The skills required for the PISA Test

I received an excellent link from my Facebook friend Barbara Bray that went like this:

Try some of the examples of the PISA test to see how you would do. Maybe the US needs to look at this test when redesigning NCLB. Critical thinking skills might be considered :o)

Test your reading, math and science skills with sample questions from PISA, the exam taken by high school students around the world
I looked (and took) the test and have to admit that it was certainly demanding and most importantly, made me think. There were questions that demanded reasoning skills, prior knowledge, the ability to analyse.
Do we really teach these skills? Do we have confidence that our students could cope with these questions? If not what do we need to do to change our way of doing things so that in the future it is not just about passing some international test but  equipping them for the world that they will live and work in.

Steve Jobs: The visionary pirate

Steve Jobs while introducing the iPad in San F...
Image via Wikipedia

Steve Jobs, one of the men who has most influenced the world we live in today, has decided to retire as CEO of Apple Computers.

In the aftermath of this news came a lot of articles and links about the man of which one was to a film that I had never heard of called “The Pirates Of Silicon Valley“. I followed the link and found myself hooked in watching the whole film in ten sections of about 9 minutes each on YouTube.

This film is a drama documentary of the early days of Apple and Microsoft and in particular looks at the two central people in their development namely Steve Jobs of Apple and Bill Gates of Microsoft. Of the two characters portrayed I felt that I got much more into the complex and frankly quite extreme and driven character of Jobs than the somewhat geeky Gates.

I was particularly taken by the way that he saw the development of his products as a revolution (which they were) and was concerned with style as well as substance. His treatment of his employees was absolutely awful at times and he seemed to make an art form out of being some kind of commercial Stalin who was worshipped in great meetings as some sort of demigod.

He did though have an immense vision of what he wanted to produce and was the consummate salesman of the products. All of this is somewhat strange when you realise that he same from a very San Francisco “flower power” “hippy” student background (there is an interesting and well shot sequence in the film where Jobs is high on some drug and is imagining himself conducting an orchestra in a beautiful field somewhere), a culture that had turned its back on the material things of life.

I think the turning point in the film is where Jobs shaves his beard and then dons his suit and becomes a part of the corporate norm that his past culture had  rebelled against. He did though take many of the ideas about beauty and art into his thinking as a corporate megastar and this can be seen in the design of the Apple products… the iPad doesn’t just do good things .. it feels good and is Jobs’ idea of a work of art.

So, as the day has come when this driven, complex man steps down as CEO of the company that he created, led, which fired him only to take him back and go onto greater glories, what  does this tell those of us in education?

Jobs, although a harsh individual and an unpleasant one a lot of the time, had the kind of skills that we talk about that the student of today will need in order to succeed in the future. He had vision, he was creative, an innovator and  a problem solver. There is a lot that today’s students can learn from Mr Jobs. I only hope that they can also learn humility, concern for fellow human beings and to beware the dangers of the cult of personality.

I never met Steve Jobs and am probably pleased about that, but like so many people out there, I do admire him and am appreciative for the innovations that he pioneered (and sometimes pirated). I know that he has well publicised health problems at the moment and wish him well for the future.

Thinking outside the box

Cover of "The Age of the Unthinkable: Why...
Cover via Amazon

First the good news… my support of teacher/blogger Megan Howard’s efforts to get an ex-pupil from her school, Andrew Hennessy to talk at TEDxKIDS@BC has been successful!

In her response to my original comment on her blog post “A Problem Finder and a Problem Solver” Megan told me about a book that she has read that has influenced her thinking, “The Age of The Unthinkable” by Joshua Cooper Ramo.  She suggested that I ordered the book (I have done so and will no doubt review it on this blog some time in the future) and she quoted a section of it in her response:

From -Age of the Unthinkable- :
“The future demands a different resume. Today the ideal candidates for foreign-policy power should be able to speak and think in revolutionary terms. They should have expertise in some area of the world – be it China or the Internet or bioengineering – where fast change and unpredictability are the dominant facts of life. They should have experienced the unforgiving demands for precision and care that characterize real negotiation – as well as the magical effect of risk-taking at the right moments. They should have mastered the essential skill of the next fifty years: crisis management. And they should be inclined toward action, even action at times without too much reflection, since at certain moments instinct and speed are more important than lovely perfection of academic models.”

The last sentence made me think about the way we educate our future leaders in twentieth century methods in (often) twentieth century classrooms using pencils, pens and methods that will give them none of the skills that Remo refers to in the quote above.

There are a number of us who keep going on about the need to have problem finders and problem solvers such as Andrew and obviously he has been fortunate to have been to a school where future needs have been addressed and not a narrow curriculum based on outdated ideas that will produce individuals unable to “think outside the box” which I know is an overused phrase but one that I feel is pertinent here to my argument.

The ability to “think outside the box” is not just about playing around in a classroom with some exciting small project, it is about the ability that an individual student, who may one day be sitting in the Oval Office at the White House (or any of the great centres of government), has to make the decisions that will effect all of us and maybe make the difference between our world (the human one that is) having a future on this planet!

Where does the excitement go?

As a new school year is just on the horizon here in the U.K. and has just begun in North America, I ask myself a question. Where does the excitement of the first few days, with students who care about their appearance and who try so hard to get their work done carefully, go by Christmas, by Springtime… by the end of the year when the beaches beckon and it all seems to have been a long haul?

A new year is often seen as a new start. Last year’s arguments, long discussions, misunderstandings are forgotten. There is maybe a new classroom, a new teacher and the student is a year older (well actually six weeks or so!) and may feel more responsible, more mature (whatever that may mean when you are seven rather than six years old).

School, for most children, is a very long term thing. In the experience of a seven year old the next seven years spent in various classrooms is the equivalent to all of the years that he has known so far. The night before the return to school is often a difficult one for children. They are bursting to tell their peers about where they have been and what they have done and also what they have learnt in those (seemingly) long endless weeks of exploration on beaches in far away places or the visit to some interesting museum or the chance to try rock climbing.

With a mixture of trepidation and excitement they go back to the familiar of the playground or worse still have to face the horrors of starting a new school which is probably bigger and has a new set of rules.

The word “rules” is an important one here. They know the score and they will settle down for the first few days to the routines of the school day. They will line up appropriately and march into class and maybe stand (if required) if the headteacher (Principal) comes into the class. They will write the date, make sure the title is underlined and then proceed to attempt to read the teacher’s mind on what the expectation of the lesson is. Most of them will play along at first.

But then the days become weeks and the months roll by. The seasons change and the school routines, which seemed O.K. in late August or early September, become a bind. This is when the excitement stops and the problems set in. I don’t know how many times I went into my staffroom after the first day or the second and was asked by a former teacher of a class how they were. I replied that they were just fine and getting on with the work really well….. “just you wait” was usually the reply.

There will be schools where this will not happen this year. There will be schools where no two days are ever the same. Where children feel excited throughout the year because they are given the freedom to learn have access to tools that will allow them to explore the massive amount of information that is available to them. In these schools textbooks are rarely found and the day is not based on set routines and a set timetable. This is not the “Factory Model” of education (to quote Sir Ken Robinson) but one where the school has moved into a problem, inquiry based, project-based approach. In these kind of schools I feel you will find that the excitement and enthusiasm of the start of the school year continues throughout the rest of the year so that the last day of the year feels much more like the first.

The fallacy of the digital native

iPhone using the Wikitude application, demonst...
Image via Wikipedia

The term “digital native” is used so much these days.  I have to start this post by holding my hand up and saying that I have been as guilty of using this phrase as any.

But are we making a massive error in using a blanket phrase for a whole generation of people who happen to be born at the same time?

Here are my arguments against the phrase:

(1) The availability of digital technology to the younger generation is not a level playing field…we cannot really compare middle class youngsters in the U.S. and U.K. to their fellow generation  in the slums of Mumbai or the shanty towns of South Africa or Brazil.

(2) Even if the children do have access to the technology we cannot assume that they all have a proficiency for using it. There are too many examples of young people who cannot search the net properly and rely on Google for large sections of their written work (basically plagiarism). They cannot use bookmarking tools like Delicious or Diigo to study using the net, they do not know how to effectively communicate with each other using videoconferencing, audio link-ups. They may use their mobile phones but are most likely to use them for texting and playing games.

(3) The term “digital native” denotes that everyone born before a certain date is not able to have a “natural facility” with the use of digital technology. This is plainly wrong. There are many people who would be described as “digital immigrants” who are very well versed in using social media, communications tools, search engines, bookmarking and even writing original blog pieces. A good example of this is Google Plus (which I am a proud member of) which seems to be full of thirty-plus people who are immersed in the new digital age and are fascinated by Augmented Reality, next generation video games, technology in education and the ongoing discussion about e-books replacing real books.

So my point is this: we cannot use a blanket phrase to describe a generation and in fact, we need to look at the shortcomings in terms of availability and usage of digital technology for our younger generation and the children that will be following them. We cannot assume that they will be able to use it effectively (if at all) and if that is the case then there will be a real loss to the world (and our future) in their inability to use the powerful tools to help solve their problems and ours.













Education is not about certificates

I watched the news yesterday as thousands of our young people received their A Level results. There was the usual scenes of euphoria for those who had achieved or surpassed the grades that they needed to get to University. There was the disappointment by those who had not. The background picture showed three A Level students jumping up in the air with sheer joy and probably relief.

They then interviewed one young man who said that he was not intending to go to university. He stated the following: “education is not about certificates it is about learning… I intend to go out into the world and learn about life!”

This struck a chord with me about just what we in the education industry are all about. At this time of year we seem to be a part of the never-ending production line of certificate giving. There are the joyous possessors of  pieces of paper that tell them that they have achieved a certain grade in an examination or test and that,according to society they are now ready to progress to the next phase of study.

But what have they learned? Is there much of the words and figures that they have put onto numerous pieces of paper in large (or small) classrooms or halls going to give them the ability to cope with the ever-changing world that they will be coming out into?

When yesterday’s A Level pupils become tomorrow’s University undergraduates will they be learning things that will equip them for life in the global village?

I recently read about “The Seven Essential Skills That Students Will Need in the 21st Century” by Dr Tony Wagner of Harvard. These are:

1. Problem-solving and critical thinking;
2. Collaboration across networks and leading by influence;
3. Agility and adaptability;
4. Initiative and entrepreneurship;
5. Effective written and oral communication;
6. Accessing and analyzing information; and
7. Curiosity and imagination.

I just wonder how many of those who were celebrating yesterday have these skills… indeed have they een given the chance to develop them?

I feel the young man who said that he was spurning going to university in order to learn about the world had an important point. In attempting to go out into the world of work (if he is lucky in these difficult times) he may be able to learn and develop the essential skills that Wagner has written about and that may fit him much better to develop his life as a citizen in the 21st century.

This is not meant to belittle the achievements of those students who gained their A Level results yesterday. I am well aware of the hard work that they put into getting them. But I feel it is not their fault if the system does not give them the chance to develop the key skills that they will need in order to cope with life in the world we now live in. On top of this many of them will be leaving  university with a massive debt that will take many years to pay back.

We need to rethink how we educate our children and what skills they will really need as they progress to higher education.  The universities need to think of just what skills they are developing in their students and both secondary and higher education needs to beware the paper chase!



Adam Bellow’s #140 Conference talk

This talk is an absolute gem. In 15  minutes Adam delivers a great talk at speed about the state of technology in education.

It is funny, informative, hard-hitting and perceptive and the sort of talk that administrators, teachers and politicians should be watching.

I especially liked his comments on the use of mobile technology in schools. I have been going on about this myself for quite a while yet Adam is able to make the argument forcefully and well in just a few minutes.

This is truly a talk to enjoy and would have graced any of the similarly timed “TED” talks (maybe they will be looking at it for future reference).

Can I also take this opportunity to once again recommend Adam’s excellent website called “EduTecher” which has some excellent videos and reviews of many great free and downloadable programs.