Why I Am Fascinated By Learning Analytics

At the turn of the 20th century, if a person lay dying in bed few options were open to the doctor charged with saving their life.  Though stethoscopes captured some information about the heart and the internal organs that information was extremely limited. The introduction of electrocardiography machines (ECG) in 1904 meant the heart could suddenly be monitored easily and in-depth. Doctors could continually record the various rhythm patterns causing arrests or murmurs and in doing so gained a clearer picture of the interventions required to treat different types of heart stoppage. Myocardial infarctions (no blood getting to the heart) require a very different pattern of treatment to issues of Cardial Tamponade (fluid pressing on the heart) but where doctors previously intervened based only on what they could see and hear their interventions were far more hit and miss; and a miss, for a cardiac arrest patient, usually means death.
Subsequent technologies are equally remarkable in what they have enabled doctors to understand. Before the introduction of Ultrasounds in 1965 no-one saw a baby before its birth. The Thalidomide scandal would never have occurred if their commercial use had been introduced just one decade earlier. MRI scans – a spin-off from ultrasound technology – now means surgeon routinely provide brain surgery on an organ once considered entirely unfathomable.
But why does this matter for education?  At present the classroom teacher is akin to the turn-of-the-century doctor. Though teachers can use their senses to see if students are becoming bored or perplexed – just as doctors could diagnose measles or coughs by sense – teachers are largely limited to what can be seen, heard or intuited.  Sure,  experience develops intuition – like any teacher, I now have a weird knack for knowing a fight will break out 10 seconds before it actually does – but I also believe the research that shows teachers only ever see 5-10% of happenings in their classroom. Other tasks divert our attention: taking registers, visitors at the door, dealing with new students, closing windows, fiddling with the computer. Attention can rarely be fully attuned to a class and when it is our senses can only register the expressions of 30 children for short periods of time before we are once again drawn back to the particular needs of the most demanding child.
Having more information about our students – how they learn and where they are struggling – would be useful in diagnosing misconceptions and enabling timely intervention.  At school the Rosetta Stone computer programme is used with students arriving from abroad with little English language skill.  The programme gathers information about their progress and adjusts tasks so it is just above their current ability. The EAL mentors can enforce a specified % of correctness before students move to the next task and by using the detailed dashboard of their progress in various skills (reading, speaking, spelling, etc) we can give personalised 1:1 follow-up or small group lessons focused on their greatest areas of need. Rosetta Stone acts as the ‘eyes of the whole classroom’ while we can focus on individuals as required.
Beyond the use of ‘computer games’ in school there is also potential in analysing the datatrails learners leave of their past behaviours. This isn’t advocating snooping on Facebook as a new form of pedagogy; it’s more about thinking through what technology can do to enhance teaching. Let’s go for a much more mundane example.  Imagine: Every student in a class has a multiple choice pad – maybe on an ipad, mobile phone, clicker, whatever!  – and at certain points throughout the lesson students answer multiple choice questions using their tool.  Over the lesson the teacher can see if the % of correct answers is going up (a good sign!), or if patterns in understanding are emerging (Table 1 is acing the test; Table 3 not so much), or – and this is my favourite – once answered the technology could show a tick or cross enabling the teacher to re-arrange students so those with correct answers discuss their answer with the ‘incorrect’ students and then run a second task to see if things have now sunk in.
This is a tiny example of what becomes possible as technology provides instant detailed data on what is going on in learner’s minds.  Below is a slideshare showing way more exciting ideas.
Inevitably I hear the doomsdayers tutting, so let me forestall a little: I KNOW THIS IS NOT NEW. In my first year of teaching we had weird multiple choice contraptions purporting to do something similar and they were rubbish. They were difficult to use and took ages to set up BUT at that time my mobile phone could barely muster a non-mono ringtone and the iPad was something akin to ‘futuristic magic’.  The technology has to be correct but let’s not abandon the idea that it won’t be there at all as we move forward.
When digital technologies entered medicine many practitioners yelped fearing it would undermine their natural instincts and professional skill.  When I look at the slideshare show I can see so much potential but it also makes me anxious as it’s human nature to be sceptical of change. But any feelings I have about how wonderful I am and that ‘intuition is enough’ disappears when I realise that doctors at the turn of the 20th century probably were really great at what they did and they managed to do a lot without machines, but heck am I grateful that those machines are there now. Medical technology helps doctors make better informed decisions. The machines do not make the decision; occasionally doctors use professional judgement and intuition before overriding the data, but having that accurate information doesn’t half help point action in the right direction. Our fear of being shown that experience alone is inadequate is not a good enough reason to throw away the possible future provided by Learning Analytics
Learning Analytics -Towards a New Discipline-

2011 Top Reads: Education Bookshelf

I’ve added a new page to the menu entitled ‘Bookshelf’.
Click on it and you will uncover a list of books I’ve read and enjoyed this year.  To be included a book had to either change my perspective on an issue or be one I have recommended to a colleague in the past 12 months.
Look out for future updates.

Books Recommended before 2011

Books Encountered & Recommended before 2011
The Power of Mindful Learning – Ellen Langer : Not quackery or new age. Langer is a Harvard Psychologist after all.
The Farther Reaches of Human Nature – Abraham Maslow: Forget the hierarchy, it’s a tiny amount of what this man wrote about and not even the best bit.  He’s also funny.
You Are Thinking of Teaching? – Seymour Sarason (out of print so get a used one for about 50p):  The only book I’ve ever read that tells you all the really crap things about being a teacher.  Sarason is one of the best and most honest writers I’ve ever been entertained by. If anyone asks you about becoming a teacher GET THEM THIS. If they still go into the profession then they are supposed to be there.
How to Write a Lot – Paul J. Silva : It’s not really about writing a lot, it’s about writing well.  I did two degrees before I could write a clearly understandable essay.  The switch never came about because of a professor, or pratice, or a writer’s workshop – it happened because of this book (andanother by Howard Becker but if you’re only going for one then Silva is the snappier read).
Attachment Theory and the Teacher-Student Relationship – Philip Riley (£24.60):  Freud said that everyone should have therapy, but if one group really really should have it, that group is teachers.  Of course, Freud also seemed to suggest women couldn’t really comprehend existence so there’s a lot of bullshit in his developmental twaddle too.  However a few idiotic proclamations should not have us denying the importance of attachment and relationships to what happens in our classrooms.  People sometimes get scared when I recommend this book, afraid that their own moments of feeling unloved are going to resurface when it is ‘long behind them’, but that is precisely why teachers should read this.  All day long we deal with kids who use emotion as a weapon to get at us – being prepared for that is part of the responsibility of a teacher and learning to respond in healthy ways is a life’s work. If you’re not scared of reading it, do so, and see if you still think it’s psycho-crap by the time you get to the end.

Recommended Books From 2011

Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance – Atul Gewande:  Gewande is the rare combination of top surgeon and entertaining writer.  He is brutally honest about medicine and the difficulties inherent in his trade. He is also obsessed with improving his own performance and of his whole profession. Not only is it illuminating but it parallels well with the difficulties of working in schools – except that, in our case, things only occasionally end in death.
Charter Schools: Hope or Hype? – Bruckley & Schnieder: A mind-bogglingly deep overview of research on charter schools culminating in the conclusion that: While charter schools are well-liked and popular when they first open – even if they perform poorly – over time this enthusiasm wanes until it matches similar local schools. Achievement in such schools works on the same bell curve as for traditional schools once demographics are accounted for and the only thing positive that can be truly asserted is that they have a greater focus on ‘being nice’ than does the average US public school.
The Case for Working with Your Hands: Or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good– Matthew Crawford: Defending the importance of teaching ‘trades’ in school, Crawford intelligently explains why working as a motorcycle mechanic has been more satisfying than his work as Director of a political think tank.  He notes how swathes of office work has become akin to ‘factory work’ with college graduates doing professional jobs requiring little cognitive engagement and that surpress their autonomy. Furthermore, while office jobs are being outsourced, no-one can employ a virtual plumber when their washing machine goes kaput making trades a more savvy economical move too.
He also makes the argument that fixing something you didn’t create – whether as a doctor mending a punctured lung, or a builder repairing a roof – means being attentive, patient, considerate and tenacious.  Trades also encourage an ethos of self-reliance and a care for the environment. In Crawford’s eyes these are the most important things a school could teach; I’m not sure I agree, but it certainly made me think.
Learning on Other People’s Kids: Becoming a Teach for America Teacher – Barbara Veltri:  Having spent 10 years working as a mentor to Teach For America (TFA) participants (sister to the UK’s TeachFirst programme), Veltri uncovers the TFA process to anyone who hasn’t gone through it.  Starting with the admissions procedure, through the fabled ‘6 week Institute’ and across the 2 year programme Veltri talks about the many people she mentored, the situations they found themselves and her recommendations for making the programme more stable. Veltri is far from positive about TFA itself, and  I found some parts laborious but for the TFA novice it definitely explains the programme clearly – warts and all.
Building Academic Language– Jeff Zweirs (£14.44):  Teaching across humanities and social sciences I must teach students two things: first, there is the content students must understand; then second, is the skill of reformulating that content so that a third person can understand it – whether through an essay, exam answer or some other format.  It is all too easy to focus on the content and ignore the skill of re-explaining.  Zweirs’ book gives lots of practical ways to develop the language skills necessary to demonstrate one’s knowledge while also developing the content.  This is not an either/or book. Zweirs isn’t saying that students must develop ‘skills’ – what he does say is that as students are learning words about a topic, it is useful to think about how they acquire those words and how they will start putting them into sentences that make sense.

"How to Set Up A Free School" Book Review

I did a book review of Toby Young’s “How To Set Up A Free School” in the Times Ed this week.  It was a tough gig as the space given was tiny and there’s a lot to say about this book. At some point near the end of Jan I might release the ‘uncut’ version on here.
One thing I worried about is Young’s tendency to over-idealise the Free School solution. I wrote a book for LKMCo showing that there are possible ups and downs of Free Schools, but with a focus on minimising the downs.  The Press Release for the original book is here and the e-book release is here

The National Curriculum Review in less than 2000 Words

The National Curriculum Review is a great document. Thorough and well-researched. It’s also long.
Cutting it down to less than 2000 words for the LKMCo Summary was a great challenge, but a thoroughly enjoyable one. The only issue was writing with brevity while not being sarcastic. At times I felt like the interpreter in those comedy sketches when a person talks for ages and then the translator sums up two minutes of speech in one word.
Being a teacher takes up quite a lot of our lives and quick summaries help get the word out to more people involved in schools. No malice, at all, is intended!