Last month, I had the pleasure of hosting a number of customers at our annual HE sales conference in Brighton. Our speakers came from a range of institutions, disciplines and countries, and yet I was struck by a common thread that unites their work: a passion for re-inventing teaching; for finding new ways to reach and inspire today’s students.
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It’s inevitable at the start of a New Year to reflect on the twelve months that have just gone by, and to look ahead with anticipation. So having just completed my first year leading Pearson’s Higher Education business in the UK, I thought I’d share a couple of thoughts on what 2017 might hold in store for us.
As I write this blogpost, I occasionally stare out my window to the Rocky Mountains looming above me. It’s amazing to think that these 4200m/14,000 ft mountains were formed by a series of small tremors and occasional larger seismic movements. Likewise, the tectonic plates of education are shifting, and seismic ripples are apparent globally.
We recently set out on a journey to talk to parents, students and teachers in Ghana, the Philippines and South Africa to hear directly from them why they choose low-cost affordable schools.
These parents made it clear to us that they are investing in the hopes and dreams they have for their children. They seek a safe school, a warm school culture, and evidence that their child is learning. And they, like many of us, feel empowered when they can make a choice about where to send their child to school.
"A friend of mine told me about SPARK. I booked the tour, went to see the school and I found that the first thing that attracted me was the culture at SPARK. The values that they endorse as well as the blended learning." - Olga Masingi, Spark parent
Enrollment in low-fee private schools in developing countries has increased over the last 20 years. Upwards of 40% of children living in poverty are enrolled in low-cost private schools in the Indian Subcontinent and large parts of Africa. In larger cities such as Delhi, Karachi, Accra or Lagos this figure rises to 70%. Tuition in such schools can range from $0.50 - $5 per day, for example. We launched the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund (PALF) in 2012 in response to the families who had already opted into such schools.
"Working with the very best local entrepreneurs is what makes PALF possible—education leaders who understand the unique needs of their students and their markets. We’re proud that half of our capital is invested with female founders, in a world where many startups in both the developed and developing worlds are still overwhelmingly male." - Katelyn Donnelly, Managing Director, Pearson Affordable Learning Fund
In addition to our efforts to partner with governments around the world to improve education systems, the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund represents Pearson’s broader commitment to tackle the educational needs of the world’s poorest regions. Pearson has elected to invest in such opportunities, and to hold itself accountable for the results achieved by children enrolled in PALF portfolio schools; it is one of the ways we will contribute to achieving our commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
We invite you to hear directly from the parents, students and teachers at three schools in which we have invested—APEC Schools in Manila, Philippines; Omega Schools in Ghana; and SPARK Schools in South Africa—and learn why these parents, teachers and students have chosen a low-cost private school.
As our A level and GCSE qualifications undergo significant change, there has understandably been much public attention on the future of those foreign language qualifications studied by smaller numbers of students.
While these qualifications have a relatively small number of registrations, they are often the home language of many UK communities and, in an era of globalisation, are important.
As well as Spanish, German and French, which are studied widely across England, Pearson currently offers GCSEs and A levels in Arabic, Modern Greek, Japanese and Urdu, all of which historically have smaller cohort numbers. We have previously confirmed that we will continue to offer GCSEs in these subjects under the new system, from September 2017.
We believe in the importance of these qualifications but, in the context of significant change in qualifications, there are difficult issues to work through and debates to be had. As we designed new specifications for A levels in these four languages, we had concerns that the small entry numbers, combined with the new content and assessment requirements for modern languages as set out by the Department for Education, would make it difficult to continue to create valid and reliable assessments. However, both Pearson and the DfE are committed to securing the future of these A level subject in two years’ time, so we have been working together on a new set of content requirements to mitigate this risk and allow us to feel confident in their quality and credibility.
Not all of our competitors have taken the same view, and as a result of some other important languages being 'dropped', we're going to work with the DfE to secure the future of A level and GCSE qualifications in Gujarati, Portuguese, Turkish and GCSE Biblical Hebrew. Why would a commercial education company do that? The answer is that as well as helping individuals make progress in their lives, education has the potential to foster inclusion and diversity, helping to make society more cohesive. All parties - the government, the regulator and the exam boards - should work together in the interests of students, but also the communities in which we all live.
Think of assessment in education, and you probably think of end of term tests, where kids sit in rows of desks, with a set time to answer identical questions. But in world that increasingly values what you can do and not just what you know, does this way of testing fit the bill anymore? Are they doing the job that ultimately education exists for - to prepare people for the world.
Increasingly educators think not, and so a new era of assessment is being ushered in; enabled by technology, personalised to the student, and providing teachers with insights in real-time. We've taken a look at the opportunities and challenges that await.
Nearly 3,000 books distributed to children in Sri Lanka; 6,000 to children in Swaziland; and nearly 40,000 books now benefitting homeless and low-income children in Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. At Pearson we are proud of the number of free books we distributed last year all around the world… but equally saddened. That well into the 21st century the joy and power of reading remains out of reach for millions of children. That while many kids come home from schools with their bags packed with books, as we stroll past libraries stuffed with the beauty of words, as our bookshelves at home already house more stories than we could possibly read in our lifetime… that while many of us take books for granted, millions more can only dream of them.
We should never devalue the exercise of simply reading for the love of it; and neither should we discount the enormous consequences of not being able to. To summarise hundreds of thousands of pages of heavy-duty research into reading - books make brains bigger, and with that knowledge comes opportunities for a better life.
Since 2002, we have been donating some of our unsold books in the United States to children all over the world. For many, it will be the first book they have ever owned. And though their new books won’t be the answer to the challenges they face in life, they might just be the small start they need into a better future.
Last year, with the help of our non-profit partners across the world, we donated nearly one million books from our US warehouses alone. They have found their way into the hands of millions of children living at or below the poverty line - in communities where there may be as few as one book per 300 children. It is a small gift from us that, we hope, will have a large and lasting impact.
And it’s an impact that ultimately reaches beyond the lives of the proud young owners of their new books; beyond education, to help the environment that we all depend on. No longer do unsold books produce the pollution from pulping or add to the deluge of landfill sites. By putting these books to the use they were created for, we are helping our planet to flourish, as well as the lives of our youngest generations.
(photo credit: Jesus Hernandez)
Ask a group of American kids what they want to be when they grow up, and odds are you’ll hear “teacher” less and less. In the US there are some disturbing indications that teaching is increasingly falling out of favor as a career choice. Between 2008-09 and 2012-13, there was a massive 30% drop in enrollments to teaching preparation programs; while The New York Times reported that applications for Teach for America, a well-respected program to recruit elite college graduates to teach in high poverty schools, declined by 10% from 2013 to 2014. It is perhaps even more troublesome that teaching also seems to be falling out of favor with teachers - a 2013 MetLife survey indicated that just over one in three teachers reported to be “very satisfied”, down by almost 40% in just four years.
One of the reasons put forward for this trend is the perceived narrowness of the teaching career path, especially amongst Generation Y ‘Millennials’. This is, according to research, the demographic that’s impatient to realise their ambitions, demanding of choice and opportunity, and certain that their careers will move forward on their terms - features they do not relate with teaching.
So three years ago Pearson, with several key partners, set out to understand how the teaching profession can evolve to meet the 21st century career expectations of those who currently teach, and those that might one day.
In that time we’ve studied eight teacher career advancement initiatives in the US, and found there’s much to be encouraged about. From urban to suburban and rural districts; in areas of affluence and high poverty; and in schools with and without strong union presence - there is plenty of evidence for how to improve teacher career pathways, and what happens when you do.
Here are some of the key highlights from our observations. You can read the full report here.
Districts observed improved trends in the recruitment and retention of teachers: All districts with teacher career advancement initiatives reported an increase in applicants to teach, and increased retention rates - notably of effective and experienced teachers.
Creating time for teachers to meet and collaborate is an ongoing challenge for districts: One of the most commonly cited advantages of teacher career advancement initiatives was more collegial interaction, with teachers working with colleagues across grade levels and subject areas. In part this is due to the significant costs associated with releasing teachers full-time for instructional coaching, meaning that mentoring and coaching is often done ‘in-house’ by other teachers. Some districts have even adopted 'hybrid' teaching/coaching roles. The benefit is felt by both mentee and mentor. One mentor teacher from Knox County said to us: “I’ve told so many people that they need to be mentor teachers because just what you learn about yourself is much. I feel like I’ve gotten more back from doing it than I’ve given to my people that I coach.”
However, we also observed that it takes time and effort to change the culture of isolation to promote sharing of practice and collaboration.
There is some evidence of a positive impact on teacher effectiveness and some short-term student learning outcomes: There is limited 'hard data' about the impact of teacher career advancement initiatives on student achievement, although there is much anecdotal evidence. Teacher and administrator focus groups almost universally cited the positive benefits on students of teacher collaboration, focused conversations on curriculum and instruction, lesson modeling, and taking time to reflect on teacher effectiveness.
“This is about closing achievement gaps, and you don’t close achievement gaps by doing the same … things that you’ve done for 50 years,” one Denver administrator told us. Another, from Scottsdale, commented: “It is because of that career ladder culture [that] every single teacher is vested in getting that student growth, doing the best thing they can for their students on campus, in their classroom, at their school… it really has created a culture within our district.”
Teachers in leadership roles report greater job satisfaction: The general consensus of teacher leaders we interviewed was that motivation and job satisfaction were positively affected by opportunities for collaboration and professional development, recognition as leaders in their district, and opportunities for additional compensation. Interestingly, we also heard that another significant positive feature of the teacher career advancement initiatives is that teachers can take on leadership roles without stepping into formal administrator roles.
“I knew in a flash that this new [multi-classroom leader] model would bring me my dream job… a teacher who continues to teach while leading a team of teachers…” a teacher from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools told us.
Teacher/administrator relations and the roles of principals change in positive ways, but present new challenges: Our studies found that, as teachers and administrators collaborate more, there becomes a need to manage teams of teacher leaders who now require new skills, and also additional support for principals. A Seattle ‘career ladder’ teacher described her experience to us: “Oh, you’re going to be on this professional development committee which is going to meet every other week on top of the building leadership team, on top of leading your own PLC. It becomes you’re one of five people that are doing everything in the school and that’s not the point of the role.”
For all the positives coming out of our study, the reality is that sustaining these initiatives is hard work, requiring stakeholder support (teachers in particular), a school/district culture that can deal with change and ambiguity, and external support—either monetary or technical assistance. Funding in particular is the greatest challenge to continuity. Grants, either district funding sources or from external bodies, are typically designed to launch programs, not sustain them. Our study sites are navigating this treacherous territory in different ways, and with differing success. Denver, for example, offers a vision of flattening the organizational structure of schools and replacing some highly paid administrative positions with teacher leaders. A teacher we spoke to there made the point that this was not just about sustaining funding, but also maintaining the right culture.“This needs to be a teacher-led initiative, a teacher supported initiative, because it is about elevating the craft from the peer perspective…”
The next few years will be critical in determining whether these teacher career advancement initiatives will continue, expand or be modified. With the new ESSA legislation and the focus on developing teaching and the profession, we hope that the lessons learned and recommendations contained in the full report will help propel more schools and districts to implement innovative, sustainable teacher career advancement initiatives. And to make the profession top of the list of what kids want to be when they grow up.
Follow up with Kathy about this research - @McKni8
For thirty years I have attended conferences where speakers have spoken to slides comparing images of an early 20th century classroom with one from today, and have pointedly asked: ‘why so little change?’ The modern variant goes something like this: smart technologies have already transformed so many parts of our lives – from how we date to how we book a taxi. It would seem that there is no doubt that AI (artificial intelligence) will also significantly influence what we teach and learn, as well as how we do it. And yet...
Adopting a puzzled stance as to why things have not changed more has some value. It prompts us to examine our assumptions, our habits, and our routines. It only takes us so far, though. More is needed.
What we need – what we should demand – is an explanation of why and how things could be different. First, we need to be empowered by an understanding of what artificial intelligence in education (AIEd) is, what it delivers, and how it goes about doing that.
Second, we need a clear explanation of how the field of artificial intelligence can connect to the core of teaching and learning, so that we can avoid general-purpose technologies being used in ways that do not deliver the step changes in learner outcomes we seek. For example, smart technologies that adapt to what is liked, rather than what is learnt, or that deliver more efficient administration, but not more efficient learning.
Third, we need concrete options that will allow us to make the potential of AIEd real at the system level – that is, at the scale that will allow it to support the teaching profession broadly and impact positively on the learning experience of each and every student. And fourth, we need to ask and answer some profound ethical questions – for example, about the acceptable uses that can be made of the data that AIEd collects.
In other words, what we need is a degree of specificity about AIEd that allows us to assess, invest, plan, deliver, and test. This is what our new research paper, 'Intelligence Unleashed', offers – a useful primer on AIEd and a compelling argument about what it can offer learning.
From what AI is and how AIEd-driven learning systems are built, onto its potential role in addressing the profound issue of robots and machines taking over more and more current jobs, it covers a vital range of topics with ease and elegance. It is also a good read, with entertaining references from PacMan and Stephen Hawking, sci-fi and ancient philosophy. And, yes, it is understandable to a non-technical reader!
To make my own case for reading this paper, let me move to a more local, anecdotal, level. Recently a member of my Pearson team talked to me about a phonics learning app he had bought for his young son. We could easily identify the affordances that the technology brought – perfect pronunciation of 42 phonics sounds, infinite patience, and a healthy spillover of engagement from the software to learning.
Yet, it was equally easy to identify ways in which some basic AIEd techniques could have made the app so much better. Content was re-presented even after it had been mastered, which led to boredom. Other content was accessible even though it was much too difficult, leading to frustration. And there were no speech recognition capabilities present to verify the learner’s pronunciation, or blending of sounds.
Asking for these features is not asking for science fiction. Instead, it is asking us to incorporate findings from fields like the learning sciences into AIEd tools so that these insights are realised in cheaper, more effective ways. This paper offers a long-list of where we should look for this combination of learning insights and technology – for example, collaborative learning, meta-cognition (or knowing about one’s own thinking), useful feedback, and student motivation.
Funders and founders, policy makers and philanthropists – in fact, anyone who takes seriously the urgent need to embark on the next stage of education system reform – should read and debate this paper. Only then will we (finally) make good on the promise of smarter technologies for learning (and, as a side effect, get rid of those boring slides).
Read the full report - Intelligence Unleashed: An Argument for AI in Education