Minimally Invasive Education

Library girls

Originally uploaded by dcolson5201

Let me take you on a short journey.

Around Easter time I wanted my Y8s to try web design using WordPress instead of Dreamweaver. Not an IT expert? I wanted them to use a new piece of software they hadn’t used before. So, I prepared some supporting resources and did my ‘teaching’ bit – standing at the front of the room, demonstrating how to do various things.

The result, perhaps predictably, was that the students got bored pretty quickly, didn’t really pay attention, I got cross and little progress was made – both in terms of the physical outcome (a website) and in terms of student understanding.

I realised that the students weren’t paying close attention because they didn’t need to know that bit of information at that time. I knew they would in about 3 minutes, but they didn’t. And so I showed everyone at once, no-one really cared, and then I had to do it again, 20 times over, as each person got to the point where they *did* want to know. But by then, I was grumpy and that only put the students off wanting to ask.

My immediate solution was to produce a quiz based around the software (What button do you press to do this? How many different themes are there to choose from? Etc…). The next lesson I got the students in groups, handed out the quiz and explicitly refused to help the students to get the answers. The result this time was students that wanted to know the answers and were engaged in trying to figure out the software and also helping each other. Resilience, peer support, all that (pedagogical) jazz.

That wasn’t a big pedagogical realisation for me, it was just part of the day-to-day continual reflection and readjustment that forms part of my job.

A month or two later I went to the Computing At School conference in Birmingham, and there I was fortunate enough to choose a session run by James Franklin entitled “The productive teacher”. There, I learned about Sugata Mitra, an Indian professor who has done pioneering work in the field of Minimally Invasive Education. The theory is quite simple – take away the teachers and rigidity, provide an environment in which people have the tools and resources required to learn, then just let them get on with it.

I realise now that this is exactly what I did with that pesky Y8 class. I provided the tools (computers and software) and the framework (quiz) to allow the students to learn. I then took myself out of the equation. The concepts were simple enough, the software relatively intuitive and the students now had a reason to want to learn. It’s a small experiment, and hardly conclusive, but I think there’s something in this idea.

Jumping ahead to the last two weeks of term and I’m trying a (slightly) longer experiment. Those same Y8s (2 classes of) have been given the CodeAvengers URL and been told that most of the rules no longer apply. They can talk to each other, they can move around the room at will, and I won’t be answering any questions. “Can we use a calculator?”, I’m not answering any questions. “How do I do this bit?”, I’m not answering any questions.

So far both of my Y8 classes have had a 1 hour lesson. The atmosphere has been massively more positive and there’s been a genuine sense of energy. The fact that students are walking around the room adds to that sense of energy and hasn’t detracted from the sense of purpose. The students are talking about their progress, how far they’ve got and what they can do to help each other. I did have some reservations about the idea, and here are the kinds of questions I would ask if this was someone else’s blog post:

What about the student who chooses not to engage or do the work?

I know this student. I’ve had a full year to know which student it is. And I’ve watched him (and her) like a hawk. This students chooses not to engage in ‘normal’ lessons. They typically find the work hard and find the option of not trying easier than having to apply effort and probably failing. In both lessons this student worked harder, and for longer, than they have in any other lesson this year. This student is not suddenly top of the class, but he/she has made significantly more progress in this lesson than in previous lessons. The momentum in the classroom pulls everyone along.

What about the student who finds it really hard and doesn’t want to look stupid in front of friends or the loner?

While there are loners in secondary schools, there are no hermits (that I’ve met). Even the student who hates working in groups and would much rather do his own thing has ended up engaging with others – far more than they would if they were forced to work in a group. One of my quietest and weakest students spent most of the lesson out of her seat. She made middling progress over the lesson, but having been shown how to solve one problem, she went on to help about half the class solve the same problem. This from a student who never speaks and is totally overwhelmed during group work.

How do you measure progress?

Measure, shmeasure. you don’t fatten a pig by weighing it every day. That said, you do need to measure progress, rightly or wrongly. Observation is good, and if I was going to make this a longer term strategy (which I am), then there would need to be some assessed tasks. But that comes *after* the learning, not during. Formative assessment can be informal and can be as simple as giving out a couple of stickers, or an occasional “well done”. It’s important to stil be there and to offer encouragement – just not ‘teaching’.

How do you make sure that the work is the students’ own?

If I give a student a series of 4 buttons to click on to achieve the outcome, and they do the clicking, whose work is it? Them because they did the mouse work, or me because I’m the only one who understands which buttons to click and why? Most good learners that I know *want* to learn. If they get stuck and they end up getting help then they have a burning desire to know *why* this answer is better than theirs. Now, yes, some of these students are not the most effective learners, but they do still want to know – especially when it’s from a peer. Me, I just *know stuff*, or I know loads of stuff, or I do this all the time (this is what the kids have told me). Peers are on an equal footing. It is to be expected that the sage on the stage will just know everything. If little Johnny in the next seat understands it, then why the heck shouldn’t I?

And those challenges, and my responses, are the reason why I think this idea might just be a huge one, for me at least.

Next year I plan to do a lot more MIE (or ‘sitting on my backside’, as it probably appears), and over prolonged periods. We (the students and I, together and separately) need to do some reflection on what we’ve learned, how we’ve learned it, why we’ve learned it, and whether this new (to me) strategy is a good one. I suspect it’ll require quite a bit of setting up in terms of preparing resources that the students can access independently and in a non-linear fashion, but I think the rewards might well be worth it.


6 thoughts on “Minimally Invasive Education

  1. Nice work, Mark. 🙂

    Essentially, and there’s many names for it, this is ‘blended learning’ . The difference is that you’re really pushing the envelope to make the overlap of the Venn diagram between ‘Just-in-time’ and ‘Teacher-led’ as tiny as possible.

    I like it.

  2. @infernaldepart says:

    Mark. Like yourself I’ve been trying out WordPress with my Year 10s as part of my BTEC unit is year. Like yourself I found myself getting continually frustrated with the lack of progress and the penny not dropping with one of my classes, to the point of, well I will leave that to your imagination! I took a step back and used students to lead the learning and also recorded vids and the WordPress website to put the onus on the students. It’s taken time but we’ve got there with some very pleasing results.

    I’ve also tried a similar approach this year with Viral Videos and Kodu with students very much taking ownership of the lesson with very little direction from me aside from the inital lessons. In some cases the results have been excellent whilst in others not so good. Next year l will provide a little more structure in terms of support materials and guidance but push the Digital leader idea forward and lets see what happens.

    Great post as always and I won’t even mention your #demigod status for once 😉

  3. I am interested in trying to support both the NZ curriculum as well as Australia and UK as well as I can with the resources I am developing. At the moment I am working on introductory HTML/CSS which should be ready in a week or so (I think the students will REALLY enjoy this one… even my wife enjoys it… and she hates computers!)

    I also have a friend working on Intro to Computer Science concepts which includes a bunch of fun little widgets (like others scattered all over the web).

    What other resources do you think Computing teachers like you in the UK really need?

  4. Fantastic. There have been several times I’ve been conscious of the idea that students seem to learn better in ICT if I just get out of the way!

    I was particularly struck by your comment :

    (this) can be as simple as giving out a couple of stickers, or an occasional “well done”. It’s important to stil be there and to offer encouragement – just not ‘teaching’.

    For me, this chimed with the second part of Mitra’ work with what he calls ‘the granny cloud’ – basically a link between groups of children and someone who they can tell what they’re doing and who praises them for it. Can’t remember the exact figures but he got pretty close to ‘normal’ high school test scores simply with the hole in the wall + the granny cloud. Some pretty interesting implications for what we do in schools if that’s the case!

  5. Hi Mark, fantastic post. I’ve been a fan and advocate of Mitra’s ideas for some time now. The underpinning values of MIE permeate all of my classes, which include bottom set Y10 English, mixed ability Y11 Media and Y13 Media to name just three.

    The degree of MIE I take differs but essentially I seek to encourage as much independence as possible by doing as little as possible in the way of ‘transmission-based’ teaching. Instead I try to encourage students to view as just another resource, given equal status alongside their peers and Google. 🙂

    I find that as time goes on, they come to rely on me less as they develop the resilience and skills they need to work through problems more autonomously. This is still very hard for a lot of teachers to grasp or believe can work. I think that what needs to be made clear is that the teacher is not ‘doing nothing’ or ‘being replaced’ with such an approach. Instead it opens up greater opportunity for differentiated, personalised support, as well as a further emphasis on formative assessment, being that there is more time to “observe” the students.

    I applaud the approach you are taking and can’t wait to hear more about how you and your students progress.

    I’d also suggest, if you haven’t done so already, you read as much of Mitra’s work as possible… I’ve completed modules on IL for my M.Ed and have copies of all the main papers. I’d be happy to email them to you. The later papers have some significant data and useful ideas about implementation that suit ‘school-based contexts’, including the “granny-cloud” that Dave referred to.

  6. Peter Thompson says:

    I have just come across your post Mark and have enjoyed reading it. It rings so many bells for me. In fact I was engaged in some “transmission based” teaching this very day with my Year 11s. It was for their own good naturally – they would need this knowledge in the assessment after all, and I know so much and it is my job to impart this to them. I actually used words to this effect (shudder) as a justification for a long period of writing notes from the board. Perhaps now I will just give them the assessment and let them come to me for help when they need to. I think I will talk to them about it.

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