End of week 1: reflections and what’s next

It’s the start of week 2 of my studies in a post-graduate teacher education program. Time for a bit of reflection and planning.

The experience so far

I’m studying at an institution at which I worked for 20 years, both as an academic designing and running my own courses and in an e-learning support role. From this I know the difficulties that an academic has to overcome to create and maintain a good learning environment. This is by way of a disclaimer. In the following I will identify the factors that haven’t quite worked for me in this first week, not to criticise, but to help identify where things might get better. (Not to mention to fulfill the on-going pleas from senior university staff to give feedback.)

To satisfy the namby-pamby, fluffy bunnies amongst you who desire some good news first. The staff associated with this program have been great. Going out of their way to help, being contactable, responding quickly and for the most part demonstrating aspects of good teaching practice.

Time on task

The institution uses Chickering and Gamson’s 7 principles for good practice in undergraduate education as part of its teaching framework. Time on task is one of those principles and an aspect of time on task is that students aren’t wasting their time trying to figure out what they are supposed to do.

This has been my biggest problem this week. What am I supposed to do next? Some of the contributing factors to this problem include

  • Broken links on Moodle course sites.
    Come on, automated link checkers were one of the first tools to be available to support web authoring. Surely the institution could help academics by having some form of link checker on course sites to identify when links are broken.
  • Out of date information.
    eStudyGuides have mentioned Blackboard or course mailing lists. etc. Things that no longer apply.
  • Inconsistent and/or duplicate information.
    As a student, what am I supposed to do each week in the course. Some courses have eStudyGuides, some have Moodle resources to described this, some have both and in some cases the duplicate information is inconsistent. Some aspects of this seem to arise from the understandable practice of the courses in this post-grad program having much in common with courses in other programs.
  • Moodle slowness/unavailability.
    There were a couple of times in the first week that Moodle was really slow, both while I was on-campus and off. In some case, so slow as to be unusable. I believe there was a network outage at one stage that brought most institutional services off-line. This is a problem because all of the resources and activities for these courses are on Moodle, or accessed through Moodle. When it’s down, we’re wasting time.
  • Broken Moodle features.
    One of the courses tried to use Moodle Wikis within groups. It didn’t work. Apparently the institutional Moodle technical support couldn’t identify why it didn’t work. This wasted time.
  • Differences within the use of Moodle.
    There is some evidence of the great “consistency program” in terms of course site design, but there still remains some significant variety in how different course sites are structured. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if those structures were effective, but some of the points I’ve made above suggest that there are problems with those designs and hence the variety causes problems.

I feel this is perhaps the biggest problem faced by other students and it’s especially problematic in a program that is acknowledged to require a lot of work. I have observed some students taking the pragmatic route and deciding what to do next by starting at the assessment and working backwards identifying exactly what they need to complete the assessment.

Encourages Active Learning

Another one of the 7 principles. All of the courses have attempted to do this. I must admit, however, that at times some of these exercises have felt a little contrived or ineffective. e.g. getting us to give examples of literacy and numeracy without defining what it was, or without bringing the activity to a close with clearer definition and reflection on the discrepancies.

I think there’s also a potential tension between some of the more practice, teaching oriented tasks from later in the term (e.g. preparing lessons plans etc) that are generally also assessment tasks and some of the more reflective learning activities (e.g. reading various articles).

Develops Reciprocity and Cooperation Among Students

There have been efforts at this. Especially in one course, however, that has been hampered by technical difficulties. Much of what has arisen has probably been through the extra efforts of some students, and consequently is necessarily spread across all students.

Encourages Contact Between Students and Faculty

I think this is perhaps the other major downfall of the institution. I make the clear distinction here between the individual teaching staff and the institution. It’s been my experience that the teaching staff have tried as much as possible to be available for contact. The trouble is that only two of the four courses is being taught by a permanent members of staff. The other two have permanent/full-time members of staff as the “coordinator”, but are actually being taught by casual staff. This is the institution’s common band-aid solution and it typically doesn’t work well.

Reading between the lines, it appears that full-time members of staff are being drawn away by projects and research. An apparent ramification of the increasing emphasis on research.

This is not to say that casual staff can’t be good teachers, many are. But a casual staff member brought on to teach someone else’s course – especially if they are unfamiliar with the institution – is being placed in an incredibly difficult situation. And that’s assuming they are going into course that is in a good state.

My practice

The problems aren’t all the institutions responsibility. If it is to be, it is up to me.

Time on task has been my biggest flaw. A tendency to go too deep or off on tangents not directly related to the requirements of the program have slowed me down. In part, I need to be more pragmatic in focusing on the assessment requirements, hopefully, without sacrificing some of the important learning experiences along the way.

During my study I will not have to work. I do have family duties, but most days of the week I have free to study. Last week there were various events (dentists appointment, child’s vaccination and farewell lunch) that consumed parts of the day.

Some of the readings have also caused my eyes to glaze over and made it difficult to engage in them. I need to develop strategies to work around this.

On the plus side, it’s been an amazing week in terms of learning from the folk from twitter and the blogosphere. Arguably this has contributed to my going off on tangents, but it’s not something I’d give up. It has added a much needed richness and also significantly increased the feelings of reciprocity/cooperation between my learning and others and active learning aspect. Thanks to you all.

Multiliteracies and why weak students become teachers

A tweet from @rgesthuizen pointed me to this article which argues that only weak students are ending up as teachers because education programs lack intellect. This is of interest to me for two reasons. First, I’m currently enrolled in an education program and I’m not sure my experiences match 100% what is claimed in the article (perhaps an interesting US/Australian difference). Second, because the fatal indicator of a lack of intellect within education programs seems to be in direct opposition to the positions I’ve seen in my first week of study.

The basic argument is that less intellectual able students are flocking to education programs because they are easy. The suggested solution to bring intellectually strong students back to education is

If we want to reverse that trend, we’ll have to make teacher-preparation programs challenging enough to lure these students back in.

Okay, so what’s the evidence, the indicator, that education programs are intellectually weak?

The author draws on the outcomes of the Academically Adrift book/project to report

just 45 percent of students in education and social work reported taking a course in the previous semester requiring more than 20 pages of writing, while 61 percent took a class with more than 40 pages of reading per week. By comparison, 68 percent of social science and humanities students took a class with 20 pages of writing, and 88 percent had a class with 40 pages of weekly reading.

So it shouldn’t surprise us that students in education and social work reported studying less, too: 10.6 hours per week, as opposed to 12.4 hours in the social sciences and the humanities. The hardest workers are science and math majors, who study 14.7 hours a week.

The first week of the Literacy and Numeracy course I’m taking has argued heavily for the concept multiliteracies. About how the changes in the world have increased the variety of literacies behind traditional writing/reading/rithmetic. I find it somewhat ironic that we have an education faculty member espousing the need for education students to return to more writing/reading as the solution. Not that it doesn’t surprise me that there is disagreement within the ranks of education academics.

But then there’s the really interesting argument

Nor should we be surprised that education students show significantly lower gains than these other groups during their undergraduate careers on the College Learning Assessment (CLA), an essay-only test measuring complex reasoning and written expression. As ed schools should be the first to acknowledge, the only way to cultivate these higher-order skills is to practice them. And our students appear to do that less than most other undergraduates.

Hang on, the measure of students complex reasoning is an essay? Isn’t there just a chance here that the measure is determining what is classed as intellectual. Yes, if you are assessing via essay, then writing more essays (especially if they take the same format as the test) will probably give better results. But I am not sure that better results on that test are indicative of better complex reasoning. I’m also pretty sure that it doesn’t say anything about students capabilities to engage in different literacies.

That said, my feel is that most of the four courses I’m studying have suggestions that I should have read at least 40 pages during the first week. The thing is that I haven’t really completed all the readings, though I’m guessing I’ve completed more than many of the students. Is this because I’m a poor student? Perhaps, but it’s also down to other reasons including:

  • Some of the readings are repetitive, poorly written and repeating material that I already am familiar with.
  • Some of the readings repeat discussions in class.
  • The design of the courses means that it is not always obvious what I should/shouldn’t read.
  • It’s just not the reading that has to be done, it’s the reflection and activities based on those readings and the combination is taking much longer than what is expected.
  • And to repeat, simply doing a lot of reading is not really developing my complex reasoning.

Perhaps education students are spending less time on their study, because the courses are better designed at keeping them on task? Perhaps the test is not measuring intellectual capability?

Literacy and Numeracy: Week 1

And another weekly reflection of tasks and learning associated with a course. This one is for the Literacy and Numeracy course.

Context and background

Interesting that this course has a study guide that starts with an overview of the theoretical assumptions that underpinned the design of the course. This courses uses two concepts

  1. multiliteracies; and
  2. transformative learning.

and goes on for some time explaining and showing how that connects with the course design.

Literacy and numeracy issues in changing times

The assumption is that times are changing, the aim here is to reflect on those changes and the implications they have for changing “literacies” for the types of practices we’d engage in as educators.

And we’re into definitions, first three important terms

  1. Language – “system of signs and symbols used by a group of human beings to construct meaning. Different groups may develop different systems…resulting in different languages…Groups may use their language in different ways”.
  2. Literacy – “ability to read and use written information and to write appropriate in a range of contexts…integration of speaking, listening, viewing and critical thinking with reading and writing and includes cultural knowledge”.
  3. Numeracy – “To be numerate is to use mathematics effectively to meet the general demands of life as home, in paid work, and for participation in community and civic life…..involves the disposition to use, in context, a combination of: unnderpinning mathematical concepts and skills…(numerical spatial, graphical, statistical and algebraic); mathematical thinking and strategies; general thinking skills, and; grounded appreciation of context.

Which of courses raises the question of whether or not mathematics is a language and thus numeracy can be folded into literacy.

Again with this course there doesn’t seem to be the one single resource that is explaining what it is students are meant to do. There seems to be multiple bits with each not necessarily describing the same task.

What are the key concepts or issues here?

Due to on-going change – change from the social, technological and economic – create a need to identify new ways of thinking about literacy. New ways of equipping students with the skills to combine existing and new literacy skills “in different ways, for new purposes and with new technologies”. The argument is for a move away from a predominant emphasis on the print – i.e. literacy == reading and writing English (insert other language) texts.

What is similar to or different from what I already knew?

To some limited extent I was familiar with most of this, perhaps not in terms of an integrated, reasonably in-depth argument.

What did I have difficulty with?

My perception of excess verbiage and the document not being as well designed as it could have been. i.e. The first page essentially summarises the 11 page document but doesn’t sign post that it does so I have to end up skimming/reading all of the pages to double check I’m not missing anything.

What did I disagree with, and why?

I have an inbuilt initial skepticism about arguments based on the idea that “the world has changed and continues to change”. So my main source of disagreement arises from that. That said, however, I tend to agree in general with the argument expressed here.

In terms of the specific changes mentioned there may be some disagreements. For example, I’m not sure that digital TVs are really a significant change from what has gone before in terms of literacies. Oh, there are more channels, but that’s been there with pay TV etc.

In terms of K12 education, I’m uncertain that it needs to provide support for all possible literacies, but then I’m not sure that the document claims that.

Are there things I need to know more about?

There are a few more questions that ask how these “new” concepts would influence how I think about school/community, teaching etc.

Given that this argument is not all that new to me, I don’t think it will have any great impact on changing my thinking or practice.

mmmm, not sure I’m getting much out of this activity.

Assessing multiliteracies and the new basics

Now it’s on to Kalantzis, Cope and Harvey (2003) and looking to answer the following questions

  • What are the two changes argued as the “most important and closely related changes” in the way people communicate?
  • Do you agree/disagree with the basic argument for the concept of “Multiliteracies” as being a way of understanding the changes in how we are communicating?
  • Why?

So, first there were difficulties in figuring out which article we were meant to read. Then, my PLN in the form of @sthcrft posted this to amplify which in turn points to this article by the “London Group” which are related to the above. But also in the same period, the teaching staff have fixed up the link and pointed to this page. It includes this more recent reference

Cope, Bill and Mary Kalantzis, ‘Multiliteracies: New Literacies, New Learning’, Pedagogies: An International Journal, Vol.4, 2009, pp.164-195.

The activity suggests we answer

  • What are the two changes argued as most important in terms of how folk communicate?
    At the moment, it appears to be: multilingual and multimodal. Multilingual is the growth of different “languages” in professional, national, ethnic, subcultural and other contexts. Multimodal refers to ideas of linguistic, visual, audio, gestural and spatial models of meaning. i.e. moving beyond alphabetical literacy.
  • Do you agree/disagree with the basic argument for multiliteracies.
    Essentially yes.
  • Why?
    In large part because I have experienced the need to develop these multiliteracies in my own work within e-learning and have observed the negatives that arise from those folk that haven’t developed the same skills. Perhaps the best example are the multiple literacies involved in producing an academic conference paper, the accompanying powerpoint slides, giving the presentation and increasingly changes arising from handling the back channel during the presentation.

They do mention the two types of approach/”how”

  • The “techno-rational” (my term) focused on rules and good practice from literacy models; and
  • The progressive focused on “immersion or natural learning models”..situated practice.

In examining the why of education or literacies (a foundational argument) they present two loose categories

  • Rightish – focused on education as provide equity, the ability/opportunity to become what students like.
  • Leftish – seeing the goal of education as equality. A reduction of the gap between the haves and have-nots.

Both of which education fails to provide. And while it is not working, literacy continues to make these promises.

What is suggested as changing is the increasing importance allocated to education as part of the “knowledge economy”.

Okay, they now make this argument in more detail by looking at groups

  • Workers;
    Interesting argument about how “new capitalism” is doing away with the rigid hierarchies and top-down discourse of the old ways. Obviously not reflecting what is happening in some universities. Similarly, the old style study of the 3Rs. I think they are being a bit over-optimistic. The idea is that multiliteracies are meant to provide what is needed for the new capitalism. Ahh, they do pick this up a bit.
  • Citizens;
    Touching on the growth and now reduction of the “welfare” state and neoliberalism. Subsequent reduction in state funding, education as a market etc and the subsequent interest in simple solutions. Additional argument about the rise of self-governing structures in civil society. All leading to the idea that the nature of citzenship is changing.
  • People.
    A trend from a command society to a society of reflexivity. i.e. of people taking more active parts in activities such as gaming, etc…the prosumer thing probably fits here. Thought at the same time there is centalisation of ownership of media groups. “Diversity is pivotal in today’s life-worlds”.

The logic of multiliteracies is one that recognizes that meaning making is an active, transformative process, and a pedagogy based on that recognition is more likely to open up viable life courses for a world of change and diversity…When developing the key ideas for a pedagogy of multiliteracies a decade ago, we sought to replace static conceptions of representation such as “grammar” and “the literary canon” with a dynamic conception of representation as “design”


Kalantzis, M, B Cope, and A Harvey. 2003. Assessing multiliteracies and the new basics. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice 10, no. 1: 15-26.

Supportive Learning Environments: Week 1

So the practice is established, I am aiming to write a single blog post per week, per course as part of my studies to become a teacher. This post if for week 1 of the supportive learning environments course.

Managing diversity

The first 6 topics are around this topic. Everyone is different, the teachers job is “maximise learning gains for all your students” (sounds like what would be a very TFA sentiment), but it’s the task of other professionals to diagnose and treat. It appears the focus here is on gaining an in-depth understanding of one form of diversity.

Rights and responsibilities

Topic 1 is rights and responsibilities. Oh look, it’s a Word document.

Rights as in, who has a right to an education? What type of an education? Responsible, as in Who is responsible for providing that education?

My thoughts

Yet another course that starts with asking me what I think. I recognise that this is meant to be activating and making concrete my current knowledge about this topic. Just like good constructivists are meant to do. However, I do wonder about the efficiency and efficacy of this approach.

Are there academics reading our responses to ascertain how knowledge level in order to customise the course and its teaching? I doubt it. Will we be asked to reflect back on our answers at a later stage in the course? We’ll wait and see.

At least in this course, I feel they’ve done enough to briefly introduce the subject so that when we do answer, we are at least vaguely in the right ball park.

The questions

  1. Does everyone have the right to a primary education? A secondary education? Post-secondary?
    In general yes, but I’m sure folk can find examples where most people would be leaning towards now. e.g. does a serial killer have the right to a post-secondary education?
  2. Do students with high support needs because of physical and/or intellectual impairment have the right to be included in mainstream education?
    My initial thought would be now. They have a right to education. But whether that means being included in mainstream education, that should probably depend on the specifics. Then why am I somewhat troubled by that?
  3. Do students with gifts or talents have the right to be catered for in the education system or should parents seek private tuition?
    Again, they have a right to an education. What right they have to a state supported education is another question. But again it comes down to specifics.
  4. Do students in educational settings have the right to learn without interruption from disruptive students?
    To some extent yes, but that depends on the definition and source of disruption.

Am wondering if these are educational or political questions? There are always going to practical limits.

An introduction

Some Powerpoints – with notes – to give an overview.

Ahh, I see your going into academic definitional distinctions

  • Outcome right – essential to maintain a reasonable quality of life.
  • Opportunity right – a desired outcome, but not essential.

So, the Australian policy is primary and secondary as a right for all.

This is an interesting quote from Reid (1995, p14)

social justice in our society depends upon significant changes being made to the social and political structures that create and maintain injustice

in terms of there almost certainly being some interesting alternate perspectives on what structure do or don’t maintain justice and how to change it.

So, they have a right to education, but what type? Current intent is an inclusive education

Inclusion relates to the provision of appropriate educational experiences to meet the needs of all students in regular schools and classes

All students should have the right to feel accepted and valued by peers. That troubles me somewhat, is this regardless of their actions? Not who they are, but what they do. Perhaps this will be balanced by the responsibilities side of things.


  • Teachers (learning managers in the terminology adopted by the program) are responsible for: managing diversity and adopting positive classroom management strategies.
    Why does the term “manage” bother me in this context? There is a network of support to enable this.
  • Students – need to be expressed in terms of school and class rules.

Here’s a point that interests me

Research shows that middle class families form more proactive relationships with schools that those who are socially disadvantaged (Ashman & Elkins, 2005).

There is a strong chance (I hope) that I’ll be working in a school with a significant proportion of students from households from a lower socio-economic grouping. I see the role of parents as essential, how do/should a teacher connect with these parents?

Ashman and Elkins

There’s a first. I’m actually being directed to read one of the set texts by the course guide. Oh, it’s actually 2 chapters (60 pages) I have to read.

p96-97 argues that what the teacher does in a classroom is almost the bottom of a necessary “hierarchy”. The broader school and societal context, policies etc need to be conducive. The advice on inclusive teaching sounds very much like the constructivist advice, i.e. : engage with diversity of students; encourage active involvement; use assessment practices that target achievement of all; encourage mutual respect. Easy to say.

A few pages talking about what is available, then we get onto resources, including websites:

Discussion about how curriculum frameworks can be modified for student cohorts – e.g. indigenous, ESL etc.

So, the questions were meant to reflect upon

  • What definition of inclusion would you give?
    p6 “inclusion is about belonging, about being rightly placed within a group of people, and having the rights and qualities that characterise members of that particular group”.

    An inclusive school on the other-hand (p92) “bring together the human, physical, technological and education resources that provide opportunities that enable all students to achieve positive learning outcomes”.

  • What impacts arise from “positive discrimination”?
    Mmm, doesn’t seem to be mentioned in the chapter, not in the index….

Onto chapter 3, thinking about these questions

  • What is collaboration based upon?
  • Who else can provide assistance?
  • Why do some parents assume a position of subordination?
  • How essential is parental involvement in education?

Haven’t come across much on the questions yet, but the discussion about the evolution of systems from “special” schools through mainstreaming through to inclusion is troubling in that at no stage does it address the fact that they year-based progression factory model on which formal education is based is completely at odds with the type of flexibility and responsiveness that is required to provide “access for all”.

Well, I couldn’t find anything in chapter 3 that connected with those questions. Mmm.

Knowing names

And now to read

Dixon, M. & Sanjakdar, F. (2004). Holding the gaze: Teachers noticing and naming students. in Mary Dixon et al. (Eds.). Invitations and inspirations: Pathways to successful teaching. Carlton, VIC: Curriculum Corporation.

Knowing names is one of those tasks I fear I’ll be bad at. Should be interesting to read. Of course, it appears to be focused on a more abstract vision of naming (i.e. linked to labelling). The practical losing out to the theoretical?

This reading is to be framed in the context of the following questions

  • Why do we use labels?
    Without having read the reading, I would answer that to some extent it is human nature. It is my understanding that we are pattern-matching intelligences. i.e. we don’t see all the details we recognise patterns. Labels are largely identifiers of patterns. We respond based on what patterns we perceive. It helps deal with the complexity of the world.
  • What are the potentially negative effects of labelling?
    The authors argue that such labels “tell us little about the individual student and their learning abilities”. Agreed. It’s a drawback of categorisation/generalisation that you gain benefits from grouping many objects into the one group, but at the same time you ignore the specifics. Any abstraction (e.g. a map) tends to lose information, that loss of that information can have significant negative effects.

    From the authors, such categories “lower our sight, misdirect our vision and mislead out intentions. Labels are limiting”. The suggestion is that there are multiple ways of seeing a child, labels prevent employing those multiple ways.

  • What can be learned from Clarissa’s story?
    The danger of labels. The value of getting to know the student(s), questioning assumptions and engaging with their differences/interests.
  • What challenges and opportunities are implied in the notion of discovering the individuality of the students?
    Opportunities from above, challenges might include: the inherent diversity, the difficulty/workload this entails, the constraints of the system…

What do Ashman and Elkins say about labelling? – well, where did they say it? This question is not connected to anything we’ve done. It’s defined in chapter 6 (according to the Index) and the limitations in chapter 7. THey define it as the categorisation of people on the basis of a disability or impairment. Disadvantages include

  • it is divisive
  • Issues around people missing out on categorisation and hence support
  • student failure prior to categorisation
  • a focus on a deficit approach

There is more to do, but have decided to skip it as I need to get onto other work.

A comparison of schools – enabled by MySchools v2.0

The Australian government has launched version 2 of its MySchool website. The sites is meant to hold a profile of all Australian schools and enable people to perform comparisons. There has been some significant criticism of the data included in the profiles and find the site to be technically quite flawed (e.g. its been down and when you do get access the method you use to examine and compare data is poor). There has also been the first round of media stories using the availability of the data to draw conclusions (e.g. Elite schools don’t excel).

In about 6 weeks or so I’m going to be entering one of the local high schools as part of my studies to become a teacher. The following is a quick comparison of the three schools I included on my preference list. The aim is to see what data is on the MySchools site, but also to be better informed (which may not be the case depending on your view of the data on the site) about the schools.

I’ve selected a subset of the information for the purposes of this comparison. The ICSEA characteristic in the table stands for the “Index of Community and Socio-Educational Advantage” figure formulated specifically for MySchools. The average ICSEA value is meant to 1000. The “distribution of students” uses the same data to divide the school population into quarters (bottom, two middle and a top quarter).

Characteristic School #1 School #2 School #3
ICESA 881 1003 1037
Distribution of students (top down to bottom)
  • 1%
  • 4%
  • 7%
  • 88%
  • 17%
  • 28%
  • 24%
  • 31%
  • 49%
  • 28%
  • 9%
  • 14%
Enrolments 180 (8-12) 1146 (8-12) 1269 (k-12)
Indigenous students 21% 4% 1%
LOTE 3% 1% 4%
Attendance rate 87% 92% 96%
Post school destinations

  • University
  • Vocational study
  • Employment
  • Not specified

  • 8%
  • 38%
  • 31%
  • 33%

  • 27%
  • 33%
  • 37%
  • 3%

  • 38%
  • 28%
  • 26%
  • 8%

There are some significant differences in the schools. Perhaps the difference that is most telling is the “not specified” in post-school destinations. My School doesn’t include a category called “not specified”. They just provide the other 3 figures.

But 33% of the students at School #1 are, on completion of school, neither “learning nor earning”!

And that’s without asking questions about whether this is all students, just grade 12 etc.

A question (or two) on the similarity of “neuronal” and “networked” knowledge

To some extent this post is a cop out. Rather than take the time to looking into what, is for me, an important and interesting question I am going to post this for two reasons. First, to remind myself to follow up later. But mostly and second, to see if someone within my PLN (why do I find the use of that term somewhat troubling?) can offer some suggestions.

It is a little sad/ironic/funny that the reason I don’t feel I can follow up on this directly by myself is that I feel I’m somewhat behind in my formal studies and that an investigation of the following is not directly related to the requirements of that study. Even though the question arises from work associated with that study and more importantly, a comment on that work by Charles Nelson.

I am now wishing that I had had the persistence and/or motivation to stick with or start the various MOOCs on connectivism.

The question

The question is about connectivism. “A theory of learning” which has as an important component the idea that “a network with nodes and connections as a central metaphor for learning”. The Wikipedia article suggests that in connectivism “learning (is) the process of creating connections and developing a network”. Stephen Downes has said it this way

At its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks.

This metaphor/idea is attractive to me for at least two reasons:

  1. It has, what I understand to be, some significant coherence with what we know about the human brain and its network of neurons.
  2. It resonates quite strongly with my experience on the web, with social media, and also within organisations. i.e. that networks and connections offer a strong and useful insight into how folk/collections of folk learn.

A part of Charles’ comments include the following

Connections are being created at (least) two levels: in the brain of an individual and in the network of individual people. The knowledge that is in the brain (or body) is not the same as the knowledge distributed across people. The knowledge that is constructed, for radical constructivists (and Piaget), is in the brain.

One doesn’t traverse neurons of the brain, yet connectivists talk about the learning of the individual, which should refer to a neuronal network. Conversely, they don’t really talk about the knowledge of the network of individuals, but rather talk about the knowledge of a single individual as if it were at a network of individuals. Connectivists seem to conflate these two networks.

So, the questions to which I don’t know the answer to yet include

  • Does connectivism conflate or equate the knowledge/connections with these two levels (“neuronal” and “networked”)?
  • Regardless of whether the answer is yes or no, what are the implications that arise from that response?

There are probably a whole range of other questions embedded in these questions. Not to mention implications I’ve missed.

Pedagogical Content Knowledge: Week 1

This is the fourth of these weekly summaries/reflections – perhaps learning log is a better description – but only 1 is complete so far. Hopefully this will be #2. The course is titled Pedagogical Content Knowledge and appears to aim to use Schulman’s ideas of PCK to frame the necessary learning about both pedagogy and the content for the pre-service teachers in this course.


At least two of the courses I’m studying have eStudyGuides. A concept/approach I had a hand in during my previous working life. It’s interesting to be on the student side of the approach. The original intent was to provide a useful way of integrating the old print study guide approach (very 2nd generation DE) into online learning. My initial thoughts are that the integration of eStudyGuides with Moodle has not gone very far. The eStudyGuides are separate from the Moodle topic/weekly schedule, this reduces their effectiveness. Especially when there are other problems.

It is also interesting to see other students being highly pragmatic and focusing heavily on the assessment first and then working back and identifying what they really need to do. I’m currently taking the more naive approach and trying to work through the material. I wonder how long I will keep that up and what these observations mean for the efficacy of the learning design inherent in these courses.

Oh dear, the joys of e-learning, the network between my machine and the machine with the eStudyGuide is not playing nicely. Being very slow. Ahh, there it is (save as). Not quite, still downloading. Let’s look at the ToC. So there is a bit of a intro/background before the first module. Let’s start with that.

Your learning journey in PCK

It will involve “two complementary modes of learning”: resource-based learning and online collaborative learning. While I don’t have a problem with the theory of resource-based learning I am experiencing some issues around its implementation, the topic for another post.

Learning, teaching and pedagogy

Starting with some definitions before moving on, the provided definitions include

  • Learning – “The process of making meaning out of experience”.
    I imagine that could be debated depending on the epistemological perspective/learning theory you abide by. This would appear to be a very constructivst perspective.
  • Teaching – “process of guiding and facilitating learning”.
  • Pedagogy – “strategies, techniques and approaches or styles of instruction that teachers can use within learning contexts”.

Ahh, a learning task list – is this an example of an advanced organiser? – a clear statement of what we have to do, something that is missing from the other courses (at least based on my limited perusal of the other courses). It shall be interesting to see how well all this fits together. So lets use the learning task list here

  • Go to the Moodle site for this course and locate “Topic 1—Learning,
    teaching and pedagogy”

    A simple start, done.
  • Complete Activity 1–1(found in this Study Guide)
  • Go to the Moodle site and read the section “What is teaching?”
  • Complete Activities 1–2 and 1–3
  • Complete Reading 1–1: Effective teaching strategies (Part 1) (CRO)
  • Go to the Moodle site and read the section “What is pedagogy?”
  • Complete Activity 1–4
  • Complete Reading 1–2: What is pedagogy anyway?
  • Go to the Moodle site and read the section “Effective pedagogy”
  • Complete Activity 1–5
  • Go to the Moodle site and read the section “Pedagogical content
  • Complete Reading 1–3: Effective teaching strategies (Part 2) (CRO)
  • Complete Activity 1–6

Activity 1-1 – What is learning and teaching?

Before getting deeply into the content, we start with our own current understandings. You would expect that we might be asked to revisit this at the end of the course to see how our understandings have changed over time.

What is learning?

If I adopt a connectivist perspective learning might be defined as the formation of new connections/networks at a variety of levels. More specifically, according to the wikipedia article

Connectivism sees learning as the process of creating connections and developing a network.

Based on my limited and primitive understanding of brain science, this is a general description of how the brain actually works. i.e. it’s less abstract than the definition used above. You can’t make meaning out of experiences without creating new connections, neural and otherwise.

Ahh, Downes adds the additional insight that (emphasis added)

At its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks.

More of Downes’ writing connects with one of the activities performed in class yesterday and its implications. i.e.

In connectivism, a phrase like ‘constructing meaning’ makes no sense. Connections form naturally, through a process of association, and are not ‘constructed’ through some sort of intentional action.

The activity relied heavily on the proposition that our memories work by association.

What is teaching?

Have just come across (perhaps again) this argument/definition from George Siemens

when we make our learning transparent, we become teachers

From that perspective, again a very connectivist approach teaching becomes the act of making out learning transparent. Which of course links to the Downes slogan of “to teach is to model and demonstrate”.

Siemens again argues that teaching (the role of the teacher) is focused on influencing or shaping a network (perhaps networks?). He goes on to describe 7 roles teachers play

  1. Amplifying
  2. Curating
  3. Wayfinding and socially-driven sensemaking
  4. Aggregating
  5. Filtering
  6. Modelling
  7. Persistent presence

Within this course/program, perhaps even the current education paradigm, the focus is on constructivism. In such a paradigm, where learning is seen as constructing meaning, the role of teaching seems to become creating experiences that enable and encourage students to construct meaning.

As argued briefly above and previously I would probably argue that the concepts of “meaning” and “networks” have a lot of overlap/similarity. i.e. in constructivism teaching is influencing/shaping student meaning making, in connectivism teaching is influencing/shaping student network making (and traversal).

I wonder if Siemens’ 7 roles from above can be merged/overlapped with some more “traditional” constructivist approaches.

Lastly, you have the “standardised-testing” perspective of teaching which is increasingly prevalent in local schools. i.e. teaching is achieving the desired results on standardised tests by whatever means possible.

Teaching and not learning

I found this a somewhat difficult question to get my head around, which is perhaps somewhat ironic given what I think the question is getting. Here it is in full

Recall an experience where another person performed all kinds of teaching or training tasks designed to help you learn yet you were still unable to learn what it was that was hoped you would learn. Apply the distinction between “teaching” as a task term and “teaching” as an achievement term to your experience and list the activities or tasks the person performed designed to help you learn. Then try to identify the factors and variables that you believed prevented you from learning.

In this case, I’m sure I’m meant to be taught something, but am unsure what. Mostly because of the phrases “task term” and “achievement term”. I’m not really certain exactly what is expected of me because I am not confident that I am using the correct definition of these terms. I can probably extrapolate something, but I’m unsure that it will match the intent of the “teacher”.

So, obviously I’m going to use Google to discover some interpretations. Seems to goes back to Ryle (1949) and there is some description of that here and it’s expanded in Marshall (2009).

(Not to mention the fact that Google reveals that this is not a new question answered by education students

In fact, Marshall’s original 1975 paper argues that teaching is a task verb and does not have an achievement sense. Which I read as meaning that it is a on-going process. The purpose of his 2009 update is to suggest that the increasing neo-liberal discussion around education has introduced teaching as an achievement term.

And just when you think educational literature can reveal no new words – otiose – serving no practical purpose or result.

On skimming Marshall (2009) it would appear to go into areas quite a long way from what is required here. So, I’ll turn over a pragmatic leaf.

In terms of someone teaching me something, my memory/interpretation suggests the only times when they failed to teach me was when I wasn’t interested. This has usually occurred in organisational settings around policies, procedures and plans. That lack of interest may have arisen from lack of relevance of what was being taught; lack of quality of what was being taught or how; or, lack of “proximity” of my current situation. e.g. Marshall (2009) wasn’t going to teach me about his arguments because it delved into complexities that I currently have neither the time nor energy to engage with.

Another example, is that in my answer I haven’t really engaged with the “achievement/task” distinction in the question. While I think I see the point, I don’t think I’m prepared enough to answer that aspect. A large part of that is that I’ve probably spent far too much time on this question and have lost significant interest.

What does this suggest for your own teaching practice

In summary,

  • Connect with students existing knowledge and motivations, perhaps as the initial start of the network creation.
  • Teaching is then a practice – perhaps a task term, an on-going process – of influencing and shaping network formation.

I can see how this might work within an ICT course focused on programming, but within the confines of a mathematics course – especially a junior course in the context of NAPLAN tests – I can see it being more difficult. But still possible, perhaps.


Okay, go looking on the website for more “sub-questions”. Ahh, here is an explanation of the task and achievement sense of the word teaching. Just a little late perhaps? This other resource states

If you examine how ‘teaching’ is used most commonly it has two dominant uses. One, is where the focus is on what the teacher is doing (‘teaching’ in the task sense) and the other where the focus is on whether the teacher achieves or fails in achieving helping others learn (‘teaching’ in the achievement sense). This distinction helps explain how someone can claim to be teaching while nobody learns and paradoxically, how teaching seems to imply learning.

All I’m finding at the moment is some more content, expanding on the definitions of teaching, pedagogy etc. Makes me wonder why it’s not in the eStudyGuide.

Oh dear, there they are. The first one is simply an expanded version of the question I answered above in a Word document! Do I have to repeat much of the above? Don’t think I will.

What’s worse is that the directions back to the Moodle site are in different areas leading to some duplication/losing my way.

Activity 1-2: The teaching profession

So, the aim here is to determine whether or not teaching is a profession. Before completing this activity, I’ll suggest that there are at least two possible answers to this question: personal and societal (i.e. what is agreed by the majority). I’m not convinced that my personal answer to this question is all that important, it is the societal answer that is more important. Teaching is only a profession because most of society recognises it as so, not because teachers define a bunch of terms and meet them.

We’re meant to fill in a table expressing why/if we agree/disagree with a sequence of statements about teaching as a profession. In most cases, I’d argue that both apply to varying degrees. For example, one example of the YES/NO pairing is the following two

  • The teacher’s work is essentially intellectual in character, much like the work of doctors, lawyers, or engineers.
  • Teachers do not always use the available intellectual knowledge in the classroom, and some tend to resort to a rule–of–thumb approach more typical of a semi– or non-profession.

I could agree with both of those statements. I don’t think it is just teachers that resort to rule-of-thumb approaches. Most management decisions seem to be made that way. Human nature itself is biased towards repeating familiar patterns of activity, experts of all types fall trap to this from time to time.

There is another pair around a professional code of ethics.

  • Yes, teaching is a profession….A professional code of ethics has been developed, widely disseminated, and periodically revised.
  • No, it isn’t…..Codes of ethics are inadequately enforced in education.

I think you can replace teaching with just about any profession and agree to both those statements. In terms of enforcement, I’m sure when breaches are discovered and made visible, most professions enforce their code of ethics. I’d also suggest that for most professions the code of ethics doesn’t play a core part in everyday practice. I’d like see the research around how many members of a profession could recite the professions code of ethics or even know where to find it.

The remaining questions around around whether a profession is worthy, what’s the difference between being a professional etc, and will you be starting your teaching career as a professional?

Not going to bother with those.

Principles of teaching

So, there’s a table with a list of “principles of teaching” with three empty columns in which we are meant to indicate out believes related to these principles to the teaching of adults, adolescents and children. And if we like some space at the bottom to add some more principles since, as pointed out in the question, these principles may not represent the contemporary classroom.

I am wondering if my level of cynicism increases the longer I work on this material. Perhaps I should be breaking course study more?

I won’t do all three, but give some stream of consciousness responses

Teachers should not coerce, bully or intimidate learners.

Absolutely, the line between encouragement and its significantly more negative alter egos is something to be careful of.

Teachers should respect learners by not belittling or abusing them in any form.

Yes, but I still think there is a line here somewhere. Part of learning is “unlearning”/recognising that you don’t know everything. Which suggests a teacher may, for some students, have to engage in a bit of gentle “mindset adjustment” to enable change. This doesn’t mean belittle, but I can see circumstances where it could certainly be interpreted that way.

Teachers should try to improve the learner’s self–worth.

I’m cynical enough to balk slightly at this. Yes there is value in this. But just as earlier readings have emphasised that you can’t really force someone to learn, I’m not sure you can really force someone to have an increased sense of self-worth.

Teaching should be about collaboration with learners concerning the aims, purposes and methods of the learning situation wherever possible.

Nice aim, but in this era of outcomes-based assessment, standardised testing etc it’s not hard to pick up some mixed messages around this principle. The “where possible” modifier could be used quite significantly.

Teaching should be about praxis.

I find it interesting that praxis hasn’t been introduced in this program yet, and from my understanding its meaning isn’t widely known and multiple in nature. e.g. is it meant here in terms of Kolb or Friere (or some other perspective)? I like both of Kolb or Friere’s definition (a la Wikipedia).

Learners should be encouraged to reflect on their personal experiences as a means to their educational development.

Remember, we’re not coercing, bullying or intimidating people. In addition, if we’re collaborating with learners about the methods of the learning situation, shouldn’t they be given the choice. That said, my affinity for praxis and connectivism suggest that I agree with this, however, I also recognise the difficulty of encouraging students (of varying ages) to effectively reflect on their experiences.

Teaching should foster critical minds so that learners realise that much of knowledge, values, beliefs and behaviours are socially constructed.

Yes, but I shudder slightly at some of what gets accepted under this principle. Social constructivism can be taken too far. There is a real world.

Teaching should be both informed and open–ended. Teachers should know enough to facilitate learning and teachers should also be honest about what they do not know and use this as an opportunity to learn with the learners.

Well, I wouldn’t be much of a “connectivist” if I didn’t agree.

Principles of effective pedagogy

We’re asked to generate our own, I’ll stick with what I know.

I find Chickering and Gamson’s 7 principles for good practice in good education a reasonable guide. It’s one I’ve used before.

The other I don’t mind at the moment is Downes – Teaching is to model and demonstrate, learning is to practice and reflect.


The aim here is to complete a “PCK diagram” using one of the curriculum specifications that teachers in the glorious state of Queensland are meant to draw upon. Of course, based on what I remember seeing, there really hasn’t been a good explanation of the diagram. What am I missing?

Ahh, that’s because there’s another reading, located in another place from the eStudyGuide I’ve been working through. Should it really be this hard to work through a sequential collection of activities and readings?

General PCK/KLAs Domain specific PCK Topic specific PCK
These match the 8 main essential learnings (e.g. Years 1-9 Match “Knowledge and understanding” within specific ELs The dot points within a specific area of knowledge
Mathematics (1-9)
  • Number
  • Algebra
  • Measurement
  • Chance and data
  • Space
  • Representation of rational numbers
  • Applications of rational numbers to describe and solve problems
  • Representation of numbers of the real number line.
  • Use of decimal approximations of irrational numbers in geometric contexts
  • Formation of upper and lower boundaries for estimations.
  • Solving problems involving ratinal, irrational numbers, simple powers, square roots and conventions of four operations.
  • Financial decisions based on analysis of benefits and consequences of cash, credit and debit transactions.
  • Understanding the GST.

Reading 1-1: Effective teaching strategies

And there’s more. Reflections on pp 1-7 of

Killen, R. (2003). Effective teaching strategies: Lessons from research and practice (3rd ed.). South Melbourne, VIC: Thomson Social Sciences Press.

Oh dear, it looks like the OCR during scanning of the hard-copy had some problems, of is now some funny symbol and other examples exist.

Major reviews of “good teaching” all conclude no single teaching strategy is effective all the time for all learners. Because learning is complex due to: learners’ attitudes, abilities and learning styles, teachers’ beliefs, knowledge and abilities, and learning context. The best that can be concluded

effective instruction requires active involvement of learners and an emphasis on academic achievement

Sounds very Chickering & Gamson 7 principles to me.

Learning is more effective if students are motivated, if learning is interesting, enjoyable and challenging. Some general guidelines

  • provoke curiorsity.
  • appropriate to learners’ academic & social development
  • related to learners’ everyday experience
  • learners need to experience success.
  • teachers should take into account knowledge, skills and attitudes learners bring to the classroom (isn’t this repeating #2 and #3?)
  • teachers …account diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds
  • Teachers should emphasise the importance of concepts and principles, rather than rote learning.

There is an increasing sense of repetition here.

Onto learning styles. Apparently Sternberg (1997) claims that differences in ability only account for about 20% of variation in learner performance. Suggesting that it is variation in learning style that plays a part.

The need for reflective practice for improving teaching/being a good teacher.

Onto planning, after deciding on a strategy (by using a long list of questions) time to develop a lesson plan.

Talking about decorating the classroom, making it a visual space.

Okay, going on a page explaining what is understanding by quoting a few folk and their definitions.

Yep, we’re into the outcomes-based education mode. “The first step (emphasis in original) is to describe what it is that you want the students to understand”.

Ahh, not very “Biggsian”. The second step is to select content. Biggs would suggest that the second step is to identify the activities that the students will have to perform in order to demonstrate their understanding.

This reading draws on “Project Zero” from Harvard’s idea of “generative topics” – “issues, themes and ideas that provide depth, significance, connections and a variety of perspectives to support students’ development of powerful understanding”.

Identifies four types of knowledge required for teaching effectively

  1. knowledge of your subject;
  2. knowledge of how students learn;
  3. general pedagogical knowledge;
  4. PCK a la Schulman.

Reading 1-2: What is pedagogy anyway?


Smith, T. and Lowrie, T. What is ‘pedagogy’ anyway? [online]. Practically Primary; v.7 n.3 p.6-9; October 2002

“pedagogy is to talk of the appropriate ways we interact with each other as teachers and learners”. Involves the relational, emotional, moral and personal dimensions. i.e. effective teaching and learning must consider affective, cognitive and social factors.

“assessment becomes a participatory event ‘shared with’ learners throughout the learning process, rather than something that is ‘done to’ learners during separate events” What? Like NAPLAN tests?

I wish the authors would get to the point.

The basic point is that thinking about pedagogy as “creating opportunities for constructive and enlightening conversations”. i.e. in maths getting students to write and talk more about their understanding. Perhaps some thought should be given to ensuring that the conversations are succinct.


Marshall, J.D. 2009. Revisiting the Task/Achievement Analysis of Teaching in Neo-Liberal Times. Educational Philosophy and Theory 41, no. 1: 79-90.

A PMI of constructivism

The following documents some reflection on output of a learning task associated with a course on ICTs for Learning Design I’m currently taking.

The task is to create a PMI of a reading around constructivism.

A PMI “is a scaffolding thinking routine that supports analysis of a reading” and also an acronym

  1. P – stands for Plus and is where we’re meant to list the benefits of the ideas within the reading.
  2. M – stands for Minues and not surprisingly is for the dangers/problems.
  3. I – is for Interestings.

Or at least I was going to start this before I discovered that the network connection and/or servers at the host university are unavailable.

Ahh, it’s back now. The reading is a workshop on Constructivism as a paradigm for teaching and learning. The following starts with the PMI analysis and is followed by a summary/reflection of the reading.


Draw on some great ideas for the PMI from this presentation on slideshare. It draws heavily on Gordon (2009), however the presentation does appear to mis-reference some of the quotes, i.e. it’s not Gordon saying it, but Gordon citing others.


  • A step towards reality/usefulness.
    i.e. I think constructivism offers an abstraction that is closer to reality than some prior approaches, in terms of how learning works. As a result it is more useful for teachers.


Many of the minuses I identify are more related to the poor implementation or understanding of the constructivist paradigm, more so than inherent to the paradigm itself.

  • Is based on the assumption of knowledge as being grounded in language and logic.
    If you adopt a connectivism/connectionist perspective, this is not what knowledge is.
  • There are too many versions, which do you implement in class?
    Gordon (2009, p 40) cites Phillips (1995)

    because there are so many versions of constructivism, with important overlaps but also with major differences, it is difficult to see the forest for the trees

    Gordon suggests “there is an enormous body of work in education on constructivism that tends to be fragmented and uncritical”.

  • Most constructivist theories are not educational theories.
    Gordon (2009, p 41) quotes Davis and Sumara (2002)

    Theories developed in
    psychology, sociology, cultural studies or elsewhere cannot be unproblematically
    transplanted into the field of education. As with subject-centered constructivisms,
    social constructivist discourses speak to, but are not necessarily fitted or aligned
    with, the concerns and projects of education

  • It can be inefficient and/or inappropriate for some sets of learners.
    Mark Guzdial, a professor in Computer Science from the US, touches on this in this blog post. One of his points is raised in the following

    I attended talks at education conferences lately where the speaker announces that “Lectures don’t work” and proceeds to engage the audience in some form of active learning, like small group discussion. I hate that. I am a good learner. I take careful notes, I review them and look up interesting ideas and referenced papers later, and if the lecture really captured my attention, I will blog on the lecture later to summarize it. I take a multi-hour trip to attend a conference and hear this speaker, and now I have to talk to whatever dude happens to be sitting next to me? If you recognize that the complete sentence is “Lectures don’t work…for inexperienced or lazy learners,” then you realize that using “active learning” with professionals at a formal conference is insulting to your audience. You are assuming that they can’t learn on their own, without your scaffolding.

    Kroesbergen et al (2004) found that constructivist approaches to mathematics instruction may not be effective for low-achieving students.

  • Use of concepts that can be misunderstood.
    For example, when some folk see actively construct meaning it suggests that the student is moving around, building something, engaged in some visible activity. This often leads to the situation where a student is listening to an explanation is not seen as actively constructing meaning. This is a minus because just sometimes, listening is a good way to learn.
  • The understanding that “collaboration” means group work where members are inter-dependent on each other.
    Stephen Downes makes the distinction between
    groups and networks
    . My impression of most constructivism is that it assumes collaboration must be in groups and not networks. Not to mention the fact that a lot of group work can be a waste of time.

  • There is no objective knowledge.
    This is a more abstract minus, but can still be a minus nonetheless…….epistemology…concrete example. An example of this is perhaps some of the activities around the Literacy and Numeracy course (some of the other courses are demonstrate some similar tendencies) in the residential school. We were asked various questions about our understanding of literacy and numeracy, some examples from our experience. But without first identifying a common definition of literacy and numeracy, even a fairly rough and ready definition. I felt that this apparent attempt to allow us to construct a definition to be less efficient. I think a quick definition, widely acknowledged as a work in progress, would have helped improve the learning.
  • The challenge to students conceptions of learning and teaching.
    Constructivism is based on the transformation of the teacher’s role from pourer of knowledge into students into encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning. This transformation requires a significant challenge for some students who have become comfortable and familiar with the traditional approaches to learning. “Your the teacher, tell us what to do”, might a familiar refrain. Initially, constructivism can be a significant challenge to students. A challenge to overcome, but a minus still the same. Depending on the prior learning experiences of the students, the bigger the minus.
  • The dissonance between the characteristics of constructivism and some of the fundamental assumptions of the education system.
    According to the reading, constructivism assumes that “Pursuit of student questions and interests” is valued more than “strict adherence to fixed curriculum”. And yet through essential learnings (at the moment) and the national curriculum (in the near future) the school curriculum is fixed and adherence is expected. Somewhat similarly, a constructivist perspective suggests that tests aren’t great tools for assessment, and yet with NAPLAN tests are becoming more important to teachers, not less.

    This is not to suggest that there isn’t room for constructivism within the education system, but it is to suggest that there is a dissonance between the fundamental assumptions of the education system as the constructivist paradigm. This dissonance is going to cause problems for teachers and students trying to use a constructivist paradigm within the existing education system.


The interesting points I took from this reading include

  • How to view technology.

    I think we need to ask a different question. I think the question is, how can students use technology to answer the questions that they are posing for themselves

  • The irony of a document explaining constructivism using a very non-constructivist design.
    The very nature of the medium – a web site that folk come to at odd times – means that a constructivist approach probably wouldn’t have worked all that well. But I wonder if other factors were involved. I’m also wondering how you might re-design this resource using a constructivist or connectivist approach.

Summary of the reading

What is constructivism?

Basically a theory about how people learn. A theory that people actively construct their own knowledge by reconciling it with what they currently know. For this to occur, questions must be asked, explored and what we know assessed.

Can point to teaching practices

  • more active techniques (e.g. experiments, real-world problem solving).
  • understanding students’ pre-existing conceptions and guiding activity to address and build on them.
  • continuously encourage students to assess the activity in terms of it helping them to gain understanding, helping students to become expert learners

There is still a need for an active role for a teacher and expert knowledge. But it becomes a role focused on – to use the old slogan – being a guide on the side, rather than a sage on the stage.

The aim is not for the student to reinvent the wheel, but to trigger their curiosity about how things work.

At this stage, the reading says the best way to understand constructivism is to see it in action. I find it somewhat ironic that this reading is not designed (at least so far) based on a constructivist approach.

How does it differ

Teacher role transforms from “sage on stage” (pourer of knowledge into students) into “guide on the side” (encouraging students to be actively involved in their learning).

And so comes a table summarising differences

Traditional classroom Constructivist classroom
Curriculum begins with the parts of the whole. Emphasizes basic skills. Curriculum emphasizes big concepts, beginning with the whole and expanding to include the parts.
Strict adherence to fixed curriculum is highly valued. Pursuit of student questions and interests is valued.
Materials are primarily textbooks and workbooks. Materials include primary sources of material and manipulative materials.
Learning is based on repetition. Learning is interactive, building on what the student already knows.
Teachers disseminate information to students; students are recipients of knowledge. Teachers have a dialogue with students, helping students construct their own knowledge.
Teacher’s role is directive, rooted in authority. Teacher’s role is interactive, rooted in negotiation.
Assessment is through testing, correct answers. Assessment includes student works, observations, and points of view, as well as tests. Process is as important as product.
Knowledge is seen as inert. Knowledge is seen as dynamic, ever changing with our experiences.
Students work primarily alone. Students work primarily in groups.

Interesting to see that some of the assumptions of the traditional classroom are becoming entrenched in the education sector. e.g. testing, adherence to a fixed curriculum.

What does it have to do with my classroom?

Suggests that in a constructivist classroom, learning is

  • Constructed.
    I don’t find the description and example given for “constructed” to be all that compelling. The description is that learners are not blank slates, they come with knowledge that is the raw material for the new knowledge they will create. I assume the suggestion is that they construct the new knowledge from their old knowledge.

    This seems to miss the role of experiences and new insights.

  • Active.
    Learning requires the students’ full participation. Students help set their own goals and means of assessment. Students are asked to question.
  • Collaborative.
    i.e. with others, the reading is not real strong on the benefits of this, but it appears mostly to do with diversity of perspectives. But I’m assuming that the need to explain and justify one’s perspective with others would also be a strong benefit arising from collaboration. It’s easy to fool yourself you understand something, only to struggle to explain it to someone else.
  • Inquiry-based.
    i.e. problem solving, asking questions.
  • Evolving.
    The student will come across insight that doesn’t match existing knowledge, her knowledge will change as time goes by.

Expert interview

The resource moves onto an interview with an expert. Nice that it has both video and the transcripts. But the implementation as lots of pop-ups is annoying.

Starts with the idea that constructivism is a philosophy/epistemology, not a set of techniques. Not getting much out of the other answers, some are not that great.

However, there’s a pointer to some Dutch work around constructivism in mathematics, that might be interesting. Of course doing a quick Google search takes me to Kroesbergen et al (2004) which reports on an in-depth comparison of smallgroup constructivist and explicit mathematics instruction, the findings

Results showed that the math performance of students in the explicit instruction condition improved significantly more than that of students in the constructivist condition, and the performance of students in both experimental conditions improved significantly more than that of students in the control condition. Only a few effects on motivation were found. We therefore concluded that recent reforms in mathematics instruction requiring students to construct their own knowledge may not be effective for low-achieving students.

Ahh, this quote about the difference between constructivism and the traditional classroom raises some dissonance with what we’re being taught

In a traditional setting, the teacher takes charge of a lot of the intellectual work in that classroom. The teacher plans the scope and sequence, pre-synthesizes and prepackages a lot of the learning. In the constuctivist classroom, the student is in charge of that packaging.

I find this response interesting, in answering the question “what other things ought to happen to bring the promise of technology to constructivism” the answer given is

I think we need to ask a different question. I think the question is, how can students use technology to answer the questions that they are posing for themselves

What strikes me as interesting is how the assumptions/principles of the theoretical paradigm becomes the driver. If connectivism were the paradigm of choice then the question becomes how does technology help the learner build and traverse networks.

And on standardised tests etc.

The focus on test scores has done more to narrow curriculum, and limit students’ opportunities for growth and development than have those test scores been an indicator of success.

History of constructivism and its evolution

A link is established to Socratic dialogue, Piaget and Dewey.

Has a brief background to Piaget which describes his conclusions about how knowledge grows as

Piaget concluded that humans learn through the construction of progressively complex logical structures, from infancy through to adulthood.

This is where connectivism diverges from constructivism, as Downes argues

Where connectivism differs from those theories, I would argue, is that connectivism denies that knowledge is propositional. That is to say, these other theories are ‘cognitivist’, in the sense that they depict knowledge and learning as being grounded in language and logic.

Vygotsky, Bruner and Ausbel get a mention. Ahh, interesting Papert’s name crops up, as does Bransford and Schank (who is particularly strong on the notion that current educational systems are not constructivist in nature). The little popup on Schank also reveals that he is opposed to the notion of a national curriculum.

Critical perspectives

Three are given

  1. It only works for learners with outstanding teachers, committed parents, etc – not for the disadvantaged.
  2. Social constructivism leads to “group think”. The tyranny of the majority, which links to my concerns around the over-use of groups, rather than networks, when thinking about collaboration.
  3. Little hard evidence that it works and indeed there are some where constructivist classrooms lag behind others in basic skills.

Of course, the response the last point is that the existing system values things which constructivism doesn’t. i.e. rote learning etc.

Benefits of constructivism

The list

  • Children learn more when active, rather than passive.
  • Education is best when focused on thinking and understanding, not rote memorisation. Constructivism is about thinking and understanding.
  • Constructivist learning is transferable.
  • students own the learning, it engages with them, they are more likely to retain and transfer what they learn.
  • Engages students through real-world problems.
  • Promotes social and communication skills.

Rather grand claims, that appear to be somewhat unsupported.


Gordon, M. 2009. Toward a pragmatic discourse of constructivism: Reflections on lessons from practice. Educational Studies 45, no. 1: 39-58.

Kroesbergen, E.H., J.E.H. Van Luit, and C.J.M. Maas. 2004. Effectiveness of Explicit and Constructivist Mathematics Instruction for Low-Achieving Students in the Netherlands. The Elementary School Journal 104, no. 3: 233-251. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3202951.

The dissonance between the constructivist paradigm and the implementation of institutional e-learning

This post is sparked by a combination of recent personal experience and recent discussions on the interweb. As part of current studies I’m reading a lot about e-learning theories, especially constructivism, and seeing the student perspective of the reality of institutional e-learning/resource-based learning. At the same time the last couple of weeks have seen various media articles, blog posts and commentaries around e-learning. I’ll point to a few of these below, but I’ll probably miss a few. Most have been highlighting or commenting upon the significant difference between what is known about good learning and teaching (i.e. something along the lines of constructivist) and what is being done/what academics expect to do.

It’s my argument that there exists a dissonance between the philosophical underpinnings expected of good teaching and learning and the philosophical underpinnings of how universities attempt to encourage and enable good teaching and learning, especially in e-learning. In terms of e-learning, I’m going to argue that this dissonance is enhanced by the lack of flexibility inherent in the tools, policies, and procedures being used to implement it.

This is a first attempt (and not a great one – to many diversions) to make this argument in this form, but it certainly has strong resonances with a lot of my earlier posts and the work in my thesis (which I’d argue describes an attempt to significantly reduce this dissonance).

What am I talking about

Via @sthcrft came this animation of a common situation experienced by most educational developers/curriculum designers (i.e. the folk employed by universities to help academics “get online”). The page is down at the moment, but it basically shows the academic clearly demonstrating a lack of critical insight into the benefits and best approaches for “going online”.

Ahh, here’s the animation from YouTube

Then, this time from @marksmithers, it is time for reality to intrude in the form of this brilliant piece of journalism from the Age newspaper about how online is killing uni life. What was even sadder than the premise of the article were some of the quotes from academics. For example, the academic who described as saying something along the lines of “it took a full day to modify a lecture for use online and two hours to adapt a PowerPoint presentation” and following that up with this beauty

The beauty of a lecture is that you can actually influence people, drag them in … Clearly you can’t do that online.

It’s not surprising that those of us who have invested a bit more time and energy into thinking about learning, teaching and “getting online” are somewhat aghast at perspectives like this.

@markdrechsler picks up on this in a blog post which includes the following presentation that nicely illustrates the gap between the principles embodied within tools such as Moodle and Mahara and the perspectives of some (most?) academics (Aside: An ex-colleague Ken completed a project where he compared his espoused theories of teaching with what analytics revealed about his use of an LMS. Expanding this more broadly would be really interesting)

Mark then wonders

if the tensions between the theoretical need and the brutal reality will mean that we are heading for a significant showdown in tools like Moodle between where teaching practice should (according to Those Who Know Better) be heading, particularly in Higher Education, and where many would prefer it to remain.

It’s this tension I’m trying to get at, its origins and one perspective that might be useful in addressing it.

A blog post from @marksmithers touches on one of the reasons why it is important to bridge this gap. i.e. most university-based e-learning is crap.

The solution is part of the problem

At one institution I know (and I’m certain this practice is being considered and/or implemented at other institutions) the solution was “consistency” or a minimum course presence. i.e. some brains-trust got together decided what was important for a “quality student learning experience” and specified that all courses should meet that minimum.

To ensure that this standard was met, significant resourcing and scaffolding was put in place. i.e. academics were expected to manually construct their course sites to meet this standard and then the course moderator would complete a computer-based checklist to specify that the course site complied with that standard.

If you know anything about academics I’m sure you can guess what happened. Many academics expended effort attempting to meet the standard but when problems or other constraints intervened, they did deals with the moderators to tick all the boxes. I know that there was at least one head of school who, recognising the reality of the situation, agreed that this was okay.

This is not constructivism

I happen to be reading an online resource on constructivism that includes this page which has a nice table explaining the difference between a traditional classroom and a constructivist classroom.

For the rest of this post I’m going to go meta. i.e. I’m going to use the table and the idea of learning paradigms not to talk about the learning within a particular course or classroom (i.e. what the academics are doing). Instead, I’m going to use it to examine what is being done within the institutional context by managers, processes and systems to enable and courage academics to learn more about good learning and teaching.

As stated above, my argument is that while expecting learning and teaching from academics that is more constructivist in nature. The managers, processes and systems being used are more objectivist/behaviourist/traditional in nature and as a result are limiting the amount of learning about learning academics engage in.

Let’s go through the table.

Assumption number 2 of a “traditional” classroom

Strict adherence to fixed curriculum is highly valued.

At the above example institution a strict adherence to the minimum standards is what was valued. Any movement way from that standard was seen as problematic, even those with good reason. This reduces the ability for academics to experiment, to learn. i.e. it doesn’t value assumption #2 of a constructivist classroom

Pursuit of student questions and interests is valued.

Associated with this is the idea that in constructivism

Teachers have a dialogue with students, helping students construct their own knowledge.

How well do the systems, processes and policies around e-learning within a university encourage and enable educational developers to have a dialogue with the academic staff to help them construct their own knowledge?

Does the lack of knowledge around good learning and teaching evidenced in the resources from the above section say more about the limitations of the academics or the nature of a system that does not seek to actively engage in a dialogue with them?

Assumption #6 of a constructivist classroom

Teacher’s role is interactive, rooted in negotiation.

Replace teacher with some of the following terms and ask yourself if the focus is on interaction and negotiation: Moodle, Mahara, the Information Technology Division, university policies, and perspectives of senior management.

As I’ve argued before, the nature of a technology like an LMS (an enterprise information system) and the governance and support processes used to implement that technology within an institution are directly the opposite of interaction and negotiation. The aim of the helpdesk for an LMS is primarily focused on helping people use what is already inherent in the LMS, not on negotiating about how the LMS works or the services it provides. That’s a completely different set of processes that is overly teleological and can really only ever engage in interaction and negotiations at the strategic level. There’s much more to say here, but for another time.

The broader issues

These limitations move beyond the LMS and e-learning and extend to learning and teaching. For all the typical reasons associated with globalisation and other factors, universities are increasingly being managed as businesses. i.e. a techno-rational perspective of management dominantes. Here’s a quick summary of “techno-rational” from part of my thesis

A techno-rational discourse seeks the use of quantitative data and measurement to ensure accountability (Kappler 2004). Enterprise systems are an extreme application of a techno-rational perspective (Dillard and Yuthas 2006). A techno-rational approach to management sees it as a scientifically rational and efficient application of neutral knowledge on a par with the natural sciences (Morgan 1992). It is a school of through aimed at marginalizing the role of intuitive thinking through the use of analytical tools and technical solutions (Vanharanta and Easton 2009).

(I have to include it here because I think I ended up cutting it from the final version of the thesis).

For me, the techno-rational approach to management has very similar epistemological foundations as the “traditional classroom”. It assumes there is objective, quantifiable knowledge and that we can not only find it but specify it in the form of minimum course standards. This is important to management because of accountability reasons, but mainly because they don’t have time in a 5 year contract position to engage in interaction and negotiation with academics about how to improve their learning and teaching. It’s simpler just to tell the silly buggers what to do and expect them to do it.

It’s this techno-rational view that sees academics as inter-changeable parts of the machine that is the university. It’s a view that doesn’t see the value of a “constructivist approach” to the governance, support and implementation of an e-learning system.

Hence, it is no surprise to me that there is a gap between what academics understand and what the experts expect. The academics are working in a system that doesn’t encourage nor enable them to learn. Those that do, do it in spite of the system, not because of it.

So, how do you change this. Well, chapter 5 of <a href="my thesis outlines one approach. It’s not the solution, but then that’s the point of a constructivist perspective.

On learning theory paradigms

I should point out that I’d probably claim to be leaning more towards connectivism as a learning theory/paradigm and I would probably describe the theory for e-learning implementation in my thesis as arising from that paradigm, rather than constructivism. But constructivism is what I was reading today and had a pointer to the resource. In addition, earlier this week I explained how I thought – that from a certain point of view – there are some connections between the two.