I’ve worked in both schools and universities. In the former the ‘barrier’ to innovation is usually said to be time. In the latter it’s usually seen as the trials and tribulations of getting funding.
Whilst I agree that teachers work crazy hours and that both schools and universities are generally underfunded, I can’t help but think that the real reason institutional innovation is stifled is because of permission-seeking.
We all know that the worst kind of censorship is self-censorship – the fear that your actions might bring displeasure or punishment. People, I’m sad to say, don’t tend to give themselves the permission to innovate.
It might be slightly controversial to say so, but it’s easy to ask for time and money in an attempt to ensure a project is a success. And it’s also easy to say that something’s ‘not possible given current resources’. But time and money do not in and of themselves lead to successful projects.
What I think people are hankering after when they ask for money or time for innovation projects is approval. Might I suggest that truly innovative projects are unlikely to get such approval?
Some projects need huge levels of buy-in and support and funding and scoping. Most don’t.
Update: Some people have asked about my use of ‘high’ school in an English context. We had (and to a great extent still have) a three-tier system in Northumberland.
My parents, who live five miles away in the house where I grew up, are having a long-overdue clearout of their attic. A few days ago they brought round my National Record of Achievement. It’s a faux-leather folder with embossed letters that we used in high school to collate, well, anything other than demerits.
I opened mine and flicked through the meaningless bronze and silver awards, the certificates for things that didn’t need certificating, and the various proofs of things done I’d long since forgotten about.
Then, near the back, I came across my Year 11 report from the February of my last compulsory year in school.
Let’s have a look at some highlights, shall we?
English – “Although he tends to waste time in class, Douglas has produced all the coursework required so far…” – I wasted time because I finished all the work set and the lessons were formulaic in the extreme. I was forced to think ‘inside the box’ and I was bored to distraction.
Biology – “Douglas is able to grasp topics very quickly and shows a very good understanding. I have always been worried by his arrogant attitude…” – Why? Because I dared to go beyond the textbook we used every lesson? Because I asked hard questions that the teacher couldn’t be bothered to answer?
Physics – “Douglas shows interest in some topics but he prefers to get involved in ‘idle’ chatter too often. He has ability in this subject but he must be prepared to work harder.” – Physics was one of my favourite subjects. I just didn’t like working in an atmosphere where silence was expected (if rarely achieved) *all* of the time.
French – “In discussion with Douglas [notice never ‘Doug’] he agrees that so far this year he has been content to produce work that is just satisfactory and shows the minimum of effort.” – That might be because the closest we got to real-life French were laughably outdated videos. The (compulsory) language class felt like an irrelevance.
Life Studies – “Douglas has understood the issues raised and contributed sensibly to some of the discussions but he has not yet fully learned that there are no simple answers to complex issues.” Ouch! I saw this teacher a few weeks ago for the first time since school. I went out of my way to thank her for lending me a copy of Sophie’s World, which eventually led to me studying Philosophy at university.
Senior Tutor – “Well done, Douglas. This is an excellent report, I am sure you have a bright and interesting future ahead of you.” – Well, it *wasn’t* anexcellent report, and I ultimately underachieved, but the ‘interesting future’ bit was spot-on. 🙂
The rest of the teacher comments were mainly bland and generic, focusing on me needing a revision plan and to work harder. I don’t really blame my teachers – it must have been a fairly tough place to work.
When I talked through my report with my wife it was interesting how we came at this from different angles. Given that I’ve gone on to achieve a doctorate and done reasonably well career-wise I saw the above as evidence of the disconnect between school and ‘real life’. She on the other hand, wondered what I could have been.
Of course, we’ll never know the counter-factual. We’ll never know what would have happened if I’d gone somewhere different than a school where only 25% achieved 5+ A*-C grades (the national average at the time was 45%). And, anyway, what would have constituted a ‘better outcome’? More money? More status?
I’d wager that the biggest differentiator and predictor of ‘success’ in life (whatever that is) is parental expectation. OK, so my father was Deputy Head of the high school and my mother worked in the school office, but it wasn’t their presence that kept me on the straight-and-narrow.
What kept me honest was the expectation that I would attend university. And to attend university you have to jump through the flaming hoops of examination systems. So I jumped through the hoops. I may have almost burned my bollocks a few times, but I got through in the end.
Others didn’t. Primarily, I’d argue, because they weren’t expected to.
I’m still thinking through all this and what it means for my own children, so in lieu of a neat conclusion I’ll leave you with the wise words of John O’Farrell:
Children from advantaged backgrounds are going to do much better wherever they go to school – that is module 1 of a GCSE in The Bleedin’ Obvious. If you read to your children from an early age, if the poor things are dragged round museums every other weekend, if you have the time and energy for them and are not leaving them at home alone every evening because you have a second job cleaning floors at Heathrow, then your children will do better academically. If your local comp got 50% five A-Cs including English and maths, that doesn’t mean that your child has only a 50% chance of achieving that over-simplistic benchmark. What parents generally perceive as a “better school” usually means a school with an intake that is easier to teach.
I had a really interesting conversation on Twitter with Fraser Speirs and Dave Major this morning about ‘Bring Your Own Device’ (BYOD) and cross-platform tools for learning. You can see that conversation ‘storyified’ here.
1. Learning is something that happens in the brain of learners. You might be able to give them consistency of device and platform but you can’t guarantee that they will have the same experience. Therefore, using that as a reason to go with one particular device is problematic.
2. Educators need to focus on activities rather than tools. One of the examples that Apple advocates often give of the superiority of iPads is GarageBand. It’s an awesome application, but it’s not a learning activity. I’d be really interested in discovering which learning activities can only be carried out on one type of device. I suspect you won’t find any.
3. What we do in classrooms is linked to, but should not be driven by, market forces. We can only buy and use what’s available, but we don’t have to be taken in by the rhetoric of companies. After all, they’re in it to make money. How the world turns out is much more in the hands of educators than anyone else.
Update: I don’t think I make it clear enough in this post that this is an example of Mozilla ‘eating it’s own dogfood’. We’re using a Mozilla-developed technology (Open Badges) for a particular purpose (to badge Webmaker skills). Hope that makes sense!
I work for the Mozilla Foundation as part of the Learning team. More specifically, I’m part of the recently-created Open Badges subset of that team. In practice, however, there’s enough cross-pollination to make the boundaries between sub-teams very hard to see.
Mozilla wants to create a generation of webmakers. As it states at webmaker.org:
The goal:help millions of people move from using the web to making the web. As part of Mozilla’s non-profit mission, we want to help the world increase their understanding of the web, take greater control of their online lives, and create a more web literate planet.
That web literacies piece is at least half of my time as Badges & Skills Lead. But what does that mean in practice?
It means a lot of Skype calls . That’s for sure. Oh, and more Etherpads than you can stick a shake at. 😉
Mozilla Webmaker Badges
The Open Badges ecosystem is a new way of signalling and credentialing achievements on the web. You can see me attempt to explain it quickly and concisely in this video.
What we’re trying to do as a Learning team is to identify Web Literacies, Competencies and Skills that can be badged. We’re organising these into ‘constellations’ as my colleague Chloe Varelidi so eloquently puts it – learning pathways that allow learners to follow their interests.
(click on image to enlarge)
Chloe’s post has more gorgeous visuals than mine, but the mindmap I above (made using XMind) gives a widescreen view of what we’re trying to do:
Granular skills badges are awarded for micro-achievements whilst using, for example, Mozilla Thimble (e.g. adding three <p> tags)
The granular skills badges count towards accumulative Web Skills badges (e.g. HTML Basics)
These Web Skills badges collectively count toward Web Competencies badges
In turn, these (after peer assessment) lead to the awarding of one of five different Web Literacies badges
We’re going to be iterating this in the open, because that’s how Mozilla rolls. So we’ll have some Web Skills badges ready for the Mozilla Festival 2012 (London), with Web Competencies badges in place for the DML Conference 2013 (Chicago).
At the same time as all of this, Jess Klein has been working on the user experience (UX). She’s got a great idea for what she calls Webmaker+ (inspired by Nike+) which would provide a dashboard for learners within their Open Badges backpack. She’s working on the first sketches (including the one below) which you should definitely go and take a look at:
The dashboard would suggest badges to learners as well as show them various analytics and data about what they’ve achieved so far. The inspiration here is (to my mind) Khan Academy’s knowledge map and Duolingo’s learning pathways.
Although it’s a proprietary, closed product I haven’t come across anything close to it for discovery. Take, for instance, a post entitled On Leaving Academia by Terran Lane, someone I’ve not come across before. He’s an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of New Mexico.
Terran is off to join Google.
His post is neatly organised into section titles listing the reasons he’s leaving academia to join Google:
Opportunity to make a difference
Workload and family/life balance
Centralization of authority and decrease of autonomy
Hyper-specialization, insularity, and narrowness of vision
Mass production of education
Anti-intellectualism, anti-education, and attacks on science and academia
Whereas he’s decided to quit academia, I’ve made a conscious choice from the start to stay on its sidelines. Around the margins. On the edges. Whilst the logical thing to do after my doctorate would have been to apply for a research position or lectureship at a university, I decided against it.
Not only would I be earning half the amount of money I am now – and less than when I was teaching in schools – but it seems a spectacularly bad time to decide to become a career academic. No money, no status, no freedom. And with the introduction of a market into UK Higher Education it’s increasingly difficult for academics to even claim the high moral ground.
That’s not to say academics aren’t doing good, publicly-useful work. Of course they are. It’s just crunch time in their industry.
I think we’re going to see a lot more of this talent-drain from academia. In fact, we’re already seeing a new generation of people not satisfied with traditional career structures and ways of working. I’m not sure if this is good or bad in the scheme of things, given the direction the universities (in the UK) seem to be headed under the current government.
What I do know is that universities need to do something, and fast. The Bank of Goodwill doesn’t have infinite reserves…
So no need to be a qualified teacher in England any more. This news, of course, was buried by being announced on a Friday in the school holidays, on the very day of the Olympic Games opening ceremony. Perhaps that was to avoid another strike by teachers like the one in November 2011?
From where I’m sitting, this looks like part of a wider move to centralise schooling in England. There were huge financial incentives for schools to become academies. Now, even if the money’s not there, there’s certainly political and other kinds of pressures bearing down on headteachers and governors.
Once English schools all become academies they’re outside of local authority control but under the direct control of Whitehall. Gove may bleat that academies have powers to do this or that, but when there’s no buffer between the headteacher and the all-powerful politician in control of the money, there’s no real contest.
Michael Gove is the most power-hungry, dangerously reactionary, and misguided millionaire Secretary of State for Education we’ve had a for a long time. He proposes yachts for over-privileged, taxpayer-funded families and gives out religious texts inscribed with his name. Meanwhile extra cash for the most deprived boroughs is turned down and, in the midst of one of the most sustained attacks on the profession in living memory, teachers are expected to roll over and accept performance-related pay.
Over the last few months my good friend Nick Dennis and I have been debating the merits and otherwise of independent schools. I made my position clear in this blog post.
Nick – who, unlike me, is still working as a classroom teacher and senior leader in an (independent) school – has finally had time to respond. He’s written a thoughtful, considered post entitled Beyond stereotypes and raincoats. You should go and read it in its entirity before reading this post any further.
I don’t really want to write this post because I’ve tried very hard to separate what I see as Nick’s implicit justification of his position with my criticisms of the independent schools sector. I don’t want to attack my friend.
What follows, whilst borrowing quotations from Nick’s blog post, shouldn’t be taken as an attack on him per se. Instead it should be seen as a critique of those who seek to justify the existence of a private walled garden of education available only to those who are able to pay.
As far as I can see it, Nick makes five main points in his post:
Those who are anti-independent schools lack a nuance of approach to the ‘complexity’ of the UK school system
Some state school places attract a de facto ‘price tag’ as houses in the catchment area are disproportionately expensive
There are some independent schools that cater to minority interests – faiths, ethnicity, learning difficulties, and so on
Independent schools are caused by an unequal distribution of wealth
The founders of independent schools were virtuous individuals with noble intentions, therefore independent schools have a moral purpose
At the end of his post, Nick presents a dichotomy inspired by the film The Matrix, asking the reader to choose between different ‘pills’:
[Y]ou can take the pill of the state/private stereotype as it stands and the story ends and the debate will continue with no real resolution. Alternatively, you could take the pill that allows you to move beyond reductionist stereotypes and be part of something life changing
I would reject this dichotomy. As I hope to show by going through the five pillars of his argument in turn, what he terms a ‘stereotype’ is based on a very real (and very divisive) truth that pervades our education system,
1. The simple truth
Nick claims, mainly through the anecdote that introduces his post, that we often jump to conclusions based on mental models. These shorthand ways of thinking he refers to as stereotypes. It is implied that stereotypes are bad. And, for the most part, I would agree.
Another caveat: I have never worked in an independent school. I went for an interview at one, but withdrew from the selection process as I felt I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself had I taken the job. As I mentioned recently, I think we should be aiming for the high ground in our lives more generally.
Why do I see independent schools as occupying anything other than the ‘high ground’? Because they’re an extreme example of market forces in education. Independent schools are walled gardens that charge for entry. Pointing to the fact that some independent schools have bursaries is like saying Glastonbury gives away free tickets. It’s still a paid-for event.
There’s a market in the state sector. Of course there is. Sadly. There’s grammar schools, selective schools, girls’ schools, faith schools, and now Academies, Free Schools and almost every kind of school you could imagine. But two wrongs don’t make a right: markets have no place in the education of our young people. End of story.
2. The mobile middle class
My wife works as a teacher in a Primary school one day per week. We were considering moving to that area at one point but couldn’t afford the house prices in the immediate vicinity to the school. That’s an example – even in the North East – of inflated house prices caused by Ofsted deeming a school ‘Oustanding’.
Middle-class parents moving to ensure their children get a place at the school of their choice isn’t an easy problem to solve. Even if you remove the market-based rhetoric of ‘choice’ in state-funded education provision, the problem would remain. Some people use their capital – financial, cultural, intellectual – in an attempt to gain advantage over others.
The fact that people act in selfish and sociopathic ways does not mean, however, that we should institutionalise such behaviour in the system itself. It be morally wrong for middle class parents to move houses to secure a state school place but, I would argue, it’s definitely wrong for them to buy a place outside of that system in an attempt to advantage their offspring.
3. Special cases
The debate between Nick and I has, on occasion, spilled out onto Twitter and led to some interesting exchanges. Many people have pointed out to me that some parents send their children to independent schools out of sense of desperation. The state sector, they argue, just doesn’t provide what their children need.
I realise there’s sensitivities in this area. My children do not have learning disabilities (that I’m aware of at the moment). We’re a white, British, middle-class family. Our aggregated religious beliefs are not strong enough to make it a factor in school choice.
Despite all this, I do feel that it’s still dubious to send your child to an independent school instead of fighting for understanding and better provision within the state sector. These two things are not mutually exclusive, of course, but often (again, in my limited experience) sending a child to an independent specialist provider is seen as a ‘solution’ to the problem rather than the beginning of a campaign.
I have to say that I have more sympathy for this argument. But I still think it’s problematic to argue that fixing the problem for your children is anything other than, at the end of the day, a selfish decision.
4. The rich get richer
To his credit, Nick points out in his post that there’s a clear link between independent schools and the most powerful, privileged and wealthy individuals in our society:
Despite this, all the differences seem inconsequential in light of what many see as the burning issue with the ‘independent sector’ – the dominance privately educated students have on British ‘Public’ life which recent government reports and speeches confirm. The phrase ‘morally indefensible’ was used to describe this influence and the waste of talent within the country and this was picked up fairly quickly by those who buy into the ‘stereotype’ of what an independent school is.
Nick’s conclusion is that this link obscures the ‘real’ issue which is the unequal distribution of wealth within our society. This, somehow (he seems to claim) means that this unequal distribution is the root of the problem.
To be honest, I don’t really understand Nick’s argument here. I absolutely agree with his central premise that we need a more equal distribution of wealth but his acknowledgement that independent schools specifically militate against this seems not to tally?
One last rejoinder to this point. Nick claims throughout the state/independent dichotomy is problematic and that this lacks nuance. I’d agree with this to the extent. We’ve internalised the logic of the market to such an extent that we find it difficult to criticise those who choose to pay for their education. Somehow, access to money is seen to be ‘earned’ within our society – no matter how this has come about.
5. Intentions last forever?
When I studied for my MA in Modern History at Durham University my dissertation title was ‘Educational ideas in mid to late Victorian England: their origin and application’. In the course of my research I found out that, surprisingly, when state schools were introduced in 1870 attendance attracted a fee.
Previous to the 1870 Education Act the only education provision was through Dame schools or those set up by men of privilege. Nick’s argument is that because these schools were set up by individuals of (perceived) high moral fibre that this somehow gives them a perpetual raison d’être.
I’d argue otherwise.
Not only that, I’d argue that such a position is hypocritical. Many, if not most, independent schools have charitable status – at the same time as charging £30,000 per year for tuition. This makes a mockery of charities who do valuable work and actually need the tax breaks and other perks that charitable status provides.
I like Nick. I respect his position. I’ve tried very hard in this post to examine the arguments he put forward in his post – arguments that others have also presented to me over the years. I hope I’ve gone some way to responding to these and why I feel they’re not strong defences for the continued existence of independent schools.
And for those who say that things aren’t like to change anytime soon, I present you Evidence A: the introduction of Academies over the last few years: state-funded and under direct ministerial control. I’m against those as well (and have worked in one!)
It’s not likely given that most ministers themselves attended independent schools, but an Act of Parliament could oblige all parents to send their offspring to state-funded schools. Of course, at the same time I’d like to see the abolition of grammar schools, faith school, selective schools, and any type of system in education that allows for walled gardens.
What I’ve proposed may be utopian. It may have you quoting lyrics from John Lennon’s Imagine at me. But I refuse, whilst I still have breath in my body, my own children, and a strong interest in education, to believe that de facto situations can’t be changed.
I was fortunate enough to meet the amazing Audrey Watters and Steve Hargadon when I was over in San Francisco earlier this year. The authenticity of the ‘Irish’ pub in which we met was questionable, but their commitment to furthering education certainly isn’t!
Steve and Audrey have a weekly podcast in which they reflect on Audrey’s (prolific) written output over the past seven days. Today I listened to the one embedded at the bottom of this post (also here). They’re both so insightful that I wanted to be part of the conversation. The only way I can do so at the moment is by adding my thoughts here.
So that’s what I’m going to do.
Steve brought up the point that companies build business models around the idea that teachers want to share lesson plans. He questioned whether that’s actually true.
Not in my opinion.
In my experience, the needs of classroom teachers (which used to include me) are on a spectrum related to interest. So, for example, I’d spend hours researching and creating resources around 1066 and the Norman Conquest. I love that period of History.
On the other hand, I tried to get the Agricultural Revolution out of the way as soon as possible, and used resources in my lessons almost entirely created by other people.
And that’s the difference: if you’re a motivated teacher, you don’t want prescriptive lesson plans for stuff that excites you. Of course, if you’re an ineffective, demotivated teacher, you’ll grab as many lesson plans as you can.
Lesson plans are different to learning resources. I used to have a huge collection of both physical and digital resources, neatly categorised, upon which I could draw. Very motivated and effective teachers within the UK History teaching community would share these – but do different things with them.
Sharing lesson plans as a business model misses the point, I think. Learning, as both Audrey and Steve pointed out, is about relationships not content-delivery.
One of the tangential conversations Steve and Audrey had was around social bookmarking. Steve ‘confessed’ to not really using social bookmarking services such as delicious or diigo any more.
I’m glad it’s not just me.
Since delicious has changed hands from Yahoo! to some randoms, I haven’t even got the bookmarklet or Firefox extension installed. I re-find things either through a search engine, my Thought Shrapnel tumblr or Evernote. As Steve mentioned, the personal (primary) benefit is more important than the (secondary) social benefit in this regard.
What I did find interesting is that Audrey uses Pinboard which positions itself as ‘social bookmarking for introverts’. I’ve got a (paid) account there, so I may give that another try.
The purpose of education
Time and time again, Audrey came back to the purpose of education. It’s not about content delivery. It’s not about power. It’s not about money.
I really enjoyed listening in to Steve and Audrey’s conversation and shall do so regularly. I just hope that as the podcast develops they summarise the stories before analysing them. What’s huge in the US (for example) is sometimes barely reported over here in the UK. I had to read between the lines of the Penn State controversy, for example.
But that’s a minor, nitpicking point. Listen to the podcast. It’s awesome.