Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Finland’s greatest export isn’t education; it’s Angry Birds!

Lots of talk about serious games and games in learning. Some simply add ‘scores’ or ‘lives’ to their e-learning and call it gamification. But much of it is from people with limited knowledge of the games industry producing educational apps by the dozen, most of which are never used. This is a look at one of the world’s most successful games to see what magic dust we can glean from games in learning. My choice for a game that teaches us real lessons in learning is Angry Birds, and although I’m critical of putting Finland on a pedestal ineducation, this is arguably Finland’s greatest ever export.
So what exactly made it more popular than Mickey Mouse?
1. Flying start
You can learn to pay the game in seconds. All you need is your finger to operate the catapult – it’s that easy. That’s something most teachers and educators can learn from; no long sign-in process, none of those boring learning objectivesat the start or long dull introductions on the history of the subject. Jump right in, grab them by the throat and get the party started.
2. Play is easy
Then playing is easy. As games designers and players often say – it’s all in the ‘gameplay’. It’s addictive, has dozens and dozens of levels, is unbelievably simple to use yet has complexity under the hood that makes it different as you progress. This ‘ease of use’ did not come easily. It took a team of highly specialized experts, lots of user feedback and rigour in design. One of the problems with learning content is that the teams are weak, user feedback rarely sought and the user interface woefully inadequate.
3. Long or short bursts
Learning is too often delivered in overlong, sometimes marathon sessions – lectures, hours of e-learning, semester long MOOCs. Angry Birds can be played for less than a a minute, a few minutes, ten minutes, an hour or longer. It’s up to you. In learning we need to take advantage of those breaks and irregular slots for learning – on the train, on the plane, in the car, waiting, when we’re bored. Learning needs to be both short and long-form.
4. Constructive failure
By far the most interesting feature of games, in terms of learning (something that is often absent or shunned in learning practice) is ‘failure’. Most games have catastrophic failure (you die) but this is the precisely the key driver. You respawn or start again on that same level. You’re not allowed to move on too quickly, which is all too common in learning and leads to permanent and catastrophic failure in learners, especially in subjects like maths, where knowing one thing is a necessary condition for knowing another. Constructive, not destructive, recoverable failure should be built into all learning experiences
5. Repeats within levels
Games designers have been applying the Zone of Proximal Development with more rigour and regularity than most learning professionals for decades, and they’ve never heard of Vygotsky. They know that levels have to both ‘be’ and ‘feel’ achievable. As soon as game players feel that they are being ‘punished’, the game is up. They must know that failure can be overcome. You must ‘want’ to try again. A mark is never final, only a temporary marker on the way to further success. That’s the difference between marking and game scores. . Marking is such a destructive force in learning – it acts as an end-point, even for those that succeed – smart people stop at 80%, those who score badly get demoralized, fail and stop completely. This is the opposite of what happens in games.
6. User feedback
Rovio had tons of user feedback taken from behind glass screens, where users voiced what they liked, didn’t like, found difficult, found easy, excited them, bored them. How often does teaching. lectures or e-learning get trialed with a clear process for harvesting the results of that trial through market research? Rarely. I used to run an e-learning test lab ‘Epicentre’ that tested usability. It is something that needs budget, a rigorous process that needs real expertise.
7. Smarts under the hood
All the work is done by the engine, which is largely invisible to the user. There’s a physics module, that isn’t quite real physics but does all of the ballistic movements and collision software. Everything is finely calibrated and finessed to produce a seamless gameplay, largely through smart software. This is the way online learning is going as AI and adaptive learning come into play.
8. Experienced team
Rovio had completed 50 odd games before Angry Birds. This wasn’t some creative epiphany. It was an experienced company with loads of design, technical and games design expertise. Sure there was the inspirational act of first designing the characters (they’re irresistibly cute) but it was mostly the sweat, blood and tears of incrementally producing a game that led to success. There were no short-cuts. People often forget that good learning content also requires a team of people – project manager, designer, writer, graphic designer, audio engineer, developer, tester.
9. Business experience
These guys didn’t pop up from nowhere. They were in the ‘business’ of games design and had solid experience in the marketing and selling of those games. They had put in the time. Far too many apps are being created by far too many ‘get rich quick’ types or ‘grant chasers’. What you need is experience, a good team and relentless focus, sensitive to users needs.
10. Brands matter
These guys were calculating with their brand. It wasn’t called ‘Catapult’ but took the intriguing title ‘Angry Birds” and a ton of marketing expertise went into their strategy for selling. They hired a professional marketing company, in the UK, and now don’t see themselves as a games company, preferring the term media or brand builders. So many courses and learning experiences are poorly branded, if branded at all.
We have a lot to learn from the games world in learning but it is often not what we think. Games aren’t always wise in learning as they can be a distraction from the actual learning, create nothing more than extra cognitive effort, put people off, be costly or simply end up being a poor game, poor learning or both. On the other hand, learning needs to embrace quick starts, ease of use, short/longer use, constructive failure and competence levels. Learning designers, especially in online learning, have to work with smarter software, leverage experience, see this as a business and think also in terms of marketing and brands. That’s what gamification brings to the screen.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

7 reasons: Why we need to kill boring ‘learning objectives’!

At the end of this course you will….” zzzzzzzzz……. How to kill learning before it has even started. Imagine if every movie started with a list of objectives; “in this film you will watch the process of a ship sail from Southampton, witness the catastrophic effect of icebergs on shipping, witness death at sea but understand that romance will be provided to keep you engaged”. Imagine Abraham Lincoln listing his objectives before delivering the Gettysburg Address. Imagine each episode of Breaking Bad starting with its objectives. It makes NO sense.
1. First impressions matter
We know that people make very quick judgments of other people, often in a matter of seconds, and if you as a teacher are forced to do this prescriptive, unnatural act before you get a chance to put yourself across as an expert, practitioner and teacher, you will have got off to the worst possible start. To force teachers and lecturers to state learning objectives at the start of every session is to be over-prescriptive.
2. False start
Anyone who knows anything about speaking, writing for TV or film, designing web sites or games or any form of content that needs to keep an audience engaged, knows that immediate engagement matters. If those first impressions are a bureaucratic list of objectives, framed in teacher or training-speak, you’ll have set the wrong dull tone. It’s a behaviourist approach at odds with what we know about motivation, engagement and attention.
3. Attention killer
Let's take just one example, the phenomenon of arousal or attention. Arouse people at the start and they will remember more. Yet if the first experience many learners have is a detailed registration procedure followed by a dull list of learning objectives, attention is more likely to fall than rise. There is a strong argument for emotional engagement at the start of the learning experience, not a jargon-like list of objectives.
4. Gagne misapplied
There’s always a villain and in this case it’s Gagne. ‘Stating the objectives’ was the second in his nine steps of instruction. Unfortunately few remember that the first step was ‘Gaining attention’ THEN ‘Stating objectives’. Most start by stating objectives putting the second step first. In any case, I have serious doubts about including the second step at all. Indeed, this nine-step approach, as I have previously stated, tends to produce formulaic, often uninspiring and over-long courses.
5. Over-prescriptive behaviourism
It is important that teachers come across in a way that they feel comfortable with. Education and training has a habit of using theory, in this case 50-year-old theory, that simply refuses to budge and gets fossilized into prescriptive rules that constrict teaching and learning. The problem with this older theory is that it came when both the theorists and teacher-training world was dominated by behaviourism. It’s time we moved on.
6. Little learning a dangerous thing
Even if this were a good practice, it’s not easy and few have the experience to write objectives well. They end up being short and imprecise lists full of fuzzy terms such as ‘understand’, ‘know’, ‘learn’,  ‘be aware of’, ‘appreciate’ and so on. Writing a good objective in terms of actual performance, with the pre-requisite conditions (tools, conditions, presumptions), actual performance in terms of what the learners will know or be able to do and the measurable criterion such as time and so on, is not easy.
7. Time wasted
How much time is currently wasted by teachers and designers thinking about writing and delivering learning objectives. Even worse, how much learners’ time is wasted reading them. Even worse, how much attention and motivation is lost in learners by being made to sit through this bureaucratic stuff? My guess, especially if teachers, lecturers, instructors and trainers do this at the start of every lesson, lecture or module, that the waste is in the many, many millions.
Better to Top and tail
Rather than state learning objectives, we’d be much better focusing on productive techniques that focus on improved retention. For example, to ‘top and tail’ lectures, modules etc. so that reinforcement of learning takes place through spaced-practice. Explicit learning objectives are over-prescriptive for teachers and unnecessary for learners, doing more to hinder than help learning.

Note that I’m not criticising the use of learning objectives or learning outcomes, as defined by Mager, in the design of courses. That’s a skill and practice that’s far too often absent in learning professionals. My arguments focus on boring learning objectives made explicit to learners at the start of a course.

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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Mortenson’s 'Three Cups of Bullshit'

Remember ‘Three Cups of Tea’ by Greg Mortenson. It was in the NY Times Bestseller list for 220 weeks and was published in over 29 lnguagesgreat book, beloved by book clubs, a perfect story of heartfelt anecdotes, real schools in rural areas lifting people out of poverty. Except it wasn’t (many of you may know this, I didn;t). His stories turned out to be largely fiction, the money misspent, schools not built and when they were, they failed as they had no on-going support. Underlying this mess was a dangerous premise – that charity-fed schooling solves the problem of poverty.
Mitra andNegroponte
I’ve been highly critical of Sugata Mitra’s hole-in-the-wall projects, which have many holes and which have followed the same trajectory, hyperbolic, and as it turned out, fictional claims and a series of sites where there are now nothing but literal holes in walls. The parents and teachers and others involved in the projects left behind and feeling used. Even worse is Negroponte, with his educational colonialism, parachuting tablets into supposedly remote villages with American content. The same exaggerated claims, even lies (they hacked Android - no they didn't) and no sustainable legacy.
Three Cups of Bullshit
But these are TED driven tall tales, the Mortenson story is far worse.  It all fell apart after a 60m minutes expose, which exposed some shocking truths.
He claimed that he was inspired in his mission after getting lost coming down from K2. Astonishingly, when this was shown to be untrue, due to the geography of an unfordable river, he changed his story to claim he had crossed on a small suspension bridge. It was subsequently discovered that he had paid for the bridge to be built to mask his lies, from the charity! Then there were the big lies, like being captured by the Taliban in 1996 - odd, because they didn’t exist then. In fact he had been treated to impeccable hospitality by the locals. His books are full of this stuff and completely discredited. Most astonishing of all is the claim that he held Mother Teresa’s hand as she lay in state in 2000 – big problem – she died in 1996. More bullshit. There’s piling heaps of the stuff in both Three Cups of Tea and its sequel Stones into Schools. What was worse, he started to blame his co-author, David Relin, who committed suicide by laying down in front of a train when the revelations came out.
Make it, spend it
Mortenson then went out and hit the conference circuit to promote his book (rcognise this pattern)  which produced massive personal royalties and raise money for a charity, which he proceeded to spend. Mortensen was milking the charity for outrageous personal expenses. Credit cards were being used for personal gifts, clothes, luxury vacations, employees and family racking up health club fees and so on. It was really a money making scheme. Mortenson had the courts demand that he pay back $1 million he had filched from the Central Asia Institute charity.
Schools, what schools?
This is far worse, many of the schools he claims to have built were never built, half-built, had no students, not used as schools at all and not supported. It was largely a scam. His most outrageous claim is that schools inoculate the locals against extremism but few of his schools were built, as he claimed, in unsafe areas and it is simply not true that they had any such effect. In a cowardly way he also attacked the reputations of many who helped him on the ground, with a colonial attitude toward them and their culture.
Myth lives on
After denying everything, the pressure was all too much and he did a confessional on the Today programme last year but he bounced back and is no longer contrite
There are several recurring themes here:
1.     Tell enchanting stories
2.     Hit the conference circuit to propagate the myths and lies
3.     Raise money which you proceeds to filch
4.     Claims refuted by people who go and actually visit the sites
5.     Refuse to admit your wrongs
6.     Myth continues and you still draw out the cash
Mortenson is one creepy, greedy, manipulative dude but what is even more astonishing is how untouchable he remains. The charity lives on, he’s drawing a huge salary and the money rolls in. Storytelling pays, even when they’re porkies.

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Saturday, March 21, 2015

Finland to scrap subject teaching

Although I have serious doubts about putting Finland on a pedestal, and have argued that it is finished as a role model in education, and that many myths abound on teachers, class sizes and selection, they have embraced something really radical. They are moving towards a plan that may scrap subject teaching nationwide.
Roger Schank has been advocating a non-subject approach to learning, not only in schools but also in Universities, for over 30 years and I’m with him all the way. What convinced me was Roger’s historical analysis of how the curriculum came to be fixed in school and Universities – basically a ‘fix’ by a select group of self-interested subject specialists in 1892. Our system has been shaped by subject silos ever since. For a more detailed summary of Schanks work, read here.
So what are the Finns up to?
In a truly national programme, the Finns plan to introduce ‘teach by topic’, not subject. Have no doubts about the massive shift this could entail. It is a reformation in education that is taking on the subject priests in favour of more contextualized and relevant learning.
What lies behind the reform is a view of education that fouses on the learner as an autonomous agent in the real world, when they leave school. It is a bold response to the needs of Finnish society in terms of relevance, not just in the workplace but in life. “We therefore have to make the changes in education that are necessary for industry and modern society” says Pasi Silander. The world has changed, he claims, but schools have barely changed at all. It also gets educational systems out of the trap of having old, irrelevant subjects, like Latin, hanging around for no other reason than the fact that it's deeply embedded. As a strategy it has a lot in its favour.
Reboot of the system
Teaching by 'topic', or 'phenomenon' teaching, is not an new idea but no state has adopted it nationwide. But in Helsinki this has already happened for 16 year olds. A ‘topic’, such as the European Union would be used to bring in knowledge and skills around history, geography, maths through the interpretation of stats, writing skills, politics and languages. A real business problem, such as running a café, would be an opportunity to bring in maths, nutrition, as well as languages for foreign customers and soft-skills, such as communications.
Structurally, in these sessions, there will be a lot less chalk and talk, less sitting in rows, less ‘hands up anyone' questions and much more project and group work. It involves a complete rethink and redesign of the delivery methods.
This is the start of a reboot, with relevance at its heart. The Finnish economy is in some trouble with a perfect storm of economic pressure – high public spending, collapsed Russian economy (their biggest trading partner), collapse of paper industry (internet) and collapse of Nokia. There is a sense of urgency about what they need to do – that I admire.
21st C relevance
This is not some lip service to 21st C skills, a rather hollow debate elsewhere, as schools and universities will never become more relevant by sticking to their existing pedagogic structures – period or lecture based subjects. The current debate on 21st C skills has little to do with independent thinking but merely a conceit around the idea that ‘subject’ teachers can do this using the same old, top-down methods that are currently in play. To instill these changes we must change teaching and the curriculum, not try to squeeze skills into subject silos. That will rarely work.
Teachers and teaching
In the work done so far (70% of Helsinki secondary teachers trained) Pasi Silander says, “We have really changed the mindset... it is quite difficult to get teachers to start and take the first step… but teachers who have taken to the new approach say they can’t go back.” That’s heartening. The new approach means teachers work together to plan lessons, the co-design of teaching. This helps teachers learn from each other as well as increase their skill sets. 
An extra dimenion here, is the introduction of subject matter experts from outside the school. When I was a Governor at a comprehensive school I offered to come in to talk to the students doing Business Studies (I had 30 years exp) but the business studies teachers (none of whom had ever run a business) rejected the idea. I understoodd their issues, too busy, set lessons to curriculum, impending exams, but these are the sort of barriers that could be loosened up.
Students and learning
The Finns claim to have already seen improvements in learning outcomes in the trials and the project proceeds on the basis of evidence, not wishful thinking. That’s interesting and important. Driven by improving results, they hope to roll out the system nationally by 2020. This is not some little drop-in activity. The topic based projects will be substantial and go on for weeks.
But will teachers and educators flock to Finland to look at this initiative? I think not. Too many vested interests. Don’t underestimate the change management problem here. Much of the sustainable innovation in education comes from small countries such as Finland, as there is a culture of constant improvement. Countries such as Singapore and Hong Kong can try things out as their domian is much smaller. You can also see this in the UK where initiatives, such as the Curriculum for Excellence, can take place in Scotland but not England. It's also to do with attitude - not just tinkering but genuinely looking for structural and long-lasting change, recognising that the people who deliver this change are not inspection regimes and auditors but the people who work in education.
Mark Cucher, who lives and works in Finland, makes the good point that this is, at present, a 'blueprint' from the Helsinki district, and that the roll out will happen in the Finninsh way - with lots of flexibility at the local level. Given the deep anxiety about education, teaching to the test and test factories, this is worth keeping an eye on. Let real topics drive interest and motivation, subjects often don’t. Re-energise teachers by giving them the opportunity to teach living topics which they also feel are relevant, while bringing their expertise to the party in a way that just seems so damn relevant and sensible.

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Primary pupils banned from viewing eclipse on religious grounds - here's why

Pupils in a London primary school were banned from viewing the eclipse on religious grounds. Some parents were furious but what they should not be, is surprised. The headteacher, the hapless Ivor Johnstone, was quite clear enough about the reason, “The school made this decision when we became aware of religious and cultural concerns associated with observing an eclipse directly“. But he gave no detail. So let me fill in the blank. 
Hindu scriptures claim that an eclipse makes believers impure and many Hindu temples are closed down during eclipses for fear that the gods may be become impure. In Hindu astrology (Jyotish), the cycles of rahu and ketu, claim to be forces of dark and light, an eclipse being an event which shows the force of darkness prevailing, a dangerous period. Some believe that they need to wash immediately after an eclipse and chant the name of God to counter the forces of darkness. Kalahasteeswara temple, in Sri kalahasthi, does not close during an eclipse, as this is the only Indian temple which offers puja to Rahu and Ketu, protecting it from the power of an eclipse. Nonsense I know but if we have a system that forces us to doff our caps to all religions, no matter how wacky, this is the sort of weirdness that occurs. 
This is the likely explanation, as Southall is a South Asian residential area, sometimes known as ‘Little India’. This is the large Hinduyemple in Southall. Note that all is not well at this school, as last year the Governors had to deal with serious complaints from staff that were not being addressed.
Election and education
If you think this is not a big deal, think again. The next election in the UK will have immigration as a far more important issue than education. In fact education has become a small subset of the immigration debate. Working class voters feel as though they have being squeezed culturally and numerically in their schools with large numbers of EU and other immigrants. Like or loath them, UKIP is now a political player. The political class would like to think that this is not an issue, as it largely doesn’t effect them, Labour does, after all, have a public schoolboy as its Shadow Education Minister, who sends his kids to private school. But it is an issue – just not the one I want to address.
Going back to the first paragraph, as education in England is being largely devolved, knowledge of what happens in those schools is being dissolved. Yet the much hated inspection regime has already had to tackle extremist religious views, in Christian, Jewish and Muslim schools. Barely a day passes without some sort of problem caused by religious beliefs in the school system.
RE (Religious Education)
RE (Religious Education) purports to be a solution to the problem. It is not. RE is part of the problem. Far from opening up young minds to different ways of thinking, it’s all about closure. Religions are not open systems of belief, they are closed systems of conviction. In my view it is philosophy, and not religion, that should be taught. The two are often confused but the love of wisdom is not the same as the love of conviction. Indeed, it is often philosophy graduates who end up teaching RE, even though it is far removed from their core knowledge and discipline. This is like a physicist being forced to teach astrology.
Giving undue respect to a pantheon of belief systems, not come to by choice but largely determined by where your parents were born and their racial background, religion is at odds with what should be happening in schools. It is not in line with the enlightenment values that shaped modern Europe, where education is not meant to mould students into unthinking closure but open their minds to critical thought and autonomous thinking.
This incident was an eclipse of a sort, a dark shadow of ignorance and superstition came across that school. Rather than be excited, as most kids were by a spectacle that supports the scientific spirit of open inquiry, the headteacher was forced to close things down and deny these kids a unique opportunity ad experience to have their minds opened up to the wonders of our solar system. If I were a parent at that school I’d be livid. As it is I’m livid that religious studies is still taught in schools. RE has to be taught in all schools by law. In practice, and this is a little known fact, it is often not taught at all. This is the sign, in my view of good leadership.

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