education, democracy Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. Illich, I. (1971). Deschooling society ([1st ed.). New York,: Harper & Row. James, E. A. (2006a). An evaluation of Web-Based Professional Development using participatory action research to study educational disadvantage in the United States. Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research 2006, Geneva, Switzerland. James, E. A. (2006b). A study of PAR for educators developing new practise in areas of educational disadvantage. Educational Action Research, 14(4). James, E. A. (2009). Participatory action research as professional development: Creating new education practices for homeless or highly mobile students in the United States. Saarbrucken, Germany: VDM Verlag. James, E. A., & McKay Epp, B. (2007). The third year outcomes of participatory action research facilitated online Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Institute of Education, University of London, 5-8 September 2007 James, E. A., Milenkiewicz, M., & Bucknam, A. (2008). Participatory action research: Data driven decision making for educational leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Laszio Barabasi, A. (2005). Network theory-the emergence of the creative enterprise, Science (Vol. 308, pp. 639-642): AAAS. Mitra, S. (2007). Sugata Mitra shows how kids teach themselves. Paper presented at the TED, Geneva Switzerland. Mitra, S., Dangwal, R., Chatterjee, S., Jha, S., Bisht, R. S., & Kapur, P. (2005). Acquisition of computing literacy on shared public computers: Children and the "hole in the wall", Australasian Journal of Educational Technology (Vol. 21, pp. 407-426). Read, C. A., & Charles A. Dana Foundation. (2008). Cerebrum 2008 : emerging ideas in brain science. New York: Dana Press. Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A Learning theory for a digital age: George Siemens. Wilson, S., Liber, O., Johnson, M., Beauvoir, P., Sharples, P., & Milligan, C. (2006). Personal learning environments: Challenging the dominant design of educational systems, D Space at Open University (Vol. 19 Sept 2006). Nederlands: Open University.
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