Teachers as leaders of pedagogical change in futures-focussed environments

It has been widely acknowledged that we need to transform the way learning happens in school. Our society has shifted to a knowledge-based economy, relying on global interdependence and driven by technology (OECD 2010, 2012Dumont et.at 2010, Brown-Martin 2015 WEF 2009, ATC21S 2012, Fullan 2013, Wagner 2008) Pedagogical paradigms have shifted from the hierarchical industrial mode of knowledge reproduction, to flexible, collaborative structures that promotes creativity and metacognitive strategies to prepare students for their entrance to a rapidly changing economy (Wagner 2008, Rshaid 2011, Dovey & Fisher 2014). Although many of the key competencies, values and characteristics of the new learner are not new, but they require a revolutionary contextual adaption. Changing societal structures, expectations and the impact of technology have radically affected the expectations of the classroom, the “control” of information, and the role of the teacher (Hattie 2008, Fullan 2013a, Rshaid 2011, GELP 2013, OECD 2005, Lengel 2013). The pervasive access to information also potentially shifts the way students learn, democratising learning by blurring the boundaries between formal and the “underworld” of informal learning (Creanor et al 2006, Sharpe et al 2009). Key theorists alternately call these new paradigms of learning “21st century survival skills”, “fluencies”, "Education 3.0" or "Next generation learning". However, despite widespread interest, education innovation has been unevenly distributed, and whole-scale educational reform has never been successful (eg Fullan 2011, Cuban 2013 & 2015, Heppell 2012, Siemens 2004). A key tension is the disjunction between the idealised world of educational policy, school administrators, the literature and reality. There is a lack of coherency between teacher ideology and practice, the pragmatics of the classroom, the school and the broader system in which schools operate (Kreijns 2013, Fullan 2011). Governments, policy-makers and administrators have looked to technology to drive the necessary change (Fullan, 2011 Cuban 2015, Jenkins 2013). However, many of the systemic attempts to introduce new pedagogies and digital tools have floundered. Whilst there may be islands of excellence there needs to be a global vision of transformational learning (Mcintosh 2014, fullan, GELP 2013). An inability to introduce and then integrate innovations through sustained training and support has led to a series of failed initiatives and have frustrated those on the frontline – the teachers (Hall 2013, Fullan 2013a, OECD 2005, Shin et al 2014, Ertmer & Ottenbreit-Leftwich 2010, Inan & Lowther 2010).

Two key summaries of essential 21st century skills

Education in the western world is depicted as in a state of either crisis or inertia. Fullan called it the push-pull factor. The “push” is two-fold – firstly, school is increasingly boring for students – student engagement rates, especially in high school, are at an all-time low (Fullan & Langworthy 2013, Jenkins 2013, Willms et al 2009); equally it is becoming more alienating for teachers. Work has intensified, bureaucracy has increased, and teachers have felt increasingly disempowered. The outcomes-driven models have done more to erode agency than aiding it. The converse is the “pull” factor – the exploding and alluring world of digital technology. Although it has the potential to offer much it has not effectively penetrated learning.

Despite the fact that computers have been a part of the education system for nearly 50 years, and the vast amounts of money invested. there is still a general uncertainty about their role in the classroom. (Auld et al 2008) There is not universal shared vision regarding digital technology’s role in learning, and poorly implemented digital learning experiences do more to further alienate students from this potentially powerful aid (Starkey 2011, Cox et al 2004).

Even with the promise of technology, the OECD stated (2005) that it is teachers that are central to the process of reforming schools and learning ( Priestley et al 2012, Lankshear & Snyder 2000, Strong-Wilison et al 2007). Attracting, developing and keeping high quality teachers in education globally is a central agenda item that must be addressed in order to shift the education paradigm from 20th century content-delivery focussed to “teacher as activator” and co-learner (Fullan 2013a, Hattie 2008, 2011) . If systems wish to more effectively embed future-focussed pedagogy that promotes deep learning and integrates technology to accelerate learning, then change processes need to be more carefully managed, and teachers need to be more adequately prepared for their role through systemic support, engagement and more effective professional development (Figure 2) (Lankshear & Snyder 2000, Strong-Wilison et al 2007, Shin et al 2014, Ertmer & Ottenbreit-Leftwich 2010, Inan & Lowther 2010).

The complex relationship between digital technology and learning

Digital technology has the potential to be a powerful disruptor of current educational practice, and a capacity to accelerate innovation and transformation (Christensen 2011) But as Laurillard (2012) comments, systemic technological roll-outs have been driven as acquisitional processes, with little consideration given to their pedagogical input or the training of those designed to use them. Consequently, teachers are bombarded with contradictory theories and expectations, accompanied by a romanticised vision of technology’s capacity to transform education. (Auld et al 2008). An underdeveloped conceptualisation of change theory and a disjointed approach to digital integration in schools has dominated (Hall 2013, Priestley et al 2012, Fullan 2013a). More broadly, in the world of news media, the takeup of digital literacies has had a polarising effect (Henderson 2011). Popular reporting has swung between highlighting the potential dangers of the online world - fear of violence, paedophiles and pornography – whilst at the same time championing popular misconceptions such as the now infamous concept of the “digital natives” (Prensky 2006).

As Levy et al (2003) warn, neither the accumulation of information nor experiences guarantee any real learning will take place; it is the pedagogical framework and accompanying skills developed by the teacher that is essential. Developing a strategic analysis of the relationship between the proposed innovation, evidence-based pedagogy and systemic change forces must occur in order to promote successful integration. Fullan & Donnelly (2013) developed “The Index” matrix to help schools and systems interrogate potential innovations.

From Alive in the Swamp, Fullan & Donnelly 2013

Digital media can provide the disruptive innovation necessary to enhance access to a wealth of ideas and knowledge both within the physical classroom and with experts in the global community (Christensen 2011, GELP 2013, Van der Ark & Schneider 2012). It also allows for students to engage in new and creative ways to collect, curate and manipulate knowledge across a range of formats, and create authentic ways of communicating to a real-life audience, heightening student engagement (Starkey 2011).  However, its role is to amplify, rather than be, the learning experience.  Teachers need to be free to choose contextually when to utilise it as the most appropriate learning tool, rather than it being mandated.  

One issue still to be adequately addressed is how to accurately measure the effectiveness of digital technologies. There is a lack of rigorous evidence-based research that demonstrates the link between digital technology and improved student outcomes (Barber et al 2012, Fullan & Donnelly 2013). As Cuban notes (2014), too frequently we use 20th century frameworks to assess 21st century learning (also Heppell 2007). The Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills project (ATC21S) have systematically interrogated effective methods for assessing 21st century skills, engaging with the digital world. In the discussion paper Alive in the swamp Fullan & Donnelly (2013) outlines the potential for digital technology to improve feedback by supporting a rapid feedback cycle; including a wide variety of participants in the process; providing more complex assessment experiences (such as game-based to create experiential assessment, online capture of process skills, or online collaborative problem-solving); and assessing more complex learning products. However, he also highlights the poor implementation and planning (Fullan & Donnelly 2013). Assessment needs to not only explicitly target the domains identified by the National Research Council (NRC 2012) - cognitive, intrapersonal and/or interpersonal - but support student tracking, and should be nationally (preferably internationally) benchmarked.

The good teacher by Mightboybrian Licensed under Creative commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/mightyboybrian/6389271595/

Re-envisioning the role of the teacher

For systems to embed sustained change and continued improvement, then the role of the teacher needs to be reimagined. Whilst it has significantly changed (see below), contrary to recurring popular discussion that challenges the relevance of the teacher in the digital age, research is repeatedly identifying that quality teachers are more important than ever (OECD 2005, Barber et al 2012, Van Der Ark & Schneider 2012 Lankshear & Snyder 2011, ).

From Teachers Matter (OECD 2005)

As Hattie’s seminal works have outlined (2008, 2011), it is the teacher as activator, as change agent that makes the most significant difference in improving student learning outcomes. Hattie identifies reciprocal teaching, feedback, teacher-student self-verbalization, teaching meta-cognition and setting challenging goals as the most powerful promoters of student learning. He redefines the learning relationships between and among teachers and students as being co-learners.  

However, there are several barriers that prevent teachers in their role as change agents. These result from largely systemic issues of strategy and support. As Fullan (2011) and others have noted (eg Cuban 2015, Jenkins 2013), too frequently governments and systems choose the wrong drivers for change – using accountability and standardised assessment or technology roll-outs. These methods tend to lead teachers and schools towards superficial compliance, rather than embedding new practices and coaching towards enduring transformation (Mourshed et al 2010, Fullan, Hill & Crevola 2013, Tyre 2015). Teachers need to be guided beyond substitutionary models of technology adoption to transformative learning. The relationship between the macro and micro change is inextricable - classroom change must be supported by whole-system change.

Improving the status of the profession, followed by retaining and developing teachers is essential. Systems need to look beyond teaching teachers how to use IT – platforms, programs or hardware - and address fundamental questions of pedagogy and learning, including monitoring efficacy through assessing and tracking students. Systems seeking change must acknowledge the pivotal role of teacher morale to create stakeholder buy-in from teachers, and create an environment supportive of change (see figure 4) (Hall 2013, Fullan 2013a, OECD 2005, Shin et al 2014, Ertmer & Ottenbreit-Leftwich 2010, Inan & Lowther 2010). Providing sustained experiential training that employs the strategies and mindsets of 21st century learning through collaboration, critical thinking and reflection creates the networked teacher agency required for implementing whole system transformation in pedagogy and practice (Reading & Doyle 2010, Kriejns et al 2013, Kreijns et al 2014, Preistley et al 2012).

Teacher as learning designer

Focussing on teachers as designers of personalised learning experiences rather than delivers of content is crucial, requiring teachers to reimagine their identities as both teachers and learners (Strong-Wilson 2012, Reading & Doyle 2013, Shin et al 201 Kreijns et al 20134) This includes redefining the relationship between teachers and students, to create communities where teachers are seen as learning partners (Hattie 2008, Ito et al 2013).

From Ford (2008) Web-based learning through educational informatics: Information science meets educational computing

Central to design thinking is placing user-need at the centre of the design matrix (Brown 209). Teachers need to have a clear understanding of how youth learn and engage with digital technologies (Oblinger & Oblinger 2005, Sharpe et al 2010, de Freitas & Conole 2010, Brabazon et al 2009, Philip et al 2013). However, there a range of ethical, structural and methodological concerns with tracking teens’ online behaviours. By looking at university students, JISC (Creanor et al 2006, Conole et all 2007) have constructed a more comprehensive representation. Whilst acknowledging the dangers of overgeneralising, millennial learners demand pervasive access, social, participatory and networked learning that is experiential and provides immediate feedback (Conole 2012, Oblinger and Oblinger 2005, Sharpe et al 2009, Creanor et al 2006, Conole et al 2007, Ito et al). Research on learner experience focusses on understanding the world the learner inhabits, and identity-formation and agency in the educative context, (Sharpe et al 2010, Oblinger & Oblinger 2005, Ito et al 2013).

Designing personalised learning experiences includes taking students from an information-rich environment into knowledge-building, or knowledge-creation, by building a classroom community that supports idea generation, diversity, exploration and self-direction (Tarchi et al 2013, Beetham & Oliver 2010, Bereiter & Scardamalia 2010). As students negotiate this information-dense world, teachers should prioritise critical thinking skills through embedding transliteracy skills. Important to the design is moving beyond metacognitive strategies and skills, by providing pedagogical mediation so students can employ the appropriate affective metacognitive interventions they need at particular moments (Ford 2008).

Finally, by interrogating the role of feedback and assessment in the digital world teachers can guide deeper learning (Fullan & Donnelly 2013, Eyal 2012). The move towards student empowerment requires teachers to negotiate when to grant greater autonomy in assessment and reflection. The online environment is particularly conducive to this approach as students can both reflect personally as well as engage in community feedback loops through tools such as eportfolios, blogs and online peer assessment (Tarchi et al 2012, Fullan & Donnelly 2013, Van Der Ark & Schneider 2012, Strong-Wilson 2012). Including an audience and also using older students to “loop” learning in an ecology of growth, highlights new modes of assessing (Strong-Wilson et al 2013). However, the greater flexibility now afforded in the assessment process needs careful consideration to maintain rigorous and effective feedback processes that shape learning growth.

Concluding thoughts

The learning environment for today’s students is radically different from that of their teachers and parents (Ito et al 2013). Significant change forces in contemporary society - globalisation, demographic shift and the technological revolution - have had a dramatic impact on our relationship to concepts of information and knowledge, and as a consequence the way students learn (Davies et al 2011, OLECD 2011, OECD 2012, Leadbeater 2012). Equally these dramatic societal changes demand new ways of knowing, new ways of relating and new ways of engaging students.

Central to this discussion is the ubiquitous influence of technology in our lives, and the more contentious topic of its role in education. The tendency of news media to sensationalise and highlight the “dangers” of social media have further distracted policy-makers and school systems as they seek to navigate their way through this rapidly changing landscape. Further complicating this are the uncertain results achieved by poorly conceptualised systemic digital roll-outs. There has been a tendency to naively assume that technology can drive the necessary changes. Teachers, not the technology, influence the efficacy of digital technology use.

A more nuanced understanding of educational change theory and process is essential. Change is complex, time-consuming and difficult. For real change to occur, it needs to be sustained in the whole system not just niche projects in a handful of schools (Fullan & Donnelly 2013, Fullan 2011, Cuban 2013, Heppell 2012, Siemens 2004). Change ritual in schools is almost predictable – a problem is identified, a desired outcome stated, a program/process/product is selected, launch occurs and materials delivered to schools, then it is assumed the change has happened (Preistley et al 2012, Reading & Doyle 2010). Analysing the interplay between the technology, pedagogy and change processes is essential (Fullan & Donnelly 2013) This should lead to a coherent program that frames the way that specific technologies or digital platforms are implemented, as well as the learning design and the training of teachers. Clearly defined learning outcomes for learners, teachers and the community, and relevant tools for measurement, are vital. Without these elements, implementing digital technology is unlikely to translate into successful learning. The most powerful tool in the classroom continues to be the teacher. Their capacity to choose from the full range of digital and non-digital tools is an educational imperative - good learning is technology-agnostic. Creating engaged, informed and empowered teachers that are supported through a networked approach to their continued training and development is the key to making change sustainable and effective in the digital age.

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