Posts Tagged ‘COVID’

On 21 January, I attended the launch webinar of DEFI (the Digital Education Futures Initiative), an initiative of the University of Cambridge, which seeks to work ‘with partners in industry, policy and practice to explore the field of possibilities that digital technology opens up for education’. The opening keynote speaker was Andrea Schleicher, head of education at the OECD. The OECD’s vision of the future of education is outlined in Schleicher’s book, ‘World Class: How to Build a 21st-Century School System’, freely available from the OECD, but his presentation for DEFI offers a relatively short summary. A recording is available here, and this post will take a closer look at some of the things he had to say.

Schleicher is a statistician and the coordinator of the OECD’s PISA programme. Along with other international organisations, such as the World Economic Forum and the World Bank (see my post here), the OECD promotes the global economization and corporatization of education, ‘based on the [human capital] view that developing work skills is the primary purpose of schooling’ (Spring, 2015: 14). In other words, the main proper function of education is seen to be meeting the needs of global corporate interests. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the impact of school closures becoming very visible, Schleicher expressed concern about the disruption to human capital development, but thought it was ‘a great moment’: ‘the current wave of school closures offers an opportunity for experimentation and for envisioning new models of education’. Every cloud has a silver lining, and the pandemic has been a godsend for private companies selling digital learning (see my post about this here) and for those who want to reimagine education in a more corporate way.

Schleicher’s presentation for DEFI was a good opportunity to look again at the way in which organisations like the OECD are shaping educational discourse (see my post about the EdTech imaginary and ELT).

He begins by suggesting that, as a result of the development of digital technology (Google, YouTube, etc.) literacy is ‘no longer just about extracting knowledge’. PISA reading scores, he points out, have remained more or less static since 2000, despite the fact that we have invested (globally) more than 15% extra per student in this time. Only 9% of all 15-year-old students in the industrialised world can distinguish between fact and opinion.

To begin with, one might argue about the reliability and validity of the PISA reading scores (Berliner, 2020). One might also argue, as did a collection of 80 education experts in a letter to the Guardian, that the scores themselves are responsible for damaging global education, raising further questions about their validity. One might argue that the increased investment was spent in the wrong way (e.g. on hardware and software, rather than teacher training, for example), because the advice of organisations like OECD has been uncritically followed. And the statistic about critical reading skills is fairly meaningless unless it is compared to comparable metrics over a long time span: there is no reason to believe that susceptibility to fake news is any more of a problem now than it was, say, one hundred years ago. Nor is there any reason to believe that education can solve the fake-news problem (see my post about fake news and critical thinking here). These are more than just quibbles, but the main point that Schleicher is making is that education needs to change.

Schleicher next presents a graph which is designed to show that the amount of time that students spend studying correlates poorly with the amount they learn. His interest is in the (lack of) productivity of educational activities in some contexts. He goes on to argue that there is greater productivity in educational activities when learners have a growth mindset, implying (but not stating) that mindset interventions in schools would lead to a more productive educational environment.

Schleicher appears to confuse what students learn with the things they have learnt that have been measured by PISA. The two are obviously rather different, since PISA is only interested in a relatively small subset of the possible learning outcomes of schooling. His argument for growth mindset interventions hinges on the assumption that such interventions will lead to gains in reading scores. However, his graph demonstrates a correlation between growth mindset and reading scores, not a causal relationship. A causal relationship has not been clearly and empirically demonstrated (see my post about growth mindsets here) and recent work by Carol Dweck and her associates (e.g. Yeager et al., 2016), as well as other researchers (e.g. McPartlan et al, 2020), indicates that the relationship between gains in learning outcomes and mindset interventions is extremely complex.

Schleicher then turns to digitalisation and briefly discusses the positive and negative affordances of technology. He eulogizes platform companies before showing a slide designed to demonstrate that (in the workplace) there is a strong correlation between ICT use and learning. He concludes: ‘the digital world of learning is a hugely empowering world of learning’.

A brief paraphrase of this very disingenuous part of the presentation would be: technology can be good and bad, but I’ll only focus on the former. The discourse appears balanced, but it is anything but.

During the segment, Schleicher argues that technology is empowering, and gives the examples of ‘the most successful companies these days, they’re not created by a big industry, they’re created by a big idea’. This is plainly counterfactual. In the case of Alphabet and Facebook, profits did not follow from a ‘big idea’: the ideas changed as the companies evolved.

Schleicher then sketches a picture of an unpredictable future (pandemics, climate change, AI, cyber wars, etc.) as a way of framing the importance of being open (and resilient) to different futures and how we respond to them. He offers two different kinds of response: maintenance of the status quo, or ‘outsourcing’ of education. The pandemic, he suggests, has made more countries aware that the latter is the way forward.

In his discussion of the maintenance of the status quo, Schleicher talks about the maintenance of educational monopolies. By this, he must be referring to state monopolies on education: this is a favoured way of neoliberals of referring to state-sponsored education. But the extent to which, in 2021 in many OECD countries, the state has any kind of monopoly of education, is very open to debate. Privatization is advancing fast. Even in 2015, the World Education Forum’s ‘Final Report’ wrote that ‘the scale of engagement of nonstate actors at all levels of education is growing and becoming more diversified’. Schleicher goes on to talk about ‘large, bureaucratic school systems’, suggesting that such systems cannot be sufficiently agile, adaptive or responsive. ‘We should ask this question,’ he says, but his own answer to it is totally transparent: ‘changing education can be like moving graveyards’ is the title of the next slide. Education needs to be more like the health sector, he claims, which has been able to develop a COVID vaccine in such a short period of time. We need an education industry that underpins change in the same way as the health industry underpins vaccine development. In case his message isn’t yet clear enough, I’ll spell it out: education needs to be privatized still further.

Schleicher then turns to the ways in which he feels that digital technology can enhance learning. These include the use of AR, VR and AI. Technology, he says, can make learning so much more personalized: ‘the computer can study how you study, and then adapt learning so that it is much more granular, so much more adaptive, so much more responsive to your learning style’. He moves on to the field of assessment, again singing the praises of technology in the ways that it can offer new modes of assessment and ‘increase the reliability of machine rating for essays’. Through technology, we can ‘reunite learning and assessment’. Moving on to learning analytics, he briefly mentions privacy issues, before enthusing at greater length about the benefits of analytics.

Learning styles? Really? The reliability of machine scoring of essays? How reliable exactly? Data privacy as an area worth only a passing mention? The use of sensors to measure learners’ responses to learning experiences? Any pretence of balance appears now to have been shed. This is in-your-face sales talk.

Next up is a graph which purports to show the number of teachers in OECD countries who use technology for learners’ project work. This is followed by another graph showing the number of teachers who have participated in face-to-face and online CPD. The point of this is to argue that online CPD needs to become more common.

I couldn’t understand what point he was trying to make with the first graph. For the second, it is surely the quality of the CPD, rather than the channel, that matters.

Schleicher then turns to two further possible responses of education to unpredictable futures: ‘schools as learning hubs’ and ‘learn-as-you-go’. In the latter, digital infrastructure replaces physical infrastructure. Neither is explored in any detail. The main point appears to be that we should consider these possibilities, weighing up as we do so the risks and the opportunities (see slide below).

Useful ways to frame questions about the future of education, no doubt, but Schleicher is operating with a set of assumptions about the purpose of education, which he chooses not to explore. His fundamental assumption – that the primary purpose of education is to develop human capital in and for the global economy – is not one that I would share. However, if you do take that view, then privatization, economization, digitalization and the training of social-emotional competences are all reasonable corollaries, and the big question about the future concerns how to go about this in a more efficient way.

Schleicher’s (and the OECD’s) views are very much in accord with the libertarian values of the right-wing philanthro-capitalist foundations of the United States (the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation and so on), funded by Silicon Valley and hedge-fund managers. It is to the US that we can trace the spread and promotion of these ideas, but it is also, perhaps, to the US that we can now turn in search of hope for an alternative educational future. The privatization / disruption / reform movement in the US has stalled in recent years, as it has become clear that it failed to deliver on its promise of improved learning. The resistance to privatized and digitalized education is chronicled in Diane Ravitch’s latest book, ‘Slaying Goliath’ (2020). School closures during the pandemic may have been ‘a great moment’ for Schleicher, but for most of us, they have underscored the importance of face-to-face free public schooling. Now, with the electoral victory of Joe Biden and the appointment of a new US Secretary for Education (still to be confirmed), we are likely to see, for the first time in decades, an education policy that is firmly committed to public schools. The US is by far the largest contributor to the budget of the OECD – more than twice any other nation. Perhaps a rethink of the OECD’s educational policies will soon be in order?

References

Berliner D.C. (2020) The Implications of Understanding That PISA Is Simply Another Standardized Achievement Test. In Fan G., Popkewitz T. (Eds.) Handbook of Education Policy Studies. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-8343-4_13

McPartlan, P., Solanki, S., Xu, D. & Sato, B. (2020) Testing Basic Assumptions Reveals When (Not) to Expect Mindset and Belonging Interventions to Succeed. AERA Open, 6 (4): 1 – 16 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/2332858420966994

Ravitch, D. (2020) Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public School. New York: Vintage Books

Schleicher, A. (2018) World Class: How to Build a 21st-Century School System. Paris: OECD Publishing https://www.oecd.org/education/world-class-9789264300002-en.htm

Spring, J. (2015) Globalization of Education 2nd Edition. New York: Routledge

Yeager, D. S., et al. (2016) Using design thinking to improve psychological interventions: The case of the growth mindset during the transition to high school. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108(3), 374–391. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000098

Since no single definition of critical thinking prevails (Dummett & Hughes, 2019: 2), discussions of the topic invariably begin with attempts to provide a definition. Lai (2011) offers an accessible summary of a range of possible meanings, but points out that, in educational contexts, its meaning is often rather vague and encompasses other concepts (such as higher order thinking skills) which also lack clarity. Paul Dummett and John Hughes (2019: 4) plump for ‘a mindset that involves thinking reflectively, rationally and reasonably’ – a definition which involves a vague noun (that could mean a fixed state of mind, a learned attitude, a disposition or a mood) and three highly subjective adverbs. I don’t think I could do any better. However, instead of looking for a definition, we can reach a sort of understanding by looking at examples of it. Dummett and Hughes’ book is extremely rich in practical examples, and the picture that emerges of critical thinking is complex and multifaceted.

As you might expect of a weasel word like ‘critical thinking’, there appears to be general agreement that it’s a ‘good thing’. Paul Dummett suggests that there are two common reasons for promoting the inclusion of critical thinking activities in the language classroom. The first of these is a desire to get students thinking for themselves. The second is the idea ‘that we live in an age of misinformation in which only the critically minded can avoid manipulation or slavish conformity’. Neither seems contentious at first glance, although he points out that ‘they tend to lead to a narrow application of critical thinking in ELT materials: that is to say, the analysis of texts and evaluation of the ideas expressed in them’. It’s the second of these rationales that I’d like to explore further.

Penny Ur (2020: 9) offers a more extended version of it:

The role of critical thinking in education has become more central in the 21st century, simply because there is far more information readily available to today’s students than there was in previous centuries (mainly, but not only, online), and it is vital for them to be able to deal with such input wisely. They need to be able to distinguish between what is important and what is trivial, between truth and lies, between fact and opinion, between logical argument and specious propaganda […] Without such skills and awareness of the need to exercise them, they are liable to find themselves victims of commercial or political interests, their thinking manipulated by persuasion disguised as information.

In the same edited collection Olja Milosevic (2020:18) echoes Ur’s argument:

Critical thinking becomes even more important as communication increasingly moves online. Students find an overwhelming amount of information and need to be taught how to evaluate its relevance, accuracy and quality. If teachers do not teach students how to go beyond surface meaning, students cannot be expected to practise it.

In the passages I’ve quoted, these writers are referring to one particular kind of critical thinking. The ability to critically evaluate the reliability, accuracy, etc of a text is generally considered to be a part of what is usually called ‘media information literacy’. In these times of fake news, so the argument goes, it is vital for students to develop (with their teachers’ help) the necessary skills to spot fake news when they see it. The most prototypical critical thinking activity in ELT classrooms is probably one in which students analyse some fake news, such as the website about the Pacific Tree Octopus (which is the basis of a lesson in Dudeney et al., 2013: 198 – 203).

Before considering media information literacy in more detail, it’s worth noting in passing that a rationale for critical thinking activities is no rationale at all if it only concerns one aspect of critical thinking, since it has applied attributes of a part (media information literacy) to a bigger whole (critical thinking).

There is no shortage of good (free) material available for dealing with fake news in the ELT classroom. Examples include work by James Taylor, Chia Suan Chong and Tyson Seburn. Material of this kind may result in lively, interesting, cognitively challenging, communicative and, therefore, useful lessons. But how likely is it that material of this kind will develop learners’ media information literacy and, by extension therefore, their critical thinking skills? How likely is it that teaching material of this kind will help people identify (and reject) fake news? Is it possible that material of this kind is valuable despite its rationale, rather than because of it? In the spirit of rational, reflective and reasonable thinking, these are questions that seem to be worth exploring.

ELT classes and fake news

James Taylor has suggested that the English language classroom is ‘the perfect venue for [critical thinking] skills to be developed’. Although academic English courses necessarily involve elements of critical thinking, I’m not so sure that media information literacy (and, specifically, the identification of fake news) can be adequately addressed in general English classes. There are so many areas, besides those that are specifically language-focussed, competing for space in language classes (think of all those other 21st century skills), that it is hard to see how sufficient time can be found for real development of this skill. It requires modelling, practice of the skill, feedback on the practice, and more practice (Mulnix, 2010): it needs time. Fake news activities in the language classroom would, of course, be of greater value if they were part of an integrated approach across the curriculum. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.

Information literacy skills

Training materials for media information literacy usually involve a number of stages. These include things like fact-checking and triangulation of different sources, consideration of web address, analysis of images, other items on the site, source citation and so on. The problem, however, is that news-fakers have become so good at what they do. The tree octopus site is very crude in comparison to what can be produced nowadays by people who have learnt to profit from the online economy of misinformation. Facebook employs an army of algorithmic and human fact-checkers, but still struggles. The bottom line is that background knowledge is needed (this is as true for media information literacy as it is for critical thinking more generally) (Willingham, 2007). With news, the scope of domain knowledge is so vast that it is extremely hard to transfer one’s ability to critically evaluate one particular piece of news to another. We are all fooled from time to time.

Media information literacy interventions: research on effectiveness

With the onset of COVID-19, the ability to identify fake news has become, more than ever, a matter of life and death. There is little question that this ability correlates strongly with analytic thinking (see, for example, Stanley et al., 2020). What is much less clear is how we can go about promoting analytic thinking. Analytic thinking comes in different varieties, and another hot-off-the-press research study into susceptibility to COVID-19 fake news (Roozenbeek et al., 2020) has found that the ability to spot fake news may correlate more strongly with numerical literacy than with reasoning ability. In fact, the research team found that a lack of numerical literacy was the most consistent predictor of susceptibility to misinformation about COVID-19. Perhaps we are attempting to develop the wrong kind of analytic thinking?

In educational contexts, attempts to promote media information literacy typically seek to develop reasoning abilities, and the evidence for their effectiveness is mixed. First of all, it needs to be said that ‘little large-scale evidence exists on the effectiveness of promoting digital media literacy as a response to online misinformation’ (Guess et al., 2020). An early meta-analysis (Jeong et al., 2012) found that such interventions had a positive effect, when the interventions were long (not one-off), but impacted more on students’ knowledge than they did on their behaviour. More recently, Huguet et al (2019) were unable to draw ‘definitive conclusions from past research, such as what kinds of media literacy practices work and under what conditions’. And this year, a study by Guess et al (2020) did not generate sufficient evidence ‘to conclude that the [media information literacy] intervention changed real-world consumption of false news’. I am unaware of any robust research in this area in the context of ELT.

It’s all rather disappointing. Why are we not better at it? After all, teachers of media studies have been exploring pathways for many years now. One possible answer is this: Media information literacy, like critical thinking more generally, is a skill that is acquirable, but it can only be acquired if there is a disposition to do so. The ability to think critically and the disposition to do so are separate entities (Facione, 2000). Training learners to be more critical in their approach to media information may be so much pissing in the wind if the disposition to be sceptical is not there. Shaping dispositions is a much harder task than training skills.

Both of the research studies into susceptibility to COVID-19 misinformation that I referred to earlier in this section underscore the significance of dispositions to analytic thinking. Roozenbeek et al (2020) found, in line with much previous research (for example, Jost et al. 2018), that political conservatism is associated with a slightly higher susceptibility to misinformation. Political views (on either side of the political spectrum) rarely change as a result of exposure to science or reasoned thinking. They also found that ‘self-identifying as a member of a minority predicts susceptibility to misinformation about the virus in all countries surveyed’ (except, interestingly, in the UK). Again, when issues of identity are at stake, emotional responses tend to trump rational ones.

Rational, reflective and reasonable thinking about media information literacy leads to an uncomfortable red-pill rabbit-hole. This is how Bulger and Davidson (2018) put it:

The extent to which media literacy can combat the problematic news environment is an open question. Is denying the existence of climate change a media literacy problem? Is believing that a presidential candidate was running a sex-trafficking ring out of a pizza shop a media literacy problem? Can media literacy combat the intentionally opaque systems of serving news on social media platforms? Or intentional campaigns of disinformation?

Teachers and fake news

The assumption that the critical thinking skills of young people can be developed through the intervention of their teachers is rarely problematized. It should be. A recent study of Spanish pre-service teachers (Fuertes-Prieto et al., 2020) showed that their ‘level of belief in pseudoscientific issues is comparable, or even higher in some cases to those of the general population’. There is no reason to believe that this changes after they have qualified. Teachers are probably no more likely to change their beliefs when presented with empirical evidence (Menz et al., 2020) than people from any other profession. Research has tended to focus on teachers’ lack of critical thinking in areas related to their work, but, things may be no different in the wider world. It is estimated that over a quarter of teachers in the US voted for the world’s greatest peddler of fake news in the 2016 presidential election.

It is also interesting to note that the sharing of fake news on social media is much more widespread among older people (including US teachers who have an average age of 42.4) than those under 30 (Bouygues, 2019).

Institutional contexts and fake news

Cory Doctorow has suggested that the fake news problem is not a problem of identifying what is true and what is fake, but a problem ‘about how we know whether something is true. We’re not disagreeing about facts, we’re disagreeing about epistemology’. In a post-modernist world of ‘Truth Decay’ (Kavanagh & Rich, 2018), where there is ‘a blurring of the line between opinion and fact’, epistemological authority is a rare commodity. Medicine, social sciences and applied linguistics are all currently experiencing a ‘replication crisis’ (Ioannidis, 2005) and we had a British education minister saying that ‘people of this country have had enough of experts’.

News reporting has always relied to some extent on trust in the reliability of the news source. The BBC or CNN might attempt to present themselves as more objective than, say, Fox News or InfoWars, but trust in all news outlets has collapsed globally in recent years. As Michael Shudson has written in the Columbia Journalism Review, ‘all news outlets write from a set of values, not simply from a disinterested effort at truth’. If a particular news channel manifestly shares different values from your own, it is easy to reject the veracity of the news it reports. Believers in COVID conspiracy theories often hold their views precisely because of their rejection of the epistemological authority of mainstream news and the WHO or governments who support lockdown measures.

The training of media information literacy in schools is difficult because, for many people in the US (and elsewhere), education is not dissimilar to mainstream media. They ‘are seen as the enemy — two institutions who are trying to have power over how people think. Two institutions that are trying to assert authority over epistemology’ (boyd, 2018). Schools have always been characterized by imbalances in power (between students and teachers / administrators), and this power dynamic is not conducive to open-minded enquiry. Children are often more aware of the power of their teachers than they are accepting of their epistemological authority. They are enjoined to be critical thinkers, but only about certain things and only up to a certain point. One way for children to redress the power imbalance is to reject the epistemological authority of their teachers. I think this may explain why a group of young children I observed recently coming out of a lesson devoted to environmental issues found such pleasure in joking about Greta ‘Thunfisch’.

Power relationships in schools are reflected and enacted in the interaction patterns between teachers and students. The most common of these is ‘initiation-response-feedback (IRF)’ and it is unlikely that this is particularly conducive to rational, reflective and reasonable thinking. At the same time, as Richard Paul, one of the early advocates of critical thinking in schools, noted, much learning activity is characterised by lower order thinking skills, especially memorization (Paul, 1992: 22). With this kind of backdrop, training in media information literacy is more likely to be effective if it goes beyond the inclusion of a few ‘fake news’ exercises: a transformation in the way that the teaching is done will also be needed. Benesch (1999) describes this as a more ‘dialogic’ approach and there is some evidence that a more dialogic approach can have a positive impact on students’ dispositions (e.g. Hajhosseiny, 2012).

I think that David Buckingham (2019a) captures the educational problem very neatly:

There’s a danger here of assuming that we are dealing with a rational process – or at least one that can, by some pedagogical means, be made rational. But from an educational perspective, we surely have to begin with the question of why people might believe apparently ‘fake’ news in the first place. Where we decide to place our trust is as much to do with fantasy, emotion and desire, as with rational calculation. All of us are inclined to believe what we want to believe.

Fake news: a problem or a symptom of a problem?

There has always been fake news. The big problem now is ‘the speed and ease of its dissemination, and it exists primarily because today’s digital capitalism makes it extremely profitable – look at Google and Facebook – to produce and circulate false but click-worthy narratives’ (Morosov, 2017). Fake news taps into and amplifies broader tendencies and divides in society: the problem is not straightforward and is unlikely to be easy to eradicate (Buckingham, 2019a: 3).

There is increasing discussion of media regulation and the recent banning by Facebook of Holocaust denial and QAnon is a recognition that some regulation cannot now be avoided. But strict regulations would threaten the ‘basic business model, and the enormous profitability’ of social media companies (Buckingham, 2009b) and there are real practical and ethical problems in working out exactly how regulation would happen. Governments do not know what to do.

Lacking any obvious alternative, media information literacy is often seen as the solution: can’t we ‘fact check and moderate our way out of this conundrum’ (boyd, 2018)? danah boyd’s stark response is, no, this will fail. It’s an inadequate solution to an oversimplified problem (Buckingham, 2019a).

Along with boyd and Buckingham, I’m not trying to argue that we drop media information literacy activities from educational (including ELT) programmes. Quite the opposite. But if we want our students to think reflectively, rationally and reasonably, I think we will need to start by doing the same.

References

Benesch, S. (1999). Thinking critically, thinking dialogically. TESOL Quarterly, 33: pp. 573 – 580

Bouygues, H. L. (2019). Fighting Fake News: Lessons From The Information Wars. Reboot Foundation https://reboot-foundation.org/fighting-fake-news/

boyd, d. (2018). You Think You Want Media Literacy… Do You? Data and Society: Points https://points.datasociety.net/you-think-you-want-media-literacy-do-you-7cad6af18ec2

Buckingham, D. (2019a). Teaching Media in a ‘Post-Truth’ Age: Fake News, Media Bias and the Challenge for Media Literacy Education. Cultura y Educación 31(2): pp. 1-19

Buckingham, D. (2019b). Rethinking digital literacy: Media education in the age of digital capitalism. https://ddbuckingham.files.wordpress.com/2019/12/media-education-in-digital-capitalism.pdf

Bulger, M. & Davidson, P. (2018). The Promises, Challenges and Futures of Media Literacy. Data and Society. https://datasociety.net/pubs/oh/DataAndSociety_Media_Literacy_2018.pdf

Doctorow, C. (2017). Three kinds of propaganda, and what to do about them. boingboing 25th February 2017, https://boingboing.net/2017/02/25/counternarratives-not-fact-che.html

Dudeney, G., Hockly, N. & Pegrum, M. (2013). Digital Literacies. Harlow: Pearson Education

Dummett, P. & Hughes, J. (2019). Critical Thinking in ELT. Boston: National Geographic Learning

Facione, P. A. (2000). The disposition toward critical thinking: Its character, measurement, and relation to critical thinking skill. Informal Logic, 20(1), 61–84.

Fuertes-Prieto, M.Á., Andrés-Sánchez, S., Corrochano-Fernández, D. et al. (2020). Pre-service Teachers’ False Beliefs in Superstitions and Pseudosciences in Relation to Science and Technology. Science & Education 29, 1235–1254 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-020-00140-8

Guess, A. M., Lerner, M., Lyons, B., Montgomery, J. M., Nyhan, N., Reifler, J. & Sircar, N. (2020). A digital media literacy intervention increases discernment between mainstream and false news in the United States and India. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Jul 2020, 117 (27) 15536-15545; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1920498117

Hajhosseiny, M. (2012). The Effect of Dialogic Teaching on Students’ Critical Thinking Disposition. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 69: pp. 1358 – 1368

Huguet, A., Kavanagh, J., Baker, G. & Blumenthal, M. S. (2019). Exploring Media Literacy Education as a Tool for Mitigating Truth Decay. RAND Corporation, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR3000/RR3050/RAND_RR3050.pdf

Ioannidis, J. P. A. (2005). Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. PLoS Medicine 2 (8): e124. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124

Jeong, S. H., Cho, H., & Hwang, Y. (2012). Media literacy interventions: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Communication, 62, pp. 454–472

Jones-Jang, S. M., Mortensen, T. & Liu, J. (2019). Does media literacy help identification of fake news? Information literacy helps, but other literacies don’t. American Behavioral Scientist, pp. 1 – 18, doi:10.1177/0002764219869406

Jost, J. T., van der Linden, S., Panagopoulos, C. & Hardin, C. D. (2018). Ideological asymmetries in conformity, desire for shared reality, and the spread of misinformation. Current Opinion in Psychology, 23: pp/ 77-83. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2018.01.003

Kavanagh, J. & Rich, M. D. (2018). Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life. RAND Corporation, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2314.html

Lai, E.R. 2011. Critical Thinking: A Literature Review. Pearson. http://images.pearsonassessments.com/images/tmrs/CriticalThinkingReviewFINAL.pdf

Menz, C., Spinath, B. & Seifried, E. (2020). Misconceptions die hard: prevalence and reduction of wrong beliefs in topics from educational psychology among preservice teachers. European Journal of Psychology of Education https://doi.org/10.1007/s10212-020-00474-5

Milosevic, O. (2020). Promoting critical thinking in the EFL classroom. In Mavridi, S. & Xerri, D. (Eds.) English for 21st Century Skills. Newbury, Berks.: Express Publishing. pp.17 – 22

Morozov, E. (2017). Moral panic over fake news hides the real enemy – the digital giants. The Guardian, 8 January 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/08/blaming-fake-news-not-the-answer-democracy-crisis

Mulnix, J.W. 2010. ‘Thinking critically about critical thinking’ Educational Philosophy and Theory, 2010

Paul, R. W. (1992). Critical thinking: What, why, and how? New Directions for Community Colleges, 77: pp. 3–24.

Roozenbeek, J., Schneider, C.R., Dryhurst, S., Kerr, J., Freeman, A. L. J., Recchia, G., van der Bles, A. M. & and van der Linden, S. (2020). Susceptibility to misinformation about COVID-19 around the world. Royal Society Open Science, 7 (10) https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.201199

Stanley, M., Barr, N., Peters, K. & Seli, P. (2020). Analytic-thinking predicts hoax beliefs and helping behaviors in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. PsyArxiv Preprints doi:10.31234/osf.io/m3vt

Ur, P. (2020). Critical Thinking. In Mavridi, S. & Xerri, D. (Eds.) English for 21st Century Skills. Newbury, Berks.: Express Publishing. pp.9 – 16

Willingham, D. T. (2007). Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach? American Educator Summer 2007: pp. 8 – 19

Take the Cambridge Assessment English website, for example. When you connect to the site, you will see, at the bottom of the screen, a familiar (to people in Europe, at least) notification about the site’s use of cookies: the cookies consent.

You probably trust the site, so ignore the notification and quickly move on to find the resource you are looking for. But if you did click on hyperlinked ‘set cookies’, what would you find? The first link takes you to the ‘Cookie policy’ where you will be told that ‘We use cookies principally because we want to make our websites and mobile applications user-friendly, and we are interested in anonymous user behaviour. Generally our cookies don’t store sensitive or personally identifiable information such as your name and address or credit card details’. Scroll down, and you will find out more about the kind of cookies that are used. Besides the cookies that are necessary to the functioning of the site, you will see that there are also ‘third party cookies’. These are explained as follows: ‘Cambridge Assessment works with third parties who serve advertisements or present offers on our behalf and personalise the content that you see. Cookies may be used by those third parties to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store personal information directly but use a unique identifier in your browser or internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted content’.

This is not factually inaccurate: personal information is not stored directly. However, it is extremely easy for this information to be triangulated with other information to identify you personally. In addition to the data that you generate by having cookies on your device, Cambridge Assessment will also directly collect data about you. Depending on your interactions with Cambridge Assessment, this will include ‘your name, date of birth, gender, contact data including your home/work postal address, email address and phone number, transaction data including your credit card number when you make a payment to us, technical data including internet protocol (IP) address, login data, browser type and technology used to access this website’. They say they may share this data ‘with other people and/or businesses who provide services on our behalf or at our request’ and ‘with social media platforms, including but not limited to Facebook, Google, Google Analytics, LinkedIn, in pseudonymised or anonymised forms’.

In short, Cambridge Assessment may hold a huge amount of data about you and they can, basically, do what they like with it.

The cookie and privacy policies are fairly standard, as is the lack of transparency in the phrasing of them. Rather more transparency would include, for example, information about which particular ad trackers you are giving your consent to. This information can be found with a browser extension tool like Ghostery, and these trackers can be blocked. As you’ll see below, there are 5 ad trackers on this site. This is rather more than other sites that English language teachers are likely to go to. ETS-TOEFL has 4, Macmillan English and Pearson have 3, CUP ELT and the British Council Teaching English have 1, OUP ELT, IATEFL, BBC Learning English and Trinity College have none. I could only find TESOL, with 6 ad trackers, which has more. The blogs for all these organisations invariably have more trackers than their websites.

The use of numerous ad trackers is probably a reflection of the importance that Cambridge Assessment gives to social media marketing. There is a research paper, produced by Cambridge Assessment, which outlines the significance of big data and social media analytics. They have far more Facebook followers (and nearly 6 million likes) than any other ELT page, and they are proud of their #1 ranking in the education category of social media. The amount of data that can be collected here is enormous and it can be analysed in myriad ways using tools like Ubervu, Yomego and Hootsuite.

A little more transparency, however, would not go amiss. According to a report in Vox, Apple has announced that some time next year ‘iPhone users will start seeing a new question when they use many of the apps on their devices: Do they want the app to follow them around the internet, tracking their behavior?’ Obviously, Google and Facebook are none too pleased about this and will be fighting back. The implications for ad trackers and online advertising, more generally, are potentially huge. I wrote to Cambridge Assessment about this and was pleased to hear that ‘Cambridge Assessment are currently reviewing the process by which we obtain users consent for the use of cookies with the intention of moving to a much more transparent model in the future’. Let’s hope that other ELT organisations are doing the same.

You may be less bothered than I am by the thought of dozens of ad trackers following you around the net so that you can be served with more personalized ads. But the digital profile about you, to which these cookies contribute, may include information about your ethnicity, disabilities and sexual orientation. This profile is auctioned to advertisers when you visit some sites, allowing them to show you ‘personalized’ adverts based on the categories in your digital profile. Contrary to EU regulations, these categories may include whether you have cancer, a substance-abuse problem, your politics and religion (as reported in Fortune https://fortune.com/2019/01/28/google-iab-sensitive-profiles/ ).

But it’s not these cookies that are the most worrying aspect about our lack of digital privacy. It’s the sheer quantity of personal data that is stored about us. Every time we ask our students to use an app or a platform, we are asking them to divulge huge amounts of data. With ClassDojo, for example, this includes names, usernames, passwords, age, addresses, photographs, videos, documents, drawings, or audio files, IP addresses and browser details, clicks, referring URL’s, time spent on site, and page views (Manolev et al., 2019; see also Williamson, 2019).

It is now widely recognized that the ‘consent’ that is obtained through cookie policies and other end-user agreements is largely spurious. These consent agreements, as Sadowski (2019) observes, are non-negotiated, and non-negotiable; you either agree or you are denied access. What’s more, he adds, citing one study, it would take 76 days, working for 8 hours a day, to read the privacy policies a person typically encounters in a year. As a result, most of us choose not to choose when we accept online services (Cobo, 2019: 25). We have little, if any, control over how the data that is collected is used (Birch et al., 2020). More importantly, perhaps, when we ask our students to sign up to an educational app, we are asking / telling them to give away their personal data, not just ours. They are unlikely to fully understand the consequences of doing so.

The extent of this ignorance is also now widely recognized. In the UK, for example, two reports (cited by Sander, 2020) indicate that ‘only a third of people know that data they have not actively chosen to share has been collected’ (Doteveryone, 2018: 5), and that ‘less than half of British adult internet users are aware that apps collect their location and information on their personal preferences’ (Ofcom, 2019: 14).

The main problem with this has been expressed by programmer and activist, Richard Stallman, in an interview with New York magazine (Kulwin, 2018): Companies are collecting data about people. The data that is collected will be abused. That’s not an absolute certainty, but it’s a practical, extreme likelihood, which is enough to make collection a problem.

The abuse that Smallman is referring to can come in a variety of forms. At the relatively trivial end is the personalized advertising. Much more serious is the way that data aggregation companies will scrape data from a variety of sources, building up individual data profiles which can be used to make significant life-impacting decisions, such as final academic grades or whether one is offered a job, insurance or credit (Manolev et al., 2019). Cathy O’Neil’s (2016) best-selling ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’ spells out in detail how this abuse of data increases racial, gender and class inequalities. And after the revelations of Edward Snowden, we all know about the routine collection by states of huge amounts of data about, well, everyone. Whether it’s used for predictive policing or straightforward repression or something else, it is simply not possible for younger people, our students, to know what personal data they may regret divulging at a later date.

Digital educational providers may try to reassure us that they will keep data private, and not use it for advertising purposes, but the reassurances are hollow. These companies may change their terms and conditions further down the line, and examples exist of when this has happened (Moore, 2018: 210). But even if this does not happen, the data can never be secure. Illegal data breaches and cyber attacks are relentless, and education ranked worst at cybersecurity out of 17 major industries in one recent analysis (Foresman, 2018). One report suggests that one in five US schools and colleges have fallen victim to cyber-crime. Two weeks ago, I learnt (by chance, as I happened to be looking at my security settings on Chrome) that my passwords for Quizlet, Future Learn, Elsevier and Science Direct had been compromised by a data breach. To get a better understanding of the scale of data breaches, you might like to look at the UK’s IT Governance site, which lists detected and publicly disclosed data breaches and cyber attacks each month (36.6 million records breached in August 2020). If you scroll through the list, you’ll see how many of them are educational sites. You’ll also see a comment about how leaky organisations have been throughout lockdown … because they weren’t prepared for the sudden shift online.

Recent years have seen a growing consensus that ‘it is crucial for language teaching to […] encompass the digital literacies which are increasingly central to learners’ […] lives’ (Dudeney et al., 2013). Most of the focus has been on the skills that are needed to use digital media. There also appears to be growing interest in developing critical thinking skills in the context of digital media (e.g. Peachey, 2016) – identifying fake news and so on. To a much lesser extent, there has been some focus on ‘issues of digital identity, responsibility, safety and ethics when students use these technologies’ (Mavridi, 2020a: 172). Mavridi (2020b: 91) also briefly discusses the personal risks of digital footprints, but she does not have the space to explore more fully the notion of critical data literacy. This literacy involves an understanding of not just the personal risks of using ‘free’ educational apps and platforms, but of why they are ‘free’ in the first place. Sander (2020b) suggests that this literacy entails ‘an understanding of datafication, recognizing the risks and benefits of the growing prevalence of data collection, analytics, automation, and predictive systems, as well as being able to critically reflect upon these developments. This includes, but goes beyond the skills of, for example, changing one’s social media settings, and rather constitutes an altered view on the pervasive, structural, and systemic levels of changing big data systems in our datafied societies’.

In my next two posts, I will, first of all, explore in more detail the idea of critical data literacy, before suggesting a range of classroom resources.

(I posted about privacy in March 2014, when I looked at the connections between big data and personalized / adaptive learning. In another post, September 2014, I looked at the claims of the CEO of Knewton who bragged that his company had five orders of magnitude more data about you than Google has. … We literally have more data about our students than any company has about anybody else about anything, and it’s not even close. You might find both of these posts interesting.)

References

Birch, K., Chiappetta, M. & Artyushina, A. (2020). ‘The problem of innovation in technoscientific capitalism: data rentiership and the policy implications of turning personal digital data into a private asset’ Policy Studies, 41:5, 468-487, DOI: 10.1080/01442872.2020.1748264

Cobo, C. (2019). I Accept the Terms and Conditions. https://adaptivelearninginelt.files.wordpress.com/2020/01/41acf-cd84b5_7a6e74f4592c460b8f34d1f69f2d5068.pdf

Doteveryone. (2018). People, Power and Technology: The 2018 Digital Attitudes Report. https://attitudes.doteveryone.org.uk

Dudeney, G., Hockly, N. & Pegrum, M. (2013). Digital Literacies. Harlow: Pearson Education

Foresman, B. (2018). Education ranked worst at cybersecurity out of 17 major industries. Edscoop, December 17, 2018. https://edscoop.com/education-ranked-worst-at-cybersecurity-out-of-17-major-industries/

Kulwin, K. (2018). F*ck Them. We Need a Law’: A Legendary Programmer Takes on Silicon Valley, New York Intelligencer, 2018, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/04/richard-stallman-rms-on-privacy-data-and-free-software.html

Manolev, J., Sullivan, A. & Slee, R. (2019). ‘Vast amounts of data about our children are being harvested and stored via apps used by schools’ EduReseach Matters, February 18, 2019. https://www.aare.edu.au/blog/?p=3712

Mavridi, S. (2020a). Fostering Students’ Digital Responsibility, Ethics and Safety Skills (Dress). In Mavridi, S. & Saumell, V. (Eds.) Digital Innovations and Research in Language Learning. Faversham, Kent: IATEFL. pp. 170 – 196

Mavridi, S. (2020b). Digital literacies and the new digital divide. In Mavridi, S. & Xerri, D. (Eds.) English for 21st Century Skills. Newbury, Berks.: Express Publishing. pp. 90 – 98

Moore, M. (2018). Democracy Hacked. London: Oneworld

Ofcom. (2019). Adults: Media use and attitudes report [Report]. https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0021/149124/adults-media-use-and-attitudes-report.pdf

O’Neil, C. (2016). Weapons of Math Destruction. London: Allen Lane

Peachey, N. (2016). Thinking Critically through Digital Media. http://peacheypublications.com/

Sadowski, J. (2019). ‘When data is capital: Datafication, accumulation, and extraction’ Big Data and Society 6 (1) https://doi.org/10.1177%2F2053951718820549

Sander, I. (2020a). What is critical big data literacy and how can it be implemented? Internet Policy Review, 9 (2). DOI: 10.14763/2020.2.1479 https://www.econstor.eu/bitstream/10419/218936/1/2020-2-1479.pdf

Sander, I. (2020b). Critical big data literacy tools—Engaging citizens and promoting empowered internet usage. Data & Policy, 2: e5 doi:10.1017/dap.2020.5

Williamson, B. (2019). ‘Killer Apps for the Classroom? Developing Critical Perspectives on ClassDojo and the ‘Ed-tech’ Industry’ Journal of Professional Learning, 2019 (Semester 2) https://cpl.asn.au/journal/semester-2-2019/killer-apps-for-the-classroom-developing-critical-perspectives-on-classdojo

Precarity

Barely liveable hourly wages, no job security because there is no permanent contract (so employment may be terminated at short or no notice), no social security, paid health care or pension, struggling to meet everyday needs, such as food and accommodation … this is the situation for at least one in five workers in the UK and similar figures exist in many countries (e.g. one in six in New Zealand). As Bourdieu (1998: 81ff.) noted, job insecurity is now everywhere.

Many English language teachers, especially those working for private schools or universities operating like private schools, belong to what has been termed the global educational precariat. In addition to language school and university language teachers, there are hundreds of thousands of teachers, mostly American and British, working in English-medium schools ‘international schools’ around the world (Bunnell, 2016). Besides financial insecurity, many of these teachers also suffer from a lack of agency and a marginalisation of their professional identities (Poole, 2019). There’s a very useful article on ‘precarity’ in ELT Journal (Walsh, 2019) that I’d recommend.

Even teachers with reasonable pay and job security are facing attacks on their pay and working conditions. A few weeks ago in Jordan, security forces shut down the teachers’ union and arrested leading members. Teachers union leaders have also been imprisoned recently in Iran and Cambodia. The pages of the website of Education International , a global federation of teachers’ trade unions, catalogue the crises in education and the lives of teachers around the world.

Teacher bashing, in particular attacks on teacher unions, has been relentless. Four years ago, it was reported that teacher bashing had ‘reached unprecedented levels’ in the US (Saltzman, 2017: 39), where there has been a concerted attempt, over many years, to blame teachers for shortcomings in the educational system (see, for example, Kumashiro, 2012). Although it may have been the US that led the way, closely followed by Australia and the UK, attacks on teachers have become a global phenomenon. Mary Compton and Lois Weiner’s book, ‘The Global Assault on Teaching, Teachers and their Unions’ (Compton & Weiner 2008), gives examples from China to South Africa, from Denmark to Mexico, of how teachers’ pay and conditions have been eroded. The reason? Quite simply, it is because teachers have stood in the way of so-called ‘reforms’ (e.g. pay cuts). It is because they have, as they are doing now in times of COVID-19, stood in the way of what governments have wanted to do. In an earlier post, I wrote in more detail about the ways in which the World Bank has spearheaded the drive towards privatized, lower cost education around the world.

COVID-19 has, of course, made matters worse, much worse. As often as not, the pandemic has been used as an excuse to accelerate attacks on teachers that were well under way long before.

Wellbeing

In the circumstances, it is not surprising that teacher wellbeing has recently become a more talked-about topic. Precisely because there is so little of it about.

The publication earlier this year of a book about teacher wellbeing (Mercer & Gregersen, 2020) for language teachers is very timely. The authors acknowledge that real change for wellbeing [must] addresses structural and systemic levels of change and is not just a matter for individual teachers to cope with alone. They acknowledge that teachers should not have to compensate for fundamental flaws in the system as a whole that undermine their wellbeing, and they express concern about the risks associated with discussing teacher wellbeing at the individual level and not acknowledging that the systems in which teachers work may be at fault (Mercer & Gregersen, 2020: 9). But, with these caveats out of the way, the matter is closed, and the whole book is about how individuals can improve their wellbeing. Indeed, the book begins: As you read the title of this chapter, you might have thought how self-seeking or egocentric it sounds: It’s all about me? Our response is, ‘Yes, you!’ Throughout this book, we want you to focus your attention on yourself for a change, without any guilty feelings (Mercer & Gregersen, 2020: 1). Mindfulness techniques, tips for time management, ways of thinking positively and so on – it’s a compendium of self-help advice that may be helpful for language teachers. The real ravages of precarity, the real causes of so much lack of wellbeing, these do not get a mention.

Banksy_-_Grin_Reaper_With_TagPositive psychology

Mercer and Gregersen’s approach is directly inspired by the work of Martin Seligman, often referred to as the founder of ‘positive psychology’ (see, for example, Seligman, 2011; 2018). Positive psychology and Seligman’s ideas about wellbeing are not uncontested (see, for example, Bache & Reardon, 2016; Bache & Scott, 2018). The nub of the critiques is that positive psychology chooses to focus on happiness or wellbeing, rather than, say, justice, solidarity or loyalty. It articulates an underlying individualism and narrow sense of the social (Cabanas & Illouz, 2019: 68) and it is, therefore, not entirely surprising that much of the funding that made the rapid growth of positive psychology possible came from the ultra-conservative and religious institution, the John Templeton Foundation (Cabanas & Illouz, 2019: 20).

Mercer and Gregersen are not unaware of such critiques (see, for example, MacIntyre et al., 2016: 375). They mention the critiques of Barbara Ehrenreich (Ehrenreich, 2009), but, to the best of my knowledge, they have never troubled to respond to them. They have a very clear agenda – the promotion of positive psychology ideas in language teaching / learning contexts – which is made explicit in MacIntyre and Mercer (2014). A slew of articles, books and conference presentations have followed since then, and ‘Teacher Wellbeing’ is one of them. Mission seems to have been achieved.

Positive psychology has not only been criticised for its focus on the individual. Others have focused on its foundational assumptions, including decontextualized and ethnocentric claims; theoretical oversimplifications, tautologies and contradictions; methodological shortcomings; severe replicability problems; exaggerated generalizations; and even its therapeutic efficacy and scientific status (Cabanas & Illous, 2019: 29). Probably the most important of these critics was Richard Lazarus, whose work is certainly familiar to Mercer, Gregersen and their collaborators, since Lazarus’s criticisms are listed in MacIntyre and Mercer (2014) and elsewhere. These include:

  • the over-use of crosssectional research designs
  • a tendency to treat emotion too simplistically as either positive or negative
  • inadequate attention to both differences among individuals within a group as well as the overlap between groups when discussing statistically significant group differences
  • poor quality measurement of emotions.

However, as with the critiques of Ehrenreich, I have yet to find any examples of these authors actually addressing the criticisms. Instead, they prefer to talk about how problems such as those listed above need to be avoided in the future. For example, there is no doubt that the future development of the [positive psychology] approach within SLA can learn from these and other criticisms, write MacIntyre and Mercer (2014:161), and they see the future of positive psychology in language learning / teaching as being fundamentally grounded in science.

Empirical science

Acknowledging, but without actually addressing, past criticisms of the scientific shortcomings of positive psychology, MacIntyre and Mercer (2014: 15) insist that positive psychology is the empirical study of how people thrive and flourish […] it represents a form of “rebirth” for humanistic psychology, but with a stronger emphasis on empirical research. The word ‘empirical’ appears 4 times on this page and another 5 times in the article. In their follow-up book, ‘Positive Psychology in SLA’ (Macintyre et al., 2016), there is a whole section (over a third of the book) entitled ‘Empirical’. In a historical survey of positive psychology in foreign language teaching, written by close collaborators of Mercer, Gregersen and MacIntyre (Dewaele et al.,2019), the same focus on empirical science is chosen, with a description of positive psychology as being underpinned by solid empirical research. The frequency of this word choice is enough to set alarm bells ringing.

A year before the MacIntyre and Mercer article (2014), an article by Brown et al (2013) questioned one of the key empirical foundations of positive psychology, the so-called ‘critical positivity ratio’ (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005). Wikipedia explains this as the ratio of positive to negative emotions which distinguishes “flourishing” people from “languishing” people, and the ratio was 2.9013. A slightly later article (Brown et al, 2014) further debunked the work of Fredrickson, arguing that her work was full of conceptual difficulties and statistical flaws. Wikipedia now describes the ‘critical positivity ratio’ as ‘a largely discredited concept’. In contrast, Mercer and Gregersen (2020: 14) acknowledge that although the exact ratio (3:1) of positivity has been called into question by some, they reassert the value of Fredrickson’s work. They neither cite the criticisms, nor rebut them. In this, they are following a well-established tradition of positive psychology (Rhyff, 2003).

Given growing scepticism about the claims of positive psychology, MacIntyre et al (2016) elected to double-down. Even if empirical evidence for positive psychology was in short supply, it was incumbent on them to provide it. Hence, the section in their book entitled ‘Empirical’. Personally, I would have advised against it. The whole point of positive psychology, as outlined by Seligman, is to promote ‘wellbeing’. But what, exactly, is this? For some, like Mercer and Gregersen (2020: 3), it’s about finding meaning and connection in the world. For others, it’s not a ‘thing’ that needs research to uncover its essential nature, but as a social and cultural construction which is interesting as such, not least for what it can tell us about other social and cultural phenomena (Ereaut & Whiting, 2008). We may agree that it’s ‘a good thing’, but it lacks solidity as a construct. Even Seligman (2011: 15) comes to the conclusion that ‘wellbeing’ is not ‘a real thing. Rather, he says, it is a construct which has several measurable elements, each a real thing, each contributing to well-being, but none defining well-being. This, however, simply raises the question of how much of a ‘thing’ each of these elements are (Dodge et al., 2012). Seligman’s elements (Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment (PERMA)) form the basis of Mercer and Gregersen’s book, but none lend themselves to clear, workable definitions. In the absence of construct validity, empirical research evidence will prove hard to find.

How well does the ‘Empirical’ section of Positive Psychology in SLA (MacIntyre et al., 2016) stand up? I don’t have space here to discuss all 7 chapters. However, I’ve selected the first of these, ‘Positive Psychology Exercises Build Social Capital for Language Learners: Preliminary Evidence’ (Gregersen et al, 2016) because it includes ‘evidence’ in the title and because it was written by two of the book’s editors. The research reported in this chapter involved five volunteer women, aged 20 -23, in an English program at an American university, who took part in a number of positive psychology exercises (PPEs) which entailed laughter, exercise, interaction with animals, listening to music, expressing gratitude and engaging in altruism. The data collected was self-rating questionnaires and some self-reflection discussion. The results indicated that the PPEs led to more positive emotions, with exercise and laughter leading to the greatest gains (but since the order of the PPEs was not randomized, and since the sample size was so small, this doesn’t really tell us anything). Some of the participants doubted the value of some of the PPEs. However, the participants developed better relationships with their partners and this may have led to gains in confidence. The authors conclude that although the present data-set is small, we see preliminary evidence of all three pillars of positive psychology supporting positive outcomes (p.164).

My own view is that this is wishful thinking. The only thing that this study does is to indicate that in this particular context with these particular learners, feeling good about what you are doing may help things along a bit. In addition, this has absolutely nothing to do with ‘social capital’, which the authors seem to have misunderstood. Citing an article by Nawyn et al (2012), they describe ‘social capital’ as emerging friendships that provide learners with positive emotional experiences and intangible resources for language acquisition (Gregersen et al, 2016: 147). But this is a misreading of the Nawyn et al article, which adheres fairly closely to Bourdieu’s notion of social capital as fundamentally about power relations, but extends it beyond purely economic power relations. Given the connections between the lack of teacher wellbeing and precarity, and given Bourdieu’s writings about precarity, the authors’ attempt to bring Bourdieu into their justification of positive psychological experiences, best undertaken at the individual level (Gregersen et al., 2016: 149), is really quite extraordinary. And if this is empirical evidence for anything, I’m a positive psychologist!

Cui bono?

It may be that some of the exercises suggested in Teacher Wellbeing will be of benefit to some, even many, teachers. Maybe. But the claims of empirical science behind this book are questionable, to say the least. More beneficial to teacher wellbeing would almost certainly be strong teacher unions, but these are only mentioned in passing. There is, incidentally, some recent evidence from the U.S. (Han, 2020), that highly unionized districts have higher average teacher quality and improved educational outcomes. But positive psychologists seem unwilling to explore the role that unions might play in teacher wellbeing. It is not, perhaps, coincidental that the chapter in Teacher Wellbeing that deals with teachers in their workplaces contains three recommendations for further reading, and all three are written for managers. The first on the list is called Build It: The Rebel Playbook for World-class Employee Engagement (Elliott & Corey, 2018).

The problems that teachers are facing, exacerbated by COVID-19, are fundamentally systemic and political. Mercer and Gregersen may be aware that there is a risk associated with discussing teacher wellbeing at the individual level and not acknowledging that the systems in which teachers work may be at fault, but it’s a risk they have chosen to take, believing that their self-help ideas are sufficiently valuable to make the risk worthwhile. I agree with a writer on the National Education Association blog, who thinks that self-care is important but argues that it is an insufficient and entirely too passive way to address the problems teachers are encountering today.

There are other ways of conceptualising teacher wellbeing (see, for example, the entries on the Education International website with this tag) and the Mercer / Gregersen book may be viewed as an attempt to ‘claim the field’. To return to Paul Walsh, whose article about precarity I recommended earlier, it is useful to see the current interest in teacher wellbeing in context. He writes: Well-being has entered ELT at a time when teachers have been demanding greater visibility and acceptance of issues such as mental health, poor working conditions, non-native speaker and gender equality. Yet to subsume these issues under a catch-all category does them a disservice. Because as soon as we put these issues under the well-being umbrella, they effectively vanish in a cloud of conceptual mist—and lose their sharp edges.

In this sense, a book like Teacher Wellbeing, although well-meaning, may well contribute to the undermining of the very thing it seeks to promote.

References

Bache, I. & Reardon, L. (2016) The Politics and Policy of Wellbeing: Understanding the Rise and Significance of a New Agenda. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar

Bache, I. and Scott, K. (eds.) (2018). The Politics of Wellbeing: Theory, Policy and Practice. Palgrave Macmillan

Bourdieu, P. (1998). Acts of Resistance: against the new myths of our time. Cambridge: Polity Press

Brown, N. J. L., Sokal, A. D., & Friedman, H. L. (2013). The complex dynamics of wishful thinking: The critical positivity ratio. American Psychologist, pp. 68, 801–813. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0032850

Brown, N. J. L., MacDonald, D. A., Samanta, M. P., Friedman, H. L. & Coyne, J. C. (2014). A critical reanalysis of the relationship between genomics and well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111, 12705–12709. http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1407057111

Bunnell, T. (2016). Teachers in International schools: a global educational ‘precariat’? Globalisation, Societies and Education, 14(4), pp. 543-559

Cabanas, E. & Illouz, E. (2019). Manufacturing Happy Citizens. Cambridge: Polity Press

Compton, M. & Weiner, L. (Eds.) (2008). The Global Assault on Teaching, Teachers and their Unions. Palgrave Macmillan

Dewaele, J. M., Chen, X., Padilla, A. M. & Lake, J. (2019). The Flowering of Positive Psychology in Foreign Language Teaching and Acquisition Research. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 2128. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02128

Dodge, R., Daly, A., Huyton, J. & Sanders, L. (2012). The challenge of defining wellbeing. International Journal of Wellbeing, 2(3), pp. 222-235. doi:10.5502/ijw.v2i3.4

Ehrenreich, B. (2009). Bright-Sided: How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America. New York: Metropolitan Books

Elliott, G. & Corey, D. (2018). Build It: The Rebel Playbook for World-class Employee Engagement. Chichester: Wiley

Ereaut, G. & Whiting, R. (2008). What do we mean by ‘wellbeing’? And why might it matter? Research Report No DCSF-RW073 Department for Children, Schools and Families https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/8572/1/dcsf-rw073%20v2.pdf

Fredrickson, B. L. & Losada, M.F. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychology, 60 (7): pp. 678–86. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.60.7.678

Gregersen, T., MacIntyre, P.D. & Meza, M. (2016). Positive Psychology Exercises Build Social Capital for Language Learners: Preliminary Evidence. In MacIntyre, P.D., Gregersen, T. & Mercer, S. (Eds.) Positive Psychology in SLA. Bristol: Multilingual Matters. pp.147 – 167

Han, E. S. (2020). The Myth of Unions’ Overprotection of Bad Teachers: Evidence from the District–Teacher Matched Data on Teacher Turnover. Industrial Relations, 59 (2): pp. 316 – 352

Kumashiro, K. K. (2012). Bad Teacher! How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture. Teachers College Press

Lazarus, R. S. (2003). Target article: Does the positive psychology movement have legs? Psychological Inquiry, 14 (2): pp. 93 – 109

MacIntyre, P.D. & Mercer, S. (2014). Introducing positive psychology to SLA. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 4 (2): pp. 153 -172

MacIntyre, P.D., Gregersen, T. & Mercer, S. (2016). Conclusion. In MacIntyre, P.D., Gregersen, T. & Mercer, S. (Eds.) Positive Psychology in SLA. Bristol: Multilingual Matters. pp.374 – 379

MacIntyre, P.D., Gregersen, T. & Mercer, S. (Eds.) (2016). Positive Psychology in SLA. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Mercer, S. & Gregersen, T. (2020). Teacher Wellbeing. Oxford: OUP

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What is the ‘new normal’?

Among the many words and phrases that have been coined or gained new currency since COVID-19 first struck, I find ‘the new normal’ particularly interesting. In the educational world, its meaning is so obvious that it doesn’t need spelling out. But in case you’re unclear about what I’m referring to, the title of this webinar, run by GENTEFL, the Global Educators Network Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (an affiliate of IATEFL), will give you a hint.

webinar GENTEFL

Teaching in a VLE may be overstating it a bit, but you get the picture. ‘The new normal’ is the shift away from face-to-face teaching in bricks-and-mortar institutions, towards online teaching of one kind or another. The Malaysian New Straits Times refers to it as ‘E-learning, new way forward in new norm’. The TEFL Academy says that ‘digital learning is the new normal’, and the New Indian Express prefers the term ‘tech education’.

Indian express

I’ll come back to these sources in a little while.

Whose new normal?

There is, indeed, a strong possibility that online learning and teaching may become ‘the new normal’ for many people working in education. In corporate training and in higher education, ‘tech education’ will likely become increasingly common. Many universities, especially but not only in the US, Britain and Australia, have been relying on ‘international students’ (almost half a million in the UK in 2018/ 2019), in particular Chinese, to fill their coffers. With uncertainty about how and when these universities will reopen for the next academic year, a successful transition to online is a matter of survival – a challenge that a number of universities will probably not be able to rise to. The core of ELT, private TEFL schools in Inner Circle countries, likewise dependent on visitors from other countries, has also been hard hit. It is not easy for them to transition to online, since the heart of their appeal lies in their physical location.

But elsewhere, the picture is rather different. A recent Reddit discussion began as follows: ‘In Vietnam, [English language] schools have reopened and things have returned to normal almost overnight. There’s actually a teacher shortage at the moment as so many left and interest in online learning is minimal, although most schools are still offering it as an option’. The consensus in the discussion that follows is that bricks-and-mortar schools will take a hit, especially with adult (but not kids’) groups, but that ‘teaching online will not be the new normal’.

By far the greatest number of students studying English around the world are in primary and secondary schools. It is highly unlikely that online study will be the ‘new normal’ for most of these students (although we may expect to see attempts to move towards more blended approaches). There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most glaringly obvious is that the function of schools is not exclusively educational: child-care, allowing parents to go to work, is the first among these.

We can expect some exceptions. In New York, for example, current plans include a ‘hybrid model’ (a sexed-up term for blended learning), in which students are in schools for part of the time and continue learning remotely for the rest. The idea emerged after Governor Andrew Cuomo ‘convened a committee with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reimagine education for students when school goes back in session in the fall’. How exactly this will pan out remains to be seen, but, in much of the rest of the world, where the influence of the Gates Foundation is less strong, ‘hybrid schooling’ is likely to be seen as even more unpalatable and unworkable than it is by many in New York.

In short, the ‘new normal’ will affect some sectors of English language teaching much more than others. For some, perhaps the majority, little change can be expected once state schools reopen. Smaller classes, maybe, more blended, but not a wholesale shift to ‘tech education’.

Not so new anyway!

Scott Galloway, a New York professor of marketing and author of the best-selling ‘The Four’ (an analysis of the Big Four tech firms), began a recent blog post as follows:

After COVID-19, nothing will be the same. The previous sentence is bullsh*t. On the contrary, things will never be more the same, just accelerated.

He elaborates his point by pointing out that many universities were already in deep trouble before COVID. Big tech had already moved massively into education and healthcare, which are ‘the only two sectors, other than government, that offer the margin dollars required to sate investors’ growth expectations’ (from another recent post by Galloway). Education start-ups have long been attracting cheap capital: COVID has simply sped the process up.

Coming from a very different perspective, Audrey Watters gave a conference presentation over three years ago entitled ‘Education Technology as ‘The New Normal’’. I have been writing about the normalization of digital tools in language teaching for over six years. What is new is the speed, rather than the nature, of the change.

Galloway draws an interesting parallel with the SARS virus, which, he says, ‘was huge for e-commerce in Asia, and it helped Alibaba break out into the consumer space. COVID-19 could be to education in the United States what SARS was to e-commerce in Asia’.

‘The new normal’ as a marketing tool

Earlier in this post, I mentioned three articles that discussed the ‘new normal’ in education. The first of these, from the New Straits Times, looks like a news article, but features extensive quotes from Shereen Chee, chief operating officer of Sunago Education, a Malaysian vendor of online English classes. The article is basically an advert for Sunago: one section includes the following:

Sunago combines digitisation and the human touch to create a personalised learning experience. […] Chee said now is a great time for employers to take advantage of the scheme and equip their team with enhanced English skills, so they can hit the ground running once the Covid-19 slump is over.

The second reference about ‘digital learning is the new normal’ comes from The TEFL Academy, which sells online training courses, particularly targeting prospective teachers who want to work online. The third reference, from the New Indian Express, was written by Ananth Koppar, the founder of Kshema Technologies Pvt Ltd, India’s first venture-funded software company. Koppar is hardly a neutral reporter.

Other examples abound. For example, a similar piece called ‘The ‘New Normal’ in Education’ can be found in FE News (10 June 2020). This was written by Simon Carter, Marketing and Propositions Director of RM Education, an EdTech vendor in the UK. EdTech has a long history of promoting its wares through sponsored content and adverts masquerading as reportage.

It is, therefore, a good idea, whenever you come across the phrase, ‘the new normal’, to adopt a sceptical stance from the outset. I’ll give two more examples to illustrate my point.

A recent article (1 April 2020) in the ELTABB (English Language Teachers Association Berlin Brandenburg) journal is introduced as follows:

With online language teaching being the new normal in ELT, coaching principles can help teachers and students share responsibility for the learning process.

Putting aside, for the moment, my reservations about whether online teaching is, in fact, the new normal in ‘ELT’, I’m happy to accept that coaching principles may be helpful in online teaching. But I can’t help noticing that the article was written by a self-described edupreneur and co-founder of the International Language Coaching Association (€50 annual subscription) which runs three-day training courses (€400).

My second example is a Macmillan webinar by Thom Kiddle called ‘Professional Development for teachers in the ‘new normal’. It’s a good webinar, a very good one in my opinion, but you’ll notice a NILE poster tacked to the wall behind Thom as he speaks. NILE, a highly reputed provider of teacher education courses in the UK, has invested significantly in online teacher education in recent years and is well-positioned to deal with the ‘new normal’. It’s also worth noting that the webinar host, Macmillan, is in a commercial partnership with NILE, the purpose of which is to ‘develop and promote quality teacher education programmes worldwide’. As good as the webinar is, it is also clearly, in part, an advertisement.

Thom Kiddle

The use of the phrase ‘the new normal’ as a marketing hook is not new. Although its first recorded use dates back to the first part of the 20th century, it became more widespread at the start of the 21st. One populariser of the phrase was Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist and early investor in technology, including Facebook, who wrote a book called ‘The New Normal: Great Opportunities in a Time of Great Risk’ (2004). Since then, the phrase has been used extensively to refer to the state of the business world after the financial crisis of 2018. (For more about the history of the phrase, see here.) More often than not, users of the phrase are selling the idea (and sometimes a product) that we need to get used to a new configuration of the world, one in which technology plays a greater role.

Normalizing ‘the new normal’

Of all the most unlikely sources for a critique of ‘the new normal’, the World Economic Forum has the following to offer in a blog post entitled ‘There’s nothing new about the ‘new normal’. Here’s why’:

The language of a ‘new normal’ is being deployed almost as a way to quell any uncertainty ushered in by the coronavirus. With no cure in sight, everyone from politicians and the media to friends and family has perpetuated this rhetoric as they imagine settling into life under this ‘new normal’. This framing is inviting: it contends that things will never be the same as they were before — so welcome to a new world order. By using this language, we reimagine where we were previously relative to where we are now, appropriating our present as the standard. As we weigh our personal and political responses to this pandemic, the language we employ matters. It helps to shape and reinforce our understanding of the world and the ways in which we choose to approach it. The analytic frame embodied by the persistent discussion of the ‘new normal’ helps bring order to our current turbulence, but it should not be the lens through which we examine today’s crisis.

We can’t expect the World Economic Forum to become too critical of the ‘new normal’ of digital learning, since they have been pushing for it so hard for so long. But the quote from their blog above may usefully be read in conjunction with an article by Jun Yu and Nick Couldry, called ‘Education as a domain of natural data extraction: analysing corporate discourse about educational tracking’ (Information, Communication and Society, 2020, DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2020.1764604). The article explores the general discursive framing by which the use of big data in education has come to seem normal. The authors looked at the public discourse of eight major vendors of educational platforms that use big data (including Macmillan, Pearson, Knewton and Blackboard). They found that ‘the most fundamental move in today’s dominant commercial discourse is to promote the idea that data and its growth are natural’. In this way, ‘software systems, not teachers, [are] central to education’. Yu and Couldry’s main interest is in the way that discourse shapes the normalization of dataveillance, but, in a more general sense, the phrase, ‘the new normal’, is contributing to the normalization of digital education. If you think that’s fine, I suggest you dip into some of the books I listed in my last blog post.