15 Things We Do As Educators Today That Will Embarrass Us in 20 Years

November 22nd, 2014 No Comments Features


In an era of such rapid change, it’s no easy task to predict the future. The practices and principles we hold dearest to our hearts now may very well be the ones we’re trashing in 25 years. In the same breath, the trends we find least appealing may end up boasting mainstream success. Let’s take a look at 15 beliefs and practices that illustrate our point.

1. Not taking open badges seriously.

Open badges may seem clunky now, and far from a suitable substitute for letter grades and degrees, but before we know it we’ll be wishing we’d jumped on board at the start. For general education courses, colleges can use learning design principles to define “soft skill” outcomes and then measure competency against these objectives.

Students who demonstrate they have acquired these critical job-ready soft skills will earn job-relevant badges in areas like critical thinking, research, oral and written communication, collaboration, leadership and teamwork. Students can then improve their employment prospects while still learning, and employers can benefit from greater transparency around skills and knowledge acquired from higher education.

2. Passing MOOCs off as a fad

Few people now think that MOOCs will turn higher education upside down, says Ferdinand von Prondzynski, vice-chancellor of Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. Instead, there is a growing movement to consider how online learning can be used to improve teaching, and how online courses can expand access to quality education.

“The task is to find ways in which the MOOCs experience can support new developments that will bring higher education of good quality to larger audiences and how these participants can be properly supported,” he says. “It is clear that online learning will be a major part of the future, and it is right to suggest that some disruptive change may improve what universities do.”

3. Using the A-F grading system

Educational institutions around the world are trying to replace traditional report card grids of letters and numbers with descriptive feedback about students’ mastery of topics. Rather than a series of cumulative scores in each subject based on a mashup of tests, homework, extra credit and behavior, schools are trying to show how well students understand core concepts — and involve parents more in the process.

In Oregon, for example, a new law says schools can use letters or numbers to assess students, but the grades must be based solely on academic performance. Those marks will no longer consider, for example, whether an assignment was turned in late. Proponents of the new systems believe that traditional grading leads to inflated marks for students who behave well, even if they don’t have a strong grasp of concepts — and lower grades for those who understand ideas but arrive late or fail to turn in homework.

4. Using traditional print textbooks

Textbooks have not gone the way of the scroll yet, but many educators say that it will not be long before they are replaced by digital versions — or supplanted altogether by lessons assembled from the wealth of free courseware, educational games, videos and projects on the Web.

“In five to 10 years, I think people will look back at textbooks the way we look back at encyclopedias,” says Ariel Diaz, chief executive and co-founder of Boundless Learning, a Boston-based ed tech company that has shaken up the college textbook industry by offering electronic textbook alternatives at a lower cost. “The notion of carrying around this antiquated textbook will become very quaint, very quickly.”

5. Limiting science education due to budget constraints

Not every educational institution needs its own lab equipment, thanks to the 21st century. Though full implementation is still four to five years away from mainstream use, the benefits of virtual and remote laboratories are already becoming clear. In addition to making science education more affordable, virtual labs let students run experiments as many times as they like, allowing them to learn from mistakes in a safe environment.

Remote labs are already in use at some institutions. Dr. David Yaron, Associate Professor Chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University, developed ChemCollective, a project of the National Science Digital Library, to create flexible interactive learning environments in which students can approach chemistry more like practicing scientists. In Lysekil, Sweden, students use virtual tools to explore the marine environment of Gullmar Fjord on the Swedish west coast, learning in the process how scientific knowledge is created.

The students use a virtual ocean acidification laboratory to conduct studies on the acidification of the marine environment. Students in North Carolina are using Geometer’s Sketchpad to understand how theorems are developed. The software is accessed through North Carolina State University’s virtual computing lab, a cloud-based learning environment with an interactive online community where teachers share tips on the software used as well as the projects undertaken.

6. Treating computer science as an elective

Some universities include computer science among options to satisfy science or math requirements. At UC—Irvine, students choose three courses from computer science, public health, economics, physics, biology, chemistry, earth science, philosophy, or international studies to meet their general education requirement in science and technology. But offering students a taste of computer science is not enough, says Geoffrey Bowker, professor of informatics at the University of California—Irvine.

At the Georgia Institute of Technolgoy, each of the nearly 2,000 freshmen entering every year must take a computer science course regardless of their major. Students have to select one of three courses, referred to as CS1, each presenting computer science in a different context depending on the audience. One course focuses on a specific coding language, another on media and data structures, and the third on robotics.
Similar to traditional general education requirements such as philosophy or world history, the purpose of each courses is to turn out well-rounded graduates.

“Why you need to take a CS1 … is the same reason why you need to take humanities, why you need to take a science, why you need to take a math,” says Charles Isbell, associate dean for academic affairs at the school’s College of Computing. “It’s not because you’re going to be programming …. it’s because each of those represents a different way of thinking.”

7. Not cracking down on crammers

The cold, hard truth is that cramming does work. It just doesn’t support long-term retention. This was fine for 20th century education standards, where test performance reigned supreme, but it no longer flies today.

For one thing, assessment is becoming more than a test of one’s ability to regurgitate content knowledge onto a piece of paper. It’s now designed to test soft skills like creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving–things you can’t cram for. And as far as retention goes, it’s no longer acceptable to forget what you’ve learned in a world that values lifelong learning.

We know from neuroscience that spaced practice supports long term memory far better than massed practice, which means it supports lifelong learning as well.

8. Testing only a handful of times per term

Psychologists have known for almost a century that altering the timing of tests can affect performance. In the past decade, they have shown that taking a test — say, writing down all you can remember from a studied prose passage — can deepen the memory of that passage better than further study.

In a 2013 experiment at the University of Texas, researchers found that grading college students on quizzes given at the beginning of every course session, rather than on midterms or a final exam, increases both attendance and overall performance.

These findings have been repeated in other settings, and reflect the importance of spaced, regular practice versus cramming.

9. Buying into Multiple Intelligences Theory

Despite its widespread popularity, multiple intelligences theory as a teaching method is backed by very little hard data.

The most comprehensive study into the effectiveness of MI was a three-year examination of 41 institutions that claim to use multiple intelligences. It was conducted in the early ’90s by Mindy Kornhaber, a long-time Gardner collaborator. The results showed that standardised test scores increased in 78 percent of the sample, but educational psychologist Daniel T. Willingham says the scientific integrity of the study is questionable.

First, the results failed to indicate whether the increase in each case was statistically significant. If they weren’t, Willingham notes, then we would expect scores to increase in half the institutions by chance anyway. Second, there was no control group and thus no basis for comparison with other insitutions in their districts. Moreover, there is no way of knowing to what extent changes were actually due to the implementation of MI. The energizing thrill of adopting a new school-wide program, new statewide standards, or some other unknown factor could just as easily have improved the quality of teaching.

The sheer fact that the theory is an inaccurate description of the mind, says Willingham, means that the more closely an educator draws on the theory, the less likely the educator is to be successful.

10. Buying into Learning Styles (VARK) Theory

Remember the old Visual-Auditory-Reading-Kinesthetic (VARK) learning styles theory? A bunch of bunk, says Harold E. Pashler, professor of psychology at the University of California at San Diego.

Consider an experiment about teaching the structure of complex molecules. The VARK hypothesis might predict that kinesthetic learners would absorb the concept best by building ball-and-stick models in the lab, while verbal learners would do better by reading a few pages about the logic of molecular design.

That sounds intuitive. But according to Mr. Pashler, who came out with a controversial 2009 paper on the topic, almost every well-designed study of that type has discovered that one instructional style actually works best for both groups.

What happens, Mr. Pashler says, is something like this: Experimenters randomly assign students to a group that uses laboratory lessons or to a group that uses texts. At the end of the week, students are tested on their knowledge of molecular structures.

Among the students who are taught in a hands-on laboratory setting, it turns out that the “kinesthetic learners” enjoy their lessons much more than their verbal peers do. They also perform better on the test at the end of the week. Let’s say that the kinesthetic students average a 95 on the test, while the verbal students’ average is 80.

That might seem like strong evidence for the learning-styles hypothesis. Not so fast, Mr. Pashler says.

Look at the second group, where students learn about molecules by reading texts. Here, the verbal students enjoy the lessons much more than their kinesthetic peers do. But on the test, both the verbal and kinesthetic students average around 70. The verbal students are actually better off learning this concept in a laboratory, even though they enjoy it less.

In almost every actual well-designed study, Mr. Pashler and his colleagues write in their paper, “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence,” the pattern is similar: For a given lesson, one instructional technique turns out to be optimal for all groups of students, even though students with certain learning styles may not love that technique.

11. Tolerating a one-size-fits-all professional development model

Invariably a major question and cultural challenge in any institution is how to engage staff in professional learning. Just like students, when learning is done to us, we display resistance. Furthermore, learning means ‘doing.’ If the purpose of that ‘doing’ is not quite clear or takes people out of their comfort zones, this only amplifies the issue.

Teachers are busy people. On top of the core business of creating rich and exciting learning experiences for students, many have other positions of added responsibility, lives beyond school etc. There are also the age-old questions such as ‘what’s in it for me?’ ‘What is the worth here in terms of my time?’ ‘Where is the evidence to show it will make a difference?’

Professional development should encourage and support personalisation (as it does with students) and promote flexibility and creativity in developing a learning culture. One size does not fit all when it comes to educational gains.

12. Letting writing education slip

“Though we live in an era where print media is faltering, and people hand write and mail letters out of novelty rather than necessity, writing skills are still important,” says Sarah Wright for Education Portal. “In fact, it can be argued that they are even more important now than ever.”

The reasons for that are many, but the two main forces in play are the Internet and a highly competitive job market.

“Though some see the rise of digital media as the death of writing, the Internet actually makes unprecedented use of text. Newspapers were, of course, written in type, but they didn’t allow for the reader interaction that news websites have. And though a resume and cover letter have long been staples of a job search, the ability to make your application packet stand out is a major step in even being considered for a position.”

Read more about Writing To Think: What High Achieving Students Have In Common.

13. Teaching to the test

“Preparing students to answer multiple choice questions is not true learning,” says Alyssa Hadley Dunn, assistant professor of teacher education at Michigan State University. “Those are not the skills that created Silicon Valley and Facebook, and I don’t believe the child who will eventually cure cancer will achieve that by learning to choose between A and B.”

Frustration with high-stakes testing and top-down educational policies is part of what led Dunn, in 2009, to leave her job as a English teacher. Despite working in a profession they say they love, teachers often become demoralised by a culture of high-stakes testing in which their evaluations are tied to student scores and because they have little say in the curriculum.

14. Perpetuating the Matthew Effect

Too often the story unfolds this way: struggling students are held back, amplifying their potential for failure, while skilled students move forward or even skip grades, amassing knowledge and confidence as they advance. A vicious cycle sets in, and perhaps nowhere is it more apparent than in a situation that tests reading ability: literature assignments increasingly require background knowledge and familiarity with certain terms that struggling students don’t recognise; courses in science, social studies, history and even math come to rely more and more on textual analysis. Struggling readers fall farther and farther behind as skilled students move on.

This damaging phenomenon is called the “Matthew Effect,” after the Bible verse found in the Gospel of Matthew: “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.” In other words, the academically rich get richer and the poor get poorer, as small differences in learning ability grow into large ones.

“But the Matthew effect has an important upside,” says psychologist Annie Murphy Paul, one that we’ll begin to wish we’d implemented earlier. “Well-timed interventions can reverse its direction, turning a vicious cycle into a virtuous one.”

15. Falling victim to the Shiny New Tech Syndrome

“We see a lot of schools that suffer from what I call ‘shiny object syndrome,’ where they get excited about a tool, and many times, they haven’t really thought through what the curricular impact is of those devices on the school,” says Andrew Shelffo, Chief Information Officer at Williston Northampton School in Massachusetts. He and his colleagues have found a successful way of implementing Surface Pro tablets into their curriculum, but doing so is still relatively rare.

With so many exciting educational apps and games available now, it’s all too easy to put engagement before educational aims. In time, though, we’ll become desensitised to the deluge of tech and start seeing it for what it’s actually worth.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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