I'm thankful to start 2021 with Daisy Christodoulou's new book, Teachers vs Tech? The case for an ed tech revolution, published in March 2020 by Oxford University Press. In this post, I like to share my personal notes and reflections on some of the important key points.
Christodoulou, who is the Director of Education at No More Marking and the author of Seven Myths of Education (2014) as well as Making Good Progress? The future of Assessment of Learning (2017) - is also an English language teacher. This has made the book all the more appealing to me. To deliver some of her arguments, she offers lots of examples and anecdotes from classroom experiences that resonate with my own. Of course, there are plenty of examples from other subjects like mathematics and science, too - but it is my belief that many English language teachers would find this aspect of the book helpful in so many ways.
The book's Foreword is written by Paul Kirschner. He ponders on the fact that despite all the hypes that surround it, ed tech doesn't seem to be successful in revamping education in the same ways that previous revolutions like the printing press and the blackboard (or the chalkboard) did. At least not yet. In Kirschner's words:
In my working life as an educational psychologist and instructional designer (at the time of writing, over 40 years). I've had to suffer the prophecies and predictions of trend watchers, trend matchers, futurologists, corporations, educational gurus, and eduquacks telling me how information and communication technologies were the next revolution in education. Up until now, these technologies have been little more than expansions of the first two real revolutions.
The questions that we need to ask
The introduction chapter opens with a quote by Thomas Edison from 1913 where he predicted that books will be obsolete and that everything will be taught with "motion picture" in ten years. Echoing Kirschner's sentiment in the Foreword, Christodoulou points at how education today has remained almost similar to how it had been in Edison's time. She writes: "Compared to the change and disruption that technology has brought to practically every other part of our society, education is an outlier" (p. 14).
Christodoulou argues that if education does indeed need to change, these are the two fundamental questions that we need to ask: 1) how do humans learn? and 2) what causes learning to happen? The main theme of the book is to find out "the gap between what we know about human cognition, and what often gets recommended in education technology" (p. 22). According to Christodoulou:
If we can reconnect both education and technology with the research underpinning them both, there is enormous promise for a genuinely successful revolution.
Closing the gap
This book is a novel attempt at addressing the chasm between evidence-based learning theories and ed tech innovations. Christodoulou's main arguments throughout the book can be summarised as follows:
1) humans learn through mental activities that help develop long-term memory, which is essential in helping us make sense of everyday information that we encounter;
2) teaching methods should be directed at helping learners develop this long-term memory;
3) in order for ed tech to be 'revolutionary,' it has to employ approaches that support and/or complement these teaching methods;
4) the best way for ed tech to support/complement these teaching methods is by mimicking the teacher expertise and by finding ways to make up for the shortcomings / 'blindspots' caused by human factor.
Education versus tech
Chapter 1 focuses on the science of learning theories, which argues that instead of assisting classroom practices that are backed by scientific research, the adoptions of ed tech are currently very much geared towards overwhelming the working memory, - i.e. the memory that helps us hold small information in our minds in order to help us execute cognitive tasks. When working memory is overwhelmed, it can't contribute towards the development of long-term memory. The first part of the book is also dedicated towards challenging common conceptions which have widely been applied in ed tech practices, such as the notions of 'individual learning styles' and 'self-directed learning' in providing personalised learning experiences for learners. The claim that students learn better when taught in their preferred learning styles "has been extensively researched, and consistently found lacking" (p. 50). For Christodoulou, "When we are learning, what matters most is not our best or preferred learning style, but the best learning style for the content" (ibid.). Instead of constraining a learner to a learning style that he prefers, Christodoulou recommends using technology to aid understanding (e.g. using a combination of words and images), and to create memorable content (e.g. by adopting Mayer's principles of multimedia learning - see chapter 3, pp. 84-91). These strategies should aim at benefitting all learners, not just those who prefer certain learning styles.
As for self-directed learning which supposedly allows students to be more autonomous in deciding their own learning content and paces, Christodoulou contends that students are often "not well-equipped to make good decisions about their learning, precisely because they are still learning" (p. 57). She refers to the seminal work of Dunning and Kruger (1999) as the main supporting evidence for this argument. Dunning and Kruger's central finding - which is famously known as the Dunning-Kruger effect - posits that in order to make good decisions about one's own competence, a baseline of competence is necessary. Those with lower level of competence tend to overestimate their abilities, while those with higher level of competence would be able to judge their abilities more accurately. We can personalise learning based on a student's choice and self-assessment, but novice learners often struggle to identify their own strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, Christodoulou suggests that instead of getting students to be self-paced or self-directed learners when they are still novices, teachers should focus on providing guidance, structure and knowledge that will allow them to increase their ability to evaluate their competence in a more accurate manner, This will eventually help them make good learning choices.
When we are learning, what matters most is not our preferred or best learning style, but the best learning style for the content.
Adaptive learning utilises personalised data that can offer teachers and students with accurate information on the students' learning behaviour, typically by tracking how they answer questions. This information is then used to respond to each student's specific needs by customising the individual learning experiences. Adaptive systems can also provide students with hints and tips, probe for misconceptions, and offer follow-up activities to address misconceptions. In short, adaptive learning is basically a system that tries "to mimic what teachers would like to do if they had unlimited time and attention" (p. 61). The examples that Christodoulou gives like ALEKS, Cognitive Tutor, and Andes are all unfamiliar to me, but I do recall being once an addict of this adaptive learning game on Vocabulary.com. The game does mimic what a teacher would love to do if she has unlimited time and attention to teach vocabulary individually to each and every student. The system tracks which questions I answer correctly and wrongly, and personalises subsequent questions based on that information. For example, the questions that I've got wrong will be repeated a few times till I master it, based on the system's algorithm. I also receive hints and tips to help me learn along the way. Parallel questions will pop up at certain intervals to ensure that I won't forget what I've supposedly mastered. It's brilliant, it's addictive, and it's fun. And I sure learn a lot of vocabulary through the site. Christodoulou makes it clear that adaptive learning is her preferred way of providing personalisation compared to others discussed in this book. I feel the same way.
Problematising project-based learning
These challenges to most recent education hypes and buzzes continue in chapter 4, where Christodoulou analyses the current trendiest education practices like active learning, student-centred learning and project-based learning. Advocates of these types of learning often cited benefits such as enhancements of real-world engagements, problem-solving skills, teamwork, and communication skills. Christodoulou problematises these approaches by pointing out how complex tasks associated with so-called 'real-world problems' often overload working memories, and results in students not learning anything even if they manage to complete the project. As she puts it: "The problem with all kinds of projects - those that use technology, and those that don't - is that they involve so many different elements that it is hard to know what a student will pay attention to. Often, the important element you want students to focus on is obscured or unclear" (p. 102).
To solve this problem, Christodoulou recommends breaking down big, complex projects into smaller manageable chunks so they won't overload working memories. Complex tasks should be the end goal, and not the steps along the way.
The Big Tech guys
I love how Christodoulou doesn't mince words in offering her views on the education philosophies advocated by Big Tech companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Apple, - mainly delivered through their teacher certification programme and tech-based lesson plans. She slams Google's claim about how learning facts is no longer relevant or necessary nowadays because students can 'just Google it up.' She describes how Google's teacher certification programme is mainly geared towards teaching students (and teachers) how to use Google apps, instead of getting learners to actually learn the skills and lessons they are supposed to learn.
Christodoulou shows that facts are needed in order to help students to think, to construct a more useful search, and to evaluate the information that they find online. The 'higher-order thinking skills' that are so crucial in executing the types of tasks outlined in Google's lesson plans will not be possible without "a quite basic bit of knowledge" (p. 76). As she puts it, "Knowledge is needed before HOTS can happen" (ibid.). Relying on Google searches every time they need a few facts to execute a task will overload students' working memory. As shown in the chapter on the science of learning, this does little in helping students develop long-term memory, which is key in helping them learn what they need to learn.
Knowledge is needed before HOTS can happen.
One example highlighted in chapter 4 is on how an assignment on Spanish Civil War has turned into a lesson on how to use the "esoteric features of PowerPoint" (p. 102). Christodoulou contends, "Of course it's useful to learn how PowerPoint and other popular computer programmes work, But in this lesson, the original aim was to learn about the Spanish Civil War, not about PowerPoint" (ibid.). Parallels can be seen in lessons and projects recommended by Microsoft and Apple. For example, we are prompted to ponder on how much students are thinking about mathematics while engaged in an iMovie video project about equations that uses cooking utensils (a lesson plan from Apple), or about the problem of senior-citizen loneliness when they are building a Minecraft world in an attempt to combat the problem. While acknowledging that tasks like these can serve some important non-academic purposes, Christodoulou is also quick to point out that Microsoft's recommended project gets students to be engaged mostly with its popular Minecraft virtual world, not the purported 'real-world' that it claims to utilise.
Facts versus skills?
The pendulum swing towards more skills-based as opposed to facts-based teaching in this 21st century is understandable, as more and more educators feel pressured to do away with 'meaningless drills' and 'rote memorisations' which allegedly has limited relevance for real-world applications. But Christodoulou offers another viewpoint. Instead of regarding the teaching of facts and the teaching of skills as two opposing dichotomies, she recommends focusing on developing a learning pathway that utilises both so that learning can be optimised to the fullest. It isn't about whether teaching one is more important than the other, it is about customising students' learning journeys so they can develop the knowledge of facts as well as the skills needed in order to reach the learning objectives. As mentioned earlier, complex tasks should be broken down into smaller, simpler tasks that can help students acquire the knowledge and master the skills needed in a way that won't overload their working memories, but help develop long-term memories that are useful for them to execute the more complex tasks ahead.
And this is the area that technology should prove most useful. Apps, virtual games, quizzes, and even mini projects using PowerPoints, iMovie etc., - if planned and executed properly - can help make learning facts and knowledge more engaging, fun, interesting, and memorable as students journey along the pathways that we have created for them. As Christodoulou puts it, "instead of expecting technology to eliminate the need to build memories, we should instead use technology to make it easier for us to build memories" (p. 91). And my most favourite quote of all:
We can use technology to make memorisation as fun as possible, we can use technology to make it as efficient as possible, but we cannot use technology to eliminate memory - unless we want to eliminate something that makes us human.
Technology can also be utilised to provide interactive and personalised feedback, as well as help make classroom assessments more effective and meaningful (the book dedicates a whole chapter (chapter 7, pp. 174-191) on how technology can be used to transform the way we do assessments - well worth checking out).
Can technology replace teachers?
"Teachers are no longer the fountain of knowledge; the Internet is." ~ Don Tapscott, a leading authority on the impact of technology on business and society (quoted in the book on p. 69)
Outcomes from attempts to show that technology can take over the jobs of teachers have not been convincing. Attempts to leverage students' capabilities in being self-directed, independent learners with no support other than brandishing computers and devices in the classrooms "has a really lousy record" (to put it in the words of Bill Gates). The examples that Christodoulou gives, i.e. that of Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) and Sugata Mitra's Hole in the Wall experiments are well-known (and have been regarded as a bit unusual in their quite extreme beliefs in how students can 'teach themselves' with just the help of computers), but she also points out how it's perhaps not that unusual when compared against how ed tech has been largely adopted in current education systems. As the book has compellingly demonstrated throughout all the chapters, this technocentric beliefs in the "transformative power of new technologies and media" which "neglects thoughtful and well-designed content" is part of a broader trend (p. 131).
When teachers struggle to minimise distractions, some ed tech advocates are quick to put the blame on teachers; citing poor classroom management, failure to teach students about appropriate use of devices and digital citizenship. as well as execution of activities that lack challenges and engagements. Some fault students for not having enough self-control. What many seem to have forgotten is that devices are not neutral - they are designed to distract (with the intention to profit the people who invent and sell them). Teaching students about the "appropriate use of devices and digital citizenship" should begin with an explanation on "how the modern Internet really works" (p. 148). Making an effort to minimise distractions caused by devices should be regarded as a strength rather than a weakness.
Given all these complexities surrounding the use of computers, devices, and the Internet as learning tools, claiming that technology can take the place of teachers is ambitious at best, and preposterous at worst. I don't feel the book has offered any definitive solution to the problem of minimising/eliminating distractions (apart from a suggestion to ban or adapt devices accordingly to maximise learning), but it does challenge us to revisit this popular notion about whether or not technology can stand on its own when it comes to the business of educating young minds. It challenges technocentric solutions to the problems of education, e.g. the belief that providing computers and laptops in every school and classroom can solve the issues of learning difficulties, education inequity, or digital divide. I really love R.E. Clark's metaphor in his 1983's meta-review of the exaggerated educational benefits of TV:
Media are mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition.
Almost 40 years on, we can see that education is still unfortunately too keen on investing in shiny new trucks rather than healthy foods.
I believe this book does a great job in proving that teachers will always be essential and that their jobs will never be replaced by computers, devices, and the Internet. The teacher expertise is likened to expertise in professions like firefighters and nurses where rapid, accurate judgements are frequently needed in "highly complex" and "uncertain" situations (p. 153). Expert teachers, nurses, and firefighters are those who have vast amount of experiences and have dedicated a significant amount of time perfecting their practices. An expert firefighter can "pick up on reliable cues" when a building is about to collapse, in the same way that an expert nurse can make good decision about what to do to help an infant who has an infection (ibid.). While teaching might rarely involve dangerous, life-threatening situations like collapsing buildings or medical complications, the ability to make good decisions "in the heat of the moment" is frequently necessary and extremely crucial (ibid.). An expert teacher is someone who can "recognise when students are struggling to learn something," and "practise the best kinds of responses" (p. 154).
So maybe teachers are no longer the fountain of knowledge, yet their expertise is still pivotal. Having said that, Christodoulou argues that "neither human nor technological expertise on its own is enough: we need both" (p. 152). It is not a question of teachers versus technology, it is a question of whether we can leverage technology to make up for the shortcomings of teachers. Teachers, no matter how experienced and skilful, are mere mortals who are susceptible to errors and mistakes. Teachers can have expertise-induced blindness, where they can sometimes forget how it's like to be a novice and therefore overlook the struggles of certain students. There's also a problem of fractionation of expertise, where a teacher can be an expert in one particular aspect but not in others. Teachers may also face challenges related to providing individual and timely feedback that are so crucial for ensuring progress. And as humans, teachers are not immune to expert bias, which mainly refers to the inconsistencies of human judgement, particularly in aspects related to assessments and evaluations.
Therefore, instead of aspiring to replace teachers, technology should play the role as a gap-filler, to make up for where human expertise is found lacking. Suggestions include optimising the application of adaptive learning system (see above), most preferably in ways that would allow teachers "to create their own content, or change the way they teach" (p. 166). In addition to being an effective platform for personalised learning, an ideal adaptive system can gather data that will be helpful for teachers to understand individual student's learning trajectories, and hence customise their classroom approaches based on each student's needs. The data from these types of system can also be integrated with teacher education and professional development programmes. Besides this, there are also lots of potentials in comparative judgement, i.e. a tool for marking assessments that combine computer algorithms with human expertise.
This isn't a book about technology
I believe the message of this whole book can be recapitulated in these two quotes:
1) "The dividing line between the more and less effective approaches we've looked at is in the attitude to teacher expertise. The more effective approaches seek out what is valuable about teacher expertise and try to copy or even improve on it. The less-effective approaches assume it is irrelevant or can be ignored" (p. 195, emphasis mine).
2) "If we persist with faulty ideas about how humans think and learn, we will just extend a century-long cycle of hype and disillusionment" (p. 196).
This isn't a book about technology. It claims to make a "case for an ed tech revolution," but a more important underlying message is a call to change the way we think about education. I think we have allowed too many conceptions and assumptions that are not backed by science to proliferate our field and influence our teaching in ways that don't benefit our learners. People are too quick to jump on the bandwagon when ideas like students should be taught based on their individual learning styles, HOTS should be emphasised over 'LOTS,' teaching of facts isn't as important as teaching 'real-world' skills, the purpose of schools is to prepare students for the workforce (actually the purpose of schools is to help students become good and useful human beings) - the list goes on. More than making a case for an ed tech revolution, this book is making a case for science-backed teaching to optimise learning, and for ed tech to be utilised in ways that can make education transformational and revolutionary.
~ccj, Duvanson, 4.03 p.m.
Christodoulou, D. (2020). Teachers vs tech? The case for an ed tech revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Link
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