Two recent developments have brought home clearly the need to consider and discuss implementation strategies at the same time as setting educational goals. The following two publications discuss two remarkably similar sets of goals for education, one developed in Europe and one here on the west coast of British Columbia. (You mean politicians talk to each other?)
British Columbia (2011) BC Education Plan Victoria: Ministry of Education
Redecker, C. et al. (2011) The Future of Learning: Preparing for Change Seville Spain: Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, JRC, European Commission
I have already commented on the European report. The BC plan is focused on schools rather than post-secondary education, but the goals are remarkably similar:
- Personalized learning for every child
- Quality teaching and learning
- Flexibility and choice
- High standards
- Learning powered by technology.
What’s not to like about this? Well, the BC Teacher’s Federation’s news magazine, Teacher, raises some interesting questions about these motherhood statements:
Kuehn, L. (2011) Experiments with kids’ learning Teacher, Vol. 24, No. 3
The first question, which applies equally to the European report, is one about resources. There is no money attached to what in BC will be major changes to the way children will learn and teachers will teach, although the Ministry recognizes that professional development (read ‘in-service training of teachers’) will be critical for the success of this change. It should also be noted that the teachers in BC have not had a pay increase for three years and are currently in stalled negotiations with the government which has offered no increases over the next three years as well: hardly an atmosphere conducive to change.
Second, Kuehn is concerned that there is a conflict between the idea of personalized learning plans for students and the Ministry’s requirement that these learning plans meet pre-determined learning outcomes (e.g. detailed competency performance targets) that will be set by the Ministry. Kuehn fears that a teacher will have to develop a different learning plan for every student – up to 200 per teacher in a high school. Let’s be clear about this. While guidelines about expectations are important, personalized learning requires a great deal of flexibility on the part of the teacher to ascertain needs, set realistic learning goals within the constraints of available time, and manage the learning experience, which runs completely contrary to recent moves by governments around the world to set standardized performance measures. This means putting much more trust in the professionalism of teachers. So it is not just the teachers that will need to make some major changes in attitude if these goals are to be successfully implemented. (I speak from experience – my first job was as a teacher in a small rural school in Britain in 1964 with 42 children ranging in age from seven to eleven, and including all levels of ability. Personalized learning is not new.)
A third concern is with the technology goal. There are two objections in the Teacher. The first is in Kuehn’s article. The government wants to allow children to bring their own technology to class – iPads, iPhones, etc. Kuen’s concern is obvious – what about equality of access? Kids from poorer homes will be disadvantaged. I would have been less concerned about this criticism if I had seen something in the plan about providing ectra technology resources (e.g. equipment that students could borrow) for schools in poorer neighbourhoods (and yes, we do have those here).
The second objection comes from Jim McMurtry, a high school teacher. This is a general attack on fully online learning. A lot of it reads like the old David Noble arguments, driven by a concern that the government wants to use technology to save money on teachers and schools, but there is a point here that I think is worth further consideration, and that is, what is an appropriate balance between online and face-to-face teaching for students of different ages? How much time do want a seven year old to spend on a computer as part of their studies? I have to confess to feeling a lot more comfortable arguing for fully online learning for adult learners than I do for young children. Again, this is a question of finding the appropriate balance.
The third concern is the timeline. Kuehn claims the plan calls for a six month process where the Ministry will work with ‘education partners’ (read ‘teachers and parents’) to implement the plan, which involves no less than a complete redesign of teaching from grades k to 12.
At the end of the day. I do fully support the BC Ministry of Education’s goals for the k-12 sector. The emphasis on personalized learning, skills development and technology integration are all right on target. In George Abbott, BC has the brightest and best Minister of Education in the 21 years since I’ve been living in the province. BUT, you have to give as much attention to implementation as to goals. The Education Plan is no more than 800 words long and with no details about implementation. In particular, teachers must be onside for these strategies to work. BC has a history of vitriolic and toxic relationships between government and the teachers’ union that goes back before even my time in BC. However, even in a jurisdiction with good relationships between government and teachers, extensive consultation and collaborative working will be essential to bring about the changes proposed here. Some additional resources need to be found to support the changes, particularly regarding in-service training of teachers, but also to ensure equity in access to modern technology. And this kind of change isn’t going to happen in six months; it needs to be spread out over several years.
So I look forward to seeing the government’s implementation plan, which I hope will be done in collaboration with the teachers, and not imposed on them. To do this, the government has to get the bargaining settled and off the table if it is to have any hope of getting any progress on the educational changes that are much needed and in the right direction.