Differentiation in a world of increasing Standardisation

I spent this morning working with some UAE teachers examining the ethical and moral issues surrounding the increasing use of technology both within and outside of the classroom.    During the session we digressed into a range of other subject topics including that of differentiation.

Differentiation continues to be a hot topic within the schools I am involved with within the UAE where school leaders continue to look for evidence that the teachers are providing learning opportunities which meet the needs of the individual students within their classrooms.     Where teachers are perceived to be providing all students the same teaching and learning, they are judged to be unsatisfactory.     Good lessons must involve activities, resources and teaching that caters for students as individuals with their own needs, interests, experiences, etc.

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This is where the contradiction becomes clear, as after all this differentiation and individualised and personalised teaching has occurred how do we then assess our students?     We put them in an exam hall together with other students of the same age, and they all sit the same test.    We teach the students as individuals however when we measure what they have learned we consider them all to be the same.    We then use this data of student performance to make judgements as to the quality of the teaching and learning, and therefore of the teachers themselves.

Now I do not profess to have an answer for this apparent contradiction however I would suggest that it needs to be given some consideration.   Are students individuals and as such should they not get individualised teaching and assessment, or are they all the same in which case common teaching and assessment should be the order of the day.    Now it may be the answer lies somewhere in between however I would suggest that an individualised teaching system combined with a standardised testing system sends mixed and confusing messages.


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Education: Time to consider the customer?

I have recently been listening to Sir Richard Branson’ s audio book, The Virgin Way, and it has got me thinking about a number of things.   In one particular chapter of the book a number of companies were discussed, where each had been highly successful however then went through a period of significant loss.   Sir Richard suggested that these companies lost significant amounts of money due to a mistaken focus on “challenging” financial targets as the key indicator and focal point for performance discussions, at the expense of the overall good of the company and its organisational culture.    Having recently done a study on culture within international schools operating in the UAE, this made me consider possible parallels between the business world and the world of education.   Deal and Peterson (2009) in their book suggested that schools could learn from the business world in terms of developing culture.


In Sir Bransons book the focus on financial targets is identified as an error contributing to losses in the financial results which are being examined.   He suggested that the finances are a bi-product of the business as opposed to its sole aim, indicating that within his organisations the aim is to deliver excellent customer service and to look after the customers first.   He goes on to explain that if he looks after his customers, they will look after him and that positive financial outcomes will be a bi-product of this.

Drawing comparisons between Sir Branson’s comments with regards business and education I would suggest that the financial results examined to assess the success of businesses may be similar in nature to the standardised test results being examined to assess the success of schools.    Within education in recent times there has been a significant amount said and a significant focus put on standardised test scores.  Based on PISA results for example, Finland has been proclaimed by some to be the best education system in the world.

The question is whether education, like the businesses which suffered significant losses, is too focused on these specific standardised measures of educational performance at the expense of the culture of schools or the good of education in general.     Has education lost its focus on why education, schools and teachers exists;  Our purpose?

Now I know the above is very much general in nature and therefore does not apply to all schools or education systems.   My point is that in general I believe we need to step back and relook at what is important and our overall reason for teaching.     We need to look at the cultures of schools rather than standardised test results.    Sir Richard repeatedly discusses the importance of a focus on customer service.    Should we do the same and re-evaluate what we see as most important, maybe showing a little less attention to the standardised test results and a little more to our customers; The students!


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Educational Conferences – Another assortment of EdTech presentations.

Dubai has been host to another of the many worldwide education conferences in EdInvestMena which has been taking place during this week.   Like so many other conferences, if EdTech is not a central feature, it makes a prominent appearance throughout as it has done at EdInvestMena.  Now sadly although I presented a short piece at the conference on Monday with regards social media, I did not get the opportunity to see the main bulk of the event which occurred from Tuesday onwards.   As such my comments here are largely based on the programme for EdInvestMena and on my previous attendance at similar events in the UAE, Kuwait and UK.

The EdTech presenters at these events often present some very good examples of approaches they are using within classrooms or schools.   The use of iPads has been a central theme across a number of presentations I have seen over the last year or so.   The discussion of EdTech as a disruptive force operating on education to bring about change has also been discussed on numerous occasions.     The issue is that these presentations although sometimes excellent are not mirrored in the average practice I see within schools even where schools have the equipment.    Added to this is the issue that not all schools have the equipment as evidenced by one attendee at a session I ran recently who pointed out all my web app ideas were great however wouldn’t work in his school as there was no Wifi capabilities in classrooms.     As such should we be spending so much time discussing EdTech and how it can improve learning?

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I suggest that the answer is that we shouldn’t be spending quite so much time on EdTech and that we should re-examine the balance of our educational discussing.    For me the answer might lie in those schools where EdTech is being used very successfully to encourage and support collaboration, communication, etc.   The successful use of EdTech did not come about because of the introduction of the Tech.  A school culture which encourages creativity, collaboration and the valuing of ideas within a supportive environment plays a large part in making successful use of EdTech.   Teachers need to feel they can try new things, even where they fail, that they can seek support from others and that they can share ideas.    This is all to do with an open or healthy school culture.   So a school effectively using EdTech is likely to have an open and healthy culture.

Considering a school with an open or healthy school culture but without the EdTech resources or with limited EdTech resources again we would expect sharing and collaboration.   Again this would be expected to lead to positive learning experiences for students as teachers discuss and share ideas to ensure students receive the best experience possible.   Where a limited amount of Tech was available it should also lead to the creative and effective use of this tech to leverage the maximum impact possible from it. So an effective school, whether not it is using EdTech effectively, is likely to have an open and healthy culture.

So if the culture of a school is so important to schools in general as well as to schools engaged in using EdTech why is so very much of the educational conference time spent on discussing EdTech?     Should we not be spending less time discussing EdTech and much more time on discussing creating open, positive and healthy school cultures?   Now it may be that culture, as a very intangible trait of schools, may be more difficult to discuss and therefore we are choosing the easy option in the tangible EdTech or it could be related to the many vendors trying to sell us the latest tech?    Either way I think we need to relook at the balance of our educational discussions.


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Learning Platforms: Over 10yrs of VLEs, MLEs, Learning Platforms and still no joy!


I met with a Learning Management System vendor today in Dubai and for once I managed to get into and out of Dubai without getting lost, although I do suspect I got at least one motoring fine, although that’s another story.   Basically I was in the meeting to see a company’s system as demonstrated by a woman from Norway who had significant experience using said system in the classroom.    Now I went into this meeting not being a great fan of learning management systems (or virtual learning environments or learning platforms or whatever else you want to call them) as in my experience I have seldom seen them used such that learning has been positively impacted upon.


During the course of the meeting my viewpoint was changed as I was regaled with stories and examples of how this particular learning management system had been used by this particular teacher.   I was shown specific examples of materials plus was shown the system from a teacher, student and parental standpoint.   I began to see how the system could have a positive impact on student learning however I found myself wondering why the learning management systems I had seen in the past had not had a positive impact.   Was it that this new learning management system was significantly superior to systems I had seen in the past?  I wasn’t sure this was true however I should make it clear that the system being demonstrated to me had some good features with the ability to share course content with other users across schools and even countries through their network being most significant.


My viewpoint as to being generally against learning management systems had by this point changed as I had seen a concrete example which, although anecdotal as opposed to research based, was enough to suggest to me that learning management systems could have a positive impact.  At this point I considered the common factors in the previous systems I had seen which I had judged as unsuccessful and identified one particular issue: learning management systems which were mandated for use and applied to all in a school.    In each of the previous learning management systems I had seen, they had been applied to the whole school with staff mandated to provide content.    This struck me as being a significant problem as teachers are all individuals, like students.   Some will be happy using a particular learning management platform, whereas others will prefer another system, and some may not like learning management systems at all.    As school leaders and teachers we talk of differentiation, yet here we have an example of where leaders say one thing and then do something else, at least in terms of their teachers.   Why should making all teachers do the same be any more successful or acceptable than making all students do the same?


So this brings me back to my initial feeling with regards learning management system, in that they are generally bought for a whole school at significant cost, which therefore encourages school leaders to “mandate” use in order to ensure an appropriate return on investment.   The problem being that this single system, no matter which system, is unlikely to meet the needs of all or even most teachers.   As such for a small few, such as the Norwegian teacher who presented today, learning management systems will have a significant and positive impact on the learning of their students however for others these systems become nothing more than another bureaucratic task which teachers are mandated to undertake.


In terms of an alternative to learning management platforms there are plenty of solutions with the most likely to be the approach of “app smashing” where teachers use multiple different apps to achieve their aims as opposed to looking for a single unified platform.  This might involve the use of Edmodo, ClassDojo or Classjump along with GoogleDrive, DropBox and Box .Net, or it might involve Survey Monkey or Google Forms, maybe some use of Evernote and Youtube.    Basically a teacher selects the apps which suit them and the students they teach.   For some teachers this may be a single app while for others it could be 10 or 12 different apps used in combination.   This is the feature which the learning management system does not include; the ability for teachers to choose and to differentiate according to their needs, experience and skill level, as well as to adapt to their students.


It is about time we gave up on learning management systems, at least as they appear now.    The system I saw today had one feature I did particularly like being the ability to share teaching content within the system.   Maybe this idea may provide a starting point for a new kind of learning management system.




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