… you will make something of the fact that the word “competition” only occurs once in the New Zealand Curriculum document.
Or “Why everything you have been told about genetics, talent and IQ is wrong”
Or “What students are” versus “What students do”
I will admit that I am a bit of a fanboy for the outcomes based thinking of educationalist and academic John Biggs.
I like using multiple alternative representations when I am trying to understand new ideas and ways of knowing and Biggs and Collis’ Structured Overview of Learning Outcomes is a representative framework that is never too far away when I stumble over something new.
Nudging up against SOLO Taxonomy is “a wash” experience for most of the educators I work with. Not a “dry creek bed or gulch that temporarily fills with water after a heavy rain” kind of wash experience – that fleeting post conference charismatic keynoter euphoria kind of “wash” - but rather a “wash experience” where the overwhelming simplicity and power of the idea that washes over you leaves a small load of pigment that binds to all the fibres in the raw canvas of your experience and learning.
The effect of SOLO Taxonomy on the interpretation of teaching and learning is long lasting, it pervades your imaginings, and it marks you in a way that influences all that follows.
My response to nudging up against SOLO Taxonomy in 2003 has been a sharpening of my educative focus – I now use the coarse focus knob, the fine focus knob and the diaphragm to explore the fine detail in “What students do”.
To do this I try to be very clear about the;
- Intended learning outcomes - what I want students to do,
- Learning experiences that will help students achieve the intended learning outcomes – small steps that help students do, and the
- Self-assessment that helps students determine if what they have done meets the intended learning outcome.
My attention is distracted every now and again by “What students are” as is the attention of every policy maker, academic, school and teacher. The following extract from an academic’s report to a local school reveals this well.
Traditionally teacher expectations studies have examined why teachers have high expectations for some students and not for others. For example, the literature shows that teachers tend to have higher expectations for New Zealand European students than they do for Maori (Rubie-Davies, Hattie, & Hamilton, 2006), that they have higher expectations for students from middle class socioeconomic backgrounds than they do for students from poorer areas (Jussim, Smith, Madon, & Palumbo, 1998), that they have higher expectations for boys in maths and science and for girls in reading (Qing, 1999) and that they have lower expectations for students who have a diagnostic label, e.g. ADHD, than they do for the same student who does not have a label (Stinnett, Crawford, Gillespie, Cruce, & Langford, 2001). These studies ask the question: what is it about a student that means their teacher may have high or low expectations for him or her? Rubie-Davies et al 2009.
And there is no end to the edu_bloggers whose online musings reveal their preferred educative focus as “what students are”.
But I am wary when I find myself thinking like this.
“What students are …” encourages us to place students on some kind of educational continuum, to blur these students across different gross demographic palettes of age, race, sex, sexuality, physicality, personality, culture, language, gender, family, class, and locale as explanation.
Gross demographics encourages us to smear students across a continuum from; gifted to special needs, engaged to disengaged, 21st Century learner to 19th Century luddite, digital native to digital immigrant, male to female, Maori to Pakeha, endemic to introduced, ESOL to monolingual , pinko grey to café au lait, North Shore to Westie, first born to last born, extrovert to introvert, kinaesthetic to visual learner, heterosexual to LGB, endomorph to mesomorph, South Aucklander to South Islander, middle class to upper class, high decile school to low decile school etc.
This thinking encourages us to set up educational policy and lobby groups calling for educational funding by claiming that “This group of students are failing to achieve because they are [insert gross demographic] as a consequence they have special needs that are not currently being met … and as a consequence of having unmet needs we need access to [insert figure sought] from “budget education” to redress the inequality.”
Gross demographic thinking about “what students are” though seemingly easy to characterise and communicate, pretends to a quantitative reliability and validity that simply does not exist. We assume a conceptual stability that ignores the influence of life world attributes.
The gross demographics of “who students are” is unstable – it interacts with life experiences, interests and orientations, with values, dispositions sensibility, with communication and interpersonal styles. This interaction introduces ongoing differences within the demographic that are far greater than the difference claimed for between demographics.
There is no gross demographic that determines with any degree of validity or reliability what a student is.
And thinking about “what students are” involves us in a second betrayal.
Even if gross demographics could be shown to be stable and identifiable adopting gross demographics as explanation for success and failure carries an underlying assumption of blame – it suggests that “what students are” explains why students fail -
All of this thinking about “what students do” rather than “what students are” is why I have much enjoyed reading “The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong” by David Shenk.
The Genius in All of Us is a book that undermines and reveals in equal measure. It is a book that educators and government policy makers should interrogate if they want to understand why the nature nurture debate is both mis-framed and damaging to the way we educate young people for achievement.
Shenk’s argument is that current research into the dynamic interactions that occur between genes and the environment mean that we have got our notions of “giftedness” and achievement all wrong. He uses research and wide ranging examples to argue that it is the interaction of genes and the environment (GXE) that determines who we are, that intelligence and its representation in great achievement is a process not a thing.
Intelligence is not an innate aptitude, hardwired at conception or in the womb, but a collection of developing skills driven by the interaction between genes and environment. No one is born with a pre-determined amount of intelligence. Intelligence (and IQ scores) can be improved. Few adults come close to their true intellectual potential. Shenk 2010 p 29
Much like his previous book "The Forgetting: Alzheimer's: Portrait of an Epidemic" (which helped me better understand Alzheimer’s and other dementia related conditions) Shenk provides extensive support in his sources and notes section to clarify and amplify his argument. His extensive note making reminds me of the scholarship of Ivan Illich; it provides a valuable insight into assumptions and misconceptions made around achievement. "The Genius in All of Us" is a well reasoned and thoughtful book.
Thinking about achievement as a process, and acknowledging the extraordinary plasticity of our genes interaction with environment, leads Shenk to make a series of recommendations for parents.
1. Believe each child has enormous potential.
2. Set high expectations, demonstrate persistence and resilience but do not use emotional rewards for success or punishments for failure.
3. Reward persistence intermittently, develop delayed gratification. Model self-control and give kids practice.
4. Embrace failure – present, monitor and modulate challenges.
Many educators are also parents and would claim they understand intelligence as developmental. Yet the ways we parent and the ways in which we do school - frame policy and provide programme - betray us. Reading Shenk will clarify how much of the research we undertake (and the programmes we provide for teaching and learning) suggest a mind set of genetic determinism rather than GXE development.
The chapter that captured my interest unpacked the significant role competition plays in achievement.
I know I generalise here but “competition” is not revered in teaching and learning in New Zealand primary and secondary schools. We tend to frame competition as harmful and unnecessary in terms of achievement. You just need to leaf through the New Zealand Curriculum to see that the notion of competition it is absent from any recommendations around the effective pedagogies. The notion of competition is remarkable for its absence.
If you are someone who likes to count things - the word “Competition” only occurs once in the New Zealand Curriculum document.
Students learn most effectively when they have time and opportunity to engage with, practise, and transfer new learning. This means that they need to encounter new learning a number of times and in a variety of different tasks or contexts. It also means that when curriculum coverage and student understanding are in competition, the teacher may decide to cover less but cover it in greater depth. New Zealand Curriculum p34
Shenk’s writing helped me better understand the flaws in the arguments that have been used to eschew a competitive culture developing within New Zealand schools and classrooms.
The problem is that different people have very different attitudes towards competition. In 1938, Harvard psychologist Henry A. Murray proposed that human beings could be separated into two distinctive competitive personalities: HAMs (“high in achievement motivation”) and LAMs (“low in achievement motivation”). HAMs enjoy and perform better under directly competitive conditions than they do under non-competitive conditions. LAMs dislike competition, do not seek it out, and are less happy and productive when pushed into it. They do better when pursuing so-called mastery goals – improvement of a skill in comparison to oneself rather than to others. P121
In New Zealand these different attitudes HAM and LAM have been aligned with gender demographics – claims are made that the broad structure of our National Certificate for Educational Achievement (NCEA) awards removes competition and as such favours girls (who are represented as LAMs) over boys (who are represented as HAM’s).
Interestingly Shenk reports research that reveals there is “no fixed male or female competive biology”.
“In Western societies, a higher proportion of men are HAMs and a higher proportion of women are LAMs …. this is not universal or genetically hardwired.” P121
We are once
again betrayed by the ease of gross demographic thinking – Note to self:
remember this the next time gender arguments around competition
A more interesting question is raised by Shenk. It is one I wish educators in New Zealand had grappled with before rejecting competition per se.
Shenk asks us to imagine “healthy rivalry”.
“How can we best create classrooms, offices, and communities where competitive instincts are rewarded but where less competitive individuals also feel energised rather than suffocated?
His suggestions startled me, they aligned so well with John Bigg’s proposals for engaging students through constructive alignment using SOLO Taxonomy. Refer: Teaching for Quality Learning at University. Third Edition John Biggs and Catherine Tang.
“Not surprisingly, the answer turns out to be making sure that near-term tasks are clear and meaningful. If short-term tasks can be made relevant to log term goals, researchers have found that even LAMs will dive in and relish the challenge. This fits perfectly with Ericsson’s “deliberate practice” – the satisfaction of working hard to master near-term goals, learning to enjoy the process rather than focus on the large gulf between current abilities and the far off ideal. Shenk P122
It is not a contradiction to maintain high expectations of every student, and to show compassion and creativity for those who inevitably, do not immediately meet these expectations. Failure should be seen as a learning opportunity rather than a revelation of a student’s innate limits. Shenk P123
Shenk’s solution is for educators to focus on “What students do” rather than what turns out to be a genetic deterministic based misrepresentation and myth about “What students are”.
And once we understand “achievement” as developmental rather than fixed perhaps we will be less bothered by “failure” which we will understand and more importantly represent to students as developmental.
We should have taken more notice of Heraclitus.