Open Thinkering


Tag: Keri Facer

Why would I send my child to secondary school?

You don’t have to believe in the lazy education is broken meme to think that there’s something wrong with the way we educate young people. As someone who worked for seven years as a teacher and senior leader in schools I’m not just some guy who has a view on education: I’ve seen what it looks and feels like behind the scenes in both ‘outstanding” and ‘failing’ schools.

I want to make it clear that nothing I’m about to say has anything to do with the role, status or professionalism of teachers. As I’ve said many a time, most teachers I’ve ever come across do a fantastic job and are dedicated and hard-working. My target here is, specifically, the English education ‘system’ (if we can even call it that).

It’s also important to bear in mind that I’m not talking about my own choices as a parent here, but rather me qua parent. The question I’m asking isn’t “should I homeschool my child?” but rather, “how should we as a society educate young people?” It’s a symptom of our age that the former is always assumed whenever I bring it up. Individualism and the logic of the market seems to pervade everything these days.

I’m also going to be setting aside the purpose of education for the moment. Going into any depth here would make this into either an inordinately long post, or a series of posts. That’s not my aim and, in any case, I spent a couple of years exploring that question with Purpos/ed.

Secondary school is a huge waste of time. I mean that literally.

Let’s do the maths.

Many secondary schools I’ve taught in divide the day into six 50-minute lessons. Children go to school five days per week so that’s 5 x 6 x 50 = 1500 minutes (or 25 hours) in lessons. However, in terms of learning time, once we’ve factored in changeovers, settling, the costs of task-switching and routine tasks/admin, that’s probably down to 5 x 6 x 30 = 900 minutes (or 15 hours).

The way that people get better at things is through formative feedback. In other words, someone gives you timely advice on a thing you’ve just done and shows you how to improve it. That could be how to write persuasively or how to swing a tennis racquet. In a class of 30+ children formative feedback happens less often that we’d all like.

So, going back to the calculations, the learning that takes place in 15 hours per week with a 1:30 ratio could probably take place a lot more quickly and accurately with a 1:1 or 1:5 ratio. I’m well aware that the research on class sizes shows that numbers have to be cut dramatically to make a difference but with these kinds of ratios Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development starts kicking in on a regular basis. My son’s footballing skills came on a lot more during 16 hours in a small group during half-term than they would have done in 16 one-hour lessons within a large group over four months.

We can, and I believe should, organise learning differently. We could have smaller learning groups for 20 weeks per year and the other 20 weeks could be the equivalent of apprenticeships – putting those knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviours into action. Or each week could be divided into two. Or they could do one week on, one week off. There’s many permutations.

I know I’m likely to get some pushback in the form of how important a role schools play in terms of socialisation. I get that. But I think it’s important to realise that, as parents, we seem to have outsourced learning and socialisation and conflated it with reliable babysitting to allow us to go to work. We’re missing the point by tinkering around the edges.

Having worked in schools with extremely poor pupil behaviour, I realise that this, too, is likely to be another objection. But then, behaviour is the responsibility of those who construct the environment as well as the actions of the individual. If we organised learning differently, in re-imagined spaces, then we’d probably get different kinds of behaviours.

In short, instead of asking what we need to do with schools to perpetuate what we’ve already got, perhaps we should be thinking about the society we want to create for our children when they grow up. All I’m asking for is a rethink. There’s no point in adding epicycles. Iteration is all well and good but, to begin with, you have to be heading in the right direction.

If you haven’t already read Will Richardson’s book Why School? I’d recommend it as a short read that fleshes out some of the points I’ve made above. Also, Sir Ken Robinson’s RSA Animate on Changing Education Paradigms is a must-see on just how crazy the system has become. Once that’s whetted your appetite, then dive into Prof. Keri Facer’s marvellous Learning Futures. 🙂

Image CC BY-NC-SA donnamarijne

Some thoughts on learning technologies in the classroom

I was invited to participate in a panel session as part of the inaugural London Festival of Education today. It was a great event with some big name speakers as well as thoughtful contributions from those at the sharp end in the classroom. I’ve written it up in a combined post with MozFest on my conference blog.

As ever with panel sessions I didn’t get a chance to say all I wanted to say about the topic of the session, which was entitled How learning technologies are changing teaching. The session description revealed more: “Slates and chalk have been replaced with iPads, and blackboards by interactive whiteboards. But is it the same old teaching just with fancy new kit?”

Writing up the notes from this session in an organised, coherent way would require a book. And I’ve already got one of those to write. So I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with the following:

  • Wouldn’t it be great if we had a national agency to advise schools on how to use technology effectively? Although it was far from ideal, Becta was that agency. And we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
  • The classroom is a symbol of intergenerational solidarity and conflict. Because it symbolises a shared experience it’s a contested space everyone thinks they’re an expert upon.
  • Focusing on specific examples can be limiting. I caught the end of a discussion as part of the Today programme BBC Radio 4 on Thursday morning. The representative from Nesta was asked for an example of ‘a really good lesson’ using tablet computers. Quite rightly they didn’t attempt to answer the question. I think I’d have been tempted to throw the question back at them and ask what a really good lesson using pencils would look like.
  • Technologies are more than just tools. And they’re not ‘neutral’. They were designed by someone, or a group of people, or a multi-national profit-seeking organisation for a particular purpose.

“A bias is simply a leaning – a tendency to promote one set of behaviours over another. All media and all technologies have biases. It may be true that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”; but guns are a technology more biased to killing than, say, clock radio. Televisions are biased toward people sitting still in couches and watching. Automobiles are biased toward motion, individuality, and living in the suburbs. Oral culture is biased towards communicating in person, whilst written culture is biased toward communication that doesn’t happen between people in the same time and place.” (Douglas Rushkoff)

  • Different technologies have different affordances. They may look the same and be put in the same categories by retailers and reviewers, but the opportunities they afford are different. This isn’t to do with cost, it’s to do with the logic of the device. So with some devices the trade-off you get for them being extremely easy-to-use is being locked into a proprietary ecosystem.
  • Technologies do not operate in a vacuum. How, why and where technologies are used depends upon our values, expectations and motivations.

“When technologies are released, they are adopted and appropriated within existing social values, structures and expectations; they are shaped and reshaped by beta testers, early adopters and marketers; and they come to mean different things and be used for different purposes by different people. Different social, religious and cultural values, for example, pattern the uptake of medical technologies… [and] domestic technologies are appropriated into the existing values and cultures of families.” (Keri Facer)

  • We can’t engineer future-proof schools. The future doesn’t just happen, it’s created by all of us. We shouldn’t be at the whim of people trying to make a profit by selling things.

“Rather than envisaging a ‘future-proof school that tries to insure itself against socio-technical change, therefore, we have the opportunity to create future-building schools that actively support their communities to tip the balance of socio-technical change in favour of fair, sustainable and democratic futures.” (Keri Facer)

  • Doing the wrong thing faster or better isn’t progress. Going further down a wrong road doesn’t mean you’re going to get to the destination you had in mind. We need to re-think how we measure learning. If educators feel that something is valuable but it doesn’t necessarily lead to better test scores, then we need to re-think the tests.

“You can’t take on twenty-first-century tasks with twentieth-century tools and hope to get the job done.” (Cathy Davidson)

“As Internet analyst Clay Shirky notes succinctly, “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” (Cathy Davidson)

  • Spending all day looking at screens is a bad thing. But technology can augment what we do. Think of sports tracking utilities that enable you to compete against yourself. Or track the number of steps you do and upload it to a website. Personalised, embedded technologies are a huge leap forward in terms of what we can do with learning and teaching. The example usually used is having a search engine in your pocket, but infinitely more powerful is a network of people – human agency – on tap. It can turn everyone into a superhero, compared with the 20th century.
  • Concerns about the impact of technology on the brain are often misguided. The brain is supposed to rewire itself. How else could you learn anything?

“Many of our anxieties about how the new digital technologies of today are “damaging” our children are based on the old idea of neural development as fixed, or “hardwired.” and on notions of distraction and disruption as hindrances instead of opportunities for learning. Our fears about multitasking and media stacking are grounded in the idea that the brain progresses in a linear fashion, so we are accumulating more and more knowledge as we go along. Most of us, as parents or teachers or educational policy makers, have not yet absorbed the lessons of contemporary neuroscience: that the most important feature of the brain is Hebbian, in the sense that the laying down of patterns causes efficiencies that serve us only while they really are useful and efficient. When something comes along to interrupt our efficiency, we can make new patterns.” (Cathy Davidson)

  • Instead of platforms as standards we should focus on standards as standards. We like to belong to things that are popular. That’s why technologies – including social networks – have a tipping point, but also a lifecycle. Just as an example, go to a conference and ask if anyone can lend you an iPhone charger. You’ll be inundated. Yet there are actually more phones with micro-USB chargers – and, in fact, it’s an EU regulation that users can use this standard to charge their phone. It’s a less extreme example of breast milk versus powdered milk in developing countries – there’s no-one to champion the former so those peddling the latter make millions.
  • We need mind-expanding education and critical thinking skills, but we don’t need to regurgitate facts. There’s a quotation on the side of the British Library that I like:

“Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.” (Samuel Johnson)

“The biggest problem we face now is the increasing mismatch between traditional curricular standards of content-based instruction and the new forms of thinking required by our digital, distributed workplace. at any level – blue collar or white collar – those jobs requiring “routine thinking skills” are increasingly performed by machines or outsourced to nations with a lower standard of living than [us].” (Cathy Davidson)

  • Technology can be used well and technology can be used badly. Technology may have biases and affordances, but it can be bent to the will of human beings. There are rich, innovative, exciting and liberating uses of technologies. And there are dull, pointless, soul-sapping use of technologies. We need to use technology mindfully.

“The mindful use of digital media doesn’t happen automatically. Thinking about what you are doing and why you are doing it instead of going through the motions is fundamental to the definition of mindful, whether you are deciding to follow someone on Twitter, shutting the lid of your laptop in class, looking up from your BlackBerry in a meeting, or consciously deciding which links not to click.” (Howard Rheingold)

  • We need to invest in training and peer assistance. Teachers are insanely overworked: no other industry would stand for it. And teacher CPD – especially around technology – is poor. More recently there’s been a fashion to say that learning technologies should be as easy to use as Facebook which is ridiculous. Most people were introduced to Facebook by family, a friend, or a colleague. They forget the learning curve and the constant re-learning they have to do when the interface and controls change.
  • The skills, competencies and literacies we need now are different from those required in the past. It’s like a huge Venn diagram that’s constantly overlapping and moving. We’d do well to remember that we’re not trying to create adults like us but adults that will have the skills appropriate to the world in 10, 20 or 50 years’ time.

“I didn’t let my child loose on the streets without teaching her about traffic and looking both ways. Similarly, I don’t like to see otherwise well-educated people loose in digital culture without knowing something about what makes a small-world network work or why a portfolio of weak ties is important.” (Howard Rheingold)

“In previous eras, it may have been true that “it’s not what you know but who you know.” Today how you know what you know matters as much as who you know, and one of the most valuable traits a person could have in a twenty-first-century organisation is a knack for knowing “who know who knows what.”” (Howard Rheingold)

  • We need names for things so that we can easily have conversations about them. Take, for example, the concept of the flipped classroom (where content is ‘delivered’ at home and activities take place during lesson time). Forward-thinking educators have been doing that for years, but now it has a delivery channel (YouTube, Facebook, etc.) and a name. It’s a thing.
  • Learners will almost always know more about technology than their teachers. That’s not a reason to avoid using technologies, that’s a reason to embrace them. It’s empowering and demonstrates the teacher as lifelong learner. It’s scary to let go of the reins, but hugely beneficial and changes the dynamic of the classroom.

The myth underpinning ’21st Century Skills’ [Future of Education]

Rainbow over Tokyo at sunset

There’s nothing wrong with discussing concepts such as 21st Century Skills, ‘core competencies for the information age,’ or digital literacies. Well, at least I hope not – I’m 50,000 words into writing a 60,000 thesis on the latter! What is problematic is when such terms become what Richard Rorty terms ‘dead metaphors’: words that used to be understood as a shorthand for a whole barrage of beliefs, opinions and debates, but now only have ap place in rhetoric. Keri Facer explains the problem with that kind of rhetoric:

This myth goes as follows: Rapid technological change in the 21st century will lead to increased competition between individuals and nations; education’s role is to equip individuals and nations for that competition by developing ‘twenty-first century skills’ that will allow them to adapt and reconfigure themselves for this new market. But education and educators are ill-equipped to make those changes, as they have failed to adapt successfully to technological developments over the last 100 years. Educational change, therefore, needs to be directed from outside. This is the myth that pervades much of the thinking about education and its relationship to socio-technical futures. It can be described as a myth not because it is wholly fictional – indeed, there are elements of this story for which there is some evidence and empirical support – but because it comes to act as an unquestioned cultural resource, to function as a dominating narrative that allows educators, policy-makers, parents and designers, without too much reflection, to make decisions and take action in the present. It has underpinned the educational ‘modernization’ agenda across the world for the last two decades. (Keri Facer, Learning Futures)

The fundamental issue is that, whether politicians, teachers, parents or pressure groups, each group of stakeholders in education think that they should be setting the educational agenda. Ironically, the common shared experience of having experienced schooling counts against progress being made, I would suggest.

I’m all for flexibility in the labour market – in my 8 years in it I’m in my 6th job and 5th house – but we need to educate and equip young people to understand that the flexibility should be on their terms.

Image CC BY tallkev

PS If you’re interested in this, check out the #purposedfutured campaign!

Schools as resources for fairness. [Future of Education]

This post is another in a (probably fairly lengthy) series as a result of me reading Keri Facer’s excellent Learning Futures: Education, Technology and Social Change. It follows my previous post: On the paucity of our collective imagination.

Fairness Zone

We need to start thinking now about how schools can act as resources for fairness if children bring highly diverse digital, social and pharmacological resources into the classroom. We need to start thinking now about how schools can equip students for democracy when technologies of surveillance are expanding and new networked public spaces are emerging. And we need to start thinking now about how schools can act as resources for building sustainable economic futures when networked globalization promises increased polarization, radical inequality and environmental degradation. (Keri Facer, Learning Futures)

One of the main objections I have to Free Schools is that they allow parents to extract themselves from the conversation about schooling. And they allow this (usually for the benefit of the upper middle-class) at the expense of taxpayers. I’m opposed to (most kinds of) independent schooling as well, but at least in this instance parents have to put their money where their mouth is.

For better or worse, whole lives are defined by experiences between the ages of 4 and 16. The experience of schooling defines most people’s educational experiences – and therefore what goes on within schools cannot be underestimated.

Before reading Keri Facer’s book, I was verging towards the Deschooling movement. I now see how getting rid of schools would be a tragic conclusion to the rampant individualism that defines our age. And it would lead to a more unjust society, not a more egalitarian one:

I want to argue that the potential for socio-technical changes to massively amplify social and economic inequalities in the coming decades is significant. This means that, more than ever, we will need schools that are physical, locally accountable organizations, committed to building viable and sustainable futures for everyone in their communities. (Keri Facer, Learning Futures)

The UK has a wider gap between rich and poor than it did 40 years ago. There are huge gender pay gaps and people living in poverty. In 2011. That’s unacceptable. And it’s no good throwing our hands up in the air at our current education system’s seeming inability to close that gap. Instead, we need to strengthen and re-commit ourselves to schools as places where people abandon their ghettos – be those class-based, religious, or otherwise.

As I mentioned in a reply to a comment on my previous post, we can’t be defined solely in opposition to hegemonic power. We need to pre-empt important questions. One of these, for example, is the inevitability within the next 20 years of so-called ‘smart drugs’ which will allow the enhancement (either temporary or longer-term) of human cognitive abilities. Given high-stakes testing regimes it’s inevitable that those who have the means to provide these to their children will do so in order to gain economic advantages.

We cannot wait for problems to arise and then define ourselves by opposition to them. We need to have pre-emptive conversations. We need to come together.

We need schools.

Image CC BY PatrickSeabird

On the paucity of our collective imagination. [Future of Education]

War is Peace

As happens quite often when I am exposed to something that helps transform my thinking or worldview, I’m not entirely sure how to get started with this one. So I’ll just dive straight in with a quotation:

The educational imagination of the last two decades has been dominated by one particular vision of the future, a vision of a global knowledge economy fuelled by international competition and sustained by digital networks. This vision has driven investment in new technologies, new approaches to teaching and learning, new education industries and massive school rebuilding programmes around the world. This vision has promised students and nations that with enough education, creativity and new technology, their futures will be secure. This vision of the future, however, can no longer be considered either robust or desirable enough to act as a reliable guide for education. (Keri Facer, Learning Futures)

Simon Bostock commented recently on my communitarian tendencies. He’s correct: I’ve recently co-kickstarted Purpos/ed and got involved with the PTA of the school my son attends. Civil Society is too important to be taken for granted: people are too busy gossiping and wasting their cognitive surplus:

Gossip is the opiate of the oppressed. (Erica Jong)

And we are oppressed. In fact, fairly often, we choose to be. Now that we’ve caught assassinated Osama Bin Laden, are we going to demand our rights back? Can we shut off those CCTV cameras please? Can we re-record those messages I hear in train stations threatening to destroy my unattended luggage? Will I be able to take a bottle of water on my next flight?

Thought not.

Stand up. Literally. Walk out of wherever you are right now – be it your home, your place of work, or your local library. Have a look around. Are we in danger? Really? I don’t want to live in a climate of fear and uncertainty – and nor do I want this to become normality for my children.

The biggest threat to our society isn’t terrorism: it’s our sense of community being slowly eroded by a creeping individualism. This individualism is hidden behind a mask of political correctness, of not wanting to cause ‘offence’ and through the tried-and-tested powers of advertising, fashion, and trend-setting. Where have the real thought-leaders gone? I’ll tell you. They’ve been lost in the quest for the perfect soundbite.

People like to be told what to do. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. People like not to have to think. Does that sound controversial? It’s true. The majority of the population like to have established ways of doing things because of something that’s also true: we avoid conflict wherever possible. In doing so, we hand a voice to those who use conflict to increase their power and influence.

I’m generalising. Of course I am. You and I are different, aren’t we? Except we’re not. We’re slaves to the latest gadget, the latest news item and the views espoused by the latest celebrity. But more than that: we’re using tools of oppression to build futures for our children. We’re using rare earth minerals to fuel our obsession with gadgetry; we’re using forms of discourse that restrict our ways of conceptualising issues; and, most importantly of all, we’re propping-up outmoded education systems because of our belief that in doing so we’re helping our children.

As Keri Facer points out in the quotation I selected from her (excellent) new book, our vision of the future is no longer robust or desirable enough. We’re suffering from a paucity of collective imagination. We can’t even muster more than a sarcastic tweet or status update when a bunch of bankers wreck our entire economic system (and then pay themselves bonuses for doing so). We think it’s OK for blue-collar jobs, for call centres to be outsourced to the developing world, but what happens when the white-collar jobs go the same way? Are we prepared for that?

Is our education system adequate, relevant and proportionate? It’s not about campaigning for the latest technologies and an increase in ‘creativity’ in schools. Our problems go a whole lot deeper than that. These are difficult, knotty issues about social justice, the fabric of society and, ultimately, the human race. It’s time to do some real thinking and acting.

What are YOU going to do about it?

Image CC BY-NC-SA matthileo

Weeknote #29

Weeknote 29This week I have been mostly…

Getting JISC-y with it

It’s finally finished! The mobile and wireless technologies review I’ve been working on for the last few months is finally ready. I’ll not link to it until I’ve presented at next week’s meeting but, at 17,000+ words it’s a fairly substantial piece of work.

I also attended the JISC Online e-Learning Conference this week. It was variable.. Keri Facer’s keynote on the future of education was awesome, as was Anne Miller’s session on innovation and barriers. Graham Brown-Martin’s session on mobile technologies was entertaining and I wish I hadn’t been commuting during the session on Open Educational Resources. There’s not point linking to the sessions I didn’t like; suffice to say that I’m not fond of people bigging themselves or their institution up and delivering little in the way of new ideas or sharing good practice. Overall, worth virtually attending though – more on my conference blog. 🙂

Trudging through snow

It’s a winter wonderland up in Northumberland at the moment. It won’t be long before I’ll be able to do this again (January 2010):


Receiving a free netbook

I’m not sure whether it’s because I spoke at BETT a couple of years ago on netbooks in the classroom, my pre-release review of the LG Shine from a few years back or uncomissioned videos such as my hands-on review of the Dell Streak, but I was approached this week to review the Dell 2110 education-focused netbook. It was delivered yesterday so expect a review soon!

Planning a conference

Andy Stewart and I are planning a conference. No, I’m not going to tell you when, where or what it’s about. Suffice to say these things take a fair amount of thinking about. Good grief. If you’ve experience in these matters, feel free to get in touch!

Top 10 links I’ve shared this week

The following links were those most clicked on (according to Pro‘s stats) when I shared them via  Twitter this week. I don’t include links back to this blog.

Links given with number of clicks given in brackets:

  1. Telegraph | 200 students admit cheating after professor’s online rant (83)
  2. Spin Collective | Sea mural sticker set (49)
  3. Guardian | Students protest (40)
  4. hu2 | Water Cycle wall sticker (35)
  5. The Importance of Teaching – The School White Paper 2010 (27)
  6. BBC News | Teacher training at heart of schools reform (25)
  7. Twitter | Alfie Kohn: critique of Math instruction (25)
  8. Literature and Latte – Scrivener (21)
  9. Through The Phases (18)
  10. | Boettinger: Moving Mountains (9)