Elixir of Learning or Snake Oil?

It seems somewhat serendipitous that a bout of squabbling and name-calling broke out in the blogosphere as a series of articles were published on SOLEs and Schools in the Cloud just as EDU8213 on The Future of Learning was drawing to its somewhat unsatisfactory climax (more of that at a later date).   Sugata Mitra in the blue corner being squared up to by the tag team of Tom Bennett and David Didau in the red.   I know Professor Mitra as a student on his Master’s Level module at Newcastle University but Messrs Bennett and Didau are both new to me.   It is obvious that the latter two have little time for the ideas of the former, which is disappointing as there is some merit to parts of Dr Mitra’s argument, even though I may not agree with his conclusions about the future of learning.

Dr Mitra argues that much of what is learned in school is what he has called “just in case” education and that he has not been able to find any estimate of how much is actually used in a lifetime.   My response to that would be – so what?   So what if much of what is taught in school is unused, that in no way means that it was a waste of time being exposed to it in the first place?   So what if we have calculators to help us to multiply three and two digit numbers, that doesn’t mean that there is no satisfaction in knowing how to do it ourselves does it?   And what of the neurological effects of learning.   I’m no expert but I think I understand enough to feel comfortable in saying that the brain needs to be exercised in order for certain pathways within our brains to become “hardwired”, for the neural networks that allow us to do other things to be fixed.   Is that not, in itself, an argument for learning something, even if that something falls into his “just in case” category?

Much of the work on SOLES has been carried out with primary aged children, who have an innate curiosity about the way the world works and the interest to find out more.  It has been carried out as a discreet activity with a purpose, not as a way of delivering an entire curriculum.   Here I have to agree with Dr Mitra’s antagonists that the quality of the research, such as it is, leaves far too much to be desired; a situation I find remarkable given Dr Mitra’s background and training as a physicist.   In the original “Hole in the Wall” experiments, it is said that the children taught themselves English as a result.   Where is the evidence?   Yes, they may have been able to use a computer whose operating system was in English but does that mean that the children have learned English in a way that might allow them to communicate in that language?   Could they not have simply learned, by something as simple as trial and improvement, the particular shape that a word takes that then indicates a particular course of action?   The assertion that they have taught themselves English is not tenable without further corroborating evidence, which has not been supplied.

Where I do agree with Dr Mitra is in his critique of the current system of examinations; high-stakes assessments which dominate so much of UK education practice, to the detriment of the students and education itself.   As he says: “The need for standardisation dumbs the whole system down.”.   Technology could and should be used as a force for good in developing a more appropriate and less threatening way of measuring how well an individual has engaged with the knowledge to which she has been exposed.

Messrs Bennett and Dildau have both presented lengthy discussions on their reasons for opposing Dr Mitra but, for me, the killer comes from Donald Clark in his blog of 29th October 2015 entitled “Mitra’s SOLE – 10 reasons why it is ‘not even wrong‘”.   I have to agree with Clarke’s observation that “It is not clear if this is anything other than traditional project or inquiry based teaching.” – it certainly feels very much like it, albeit with the information much more readily accessible thanks to the internet, wifi and download speeds which were unheard of only a couple of years ago.

I have no doubt whatsoever that there is a place for SOLEs as part of an inclusive and participatory curriculum and as valid and valuable pedagogical tool but they are certainly not “The Future of Learning”.   Which begs two questions: (1) If SOLES are not the future of learning then what are they? and (2) If SOLES are not the future of learning then what is?

In the Year 2050 – with apologies to Zager and Evans

Trying to predict the future is like trying to drive down a country road at night with no lights while looking out the back window. - Peter Drucker

The challenge this week was to try to predict what education would look like in 2050 by looking at the difference between 1980 and 2015.   Thus a none too comprehensive list of differences between 1980 and now was compiled – internet, mobile phones (communications), PCs, laptops, tablets, smartphones, smartboards, the National Curriculum, SATs, the rise of high-stakes assessment, league tables were brought up.   It was very obvious that Prof Mitra’s preference was to look at the “advances” in technology rather than the changes in curriculum, assessment and pedagogy.   In some ways, this should hardly be surprising; he is, after all, Professor of Educational Technology but it raised a question in my mind which has been impossible for me to ignore – are we trying to put the cart before the horse here?

Technology should be a support – it should help the delivery of education and the curriculum.  By focusing on how technology might change in the future we are in danger of prioritizing technology over purpose.   A much more important question to be asked is “How is what is declared to be the purpose and content of education going to change in the future?”.   Once that has been decided then we can look to see what technology might be able to do to assist the achievement of the agreed aim or aims.   We need to agree on what we are going to include in education (both the formal and informal curriculum) and then we can work out the best way to deliver it.   Certainly technology will have a role to play, probably a major one, but it will not be the whole story.

Humans learn in many different ways, some of which will be supported by the use of technology and some of which will not.   The recent announcement by the University of Cambridge of the establishment of a permanent LEGO Professorship of Play in Education, Development and Learning shows that there is still much to be discovered in how children acquire knowledge and a variety of stimuli are of the utmost importance now and well into the future.   The “what” and the “why” of education seem to me to be far more important, even fundamental, to the future than the “where” and the “how”.

Education may very well look very different in the future compared to what it looks like now.   There may or may not be buildings that we recognise as schools; the curriculum in 2050 will almost certainly include things of which we cannot even dream in 2015 and the technology available to assist us in educating people (not just children) is yet to be invented but one thing is, I believe, almost certain – the role of technology will be the same as it is today; supportive but not the primary driver.  The internet should not (and, I trust, will not) be the fountain of all knowledge, the modern day equivalent of the Oracle at Delphi.    It has already shown its vulnerability to manipulation and this will only increase in the future as it becomes more central to our lives.   Relying on such a flawed tool as the sole (pun intended) source of knowledge is foolhardy, dangerous and invites dictatorship and demagoguery.   The internet, and technology in general, has a vital role to play in supporting humankind in the future but it should not be endowed with powers that it cannot have.   Education is a human right and, as such, should not be given to machines, however artificially intelligent they might be, to deliver.


The Future of learning – some further, very personal, musings…..

The provocation at the heart of this session was “How will children acquire their knowledge and skills” and we were invited first to reflect on our own schooling and to identify our favourite teacher.   For me that was both very easy and very difficult – George Hamilton, the Head at my Primary school and the man who first helped me experience the wonder of finding out about things.   That was easy but more difficult was leaving out all those other amazing people who helped me along my road and the more I thought about them the more I remembered them, see them in my minds eye as they were all those years ago.   George Barlow, Peter Ince, Roger Dalladay (who called me “Grumio” since, according to our first latin book “Grumio est coquus”), Ian Harvey, Chris “Bernie” Holt, Alan Rowe my first form tutor, ACVF – Major Andrew Charles Vincent Foster – who had a mean trick of sneaking up behind you and grasping your earlobe firmly between the nails of his thumb and forefinger (and also had to explain the meaning of the word “lethargic” to me after describing me as such on a school report) but then completely surprised me by standing by me at a most difficult time of my (then) short life, Sean Wylie who was described in his obituary in the Guardian as being second only to Alan Turing in his contribution to the success of Hut 8 at Bletchley Park; the list goes on.

Why can I remember those people so very clearly after 40 years (and more)?   They were so very much more than teachers.   They were advisors, companions, mentors, intellectual safety-net holders, challengers, guides, role models but never, ever friends.   They instilled in me the love of finding out stuff that I retain to this day; they were the reason I became a teacher because I know how very lucky I was to have known them and how much they meant to me.   They changed my life and I have a debt to them which I hope I have repaid in some small measure by trying to give the same gift to others.

Why is this important?   To me, it’s important because it shows the power that education and, especially, a teacher has to change the world.   But they have to be given the time, the space and, most importantly, the trust of Society to do it.   I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that all this took place before the advent of the National Curriculum, SATs, OFSTED and school league tables.   Education is about so much more than learning stuff but it seems that the powers that be have forgotten that.   I was so very lucky to be in a time and at a place that realised that and allowed the teachers to do exactly what they were supposed to do: teach.

So – how will children acquire their knowledge and skills in the future?   If they’re really lucky, with the help of people as dedicated and talented as those named above.

Response to The Conversation blog

The OECD report referred to in the very first line reports results that are hardly rocket science to anyone who has been involved in teaching secondary school students at any time in the last twenty years.   Any teacher will tell you that it is not the presence of the machines that makes a difference to the teaching and learning that goes on in a classroom but the use to which they are put.   In fact, incorrectly used, technology can have a negative impact so the introduction of any new technology has to be accompanied by sufficient training and resources to allow said technology to full effect; sadly this is rarely the case, in the UK at least.   Smartboards, pcs, laptops, tablets, money has been thrown at introducing all of these into the classroom but rarely has the expenditure on hardware been matched by resources being provided for the training that will allow these to be used most effectively.   Teachers are usually left to try and work them out for themselves having been given some rudimentary and all too brief introduction by a sales manager on their introduction into the classroom.   Of course SMT, having spent a large slice of their annual capital budget on these innovations, want and expect to see results instantly.   And then there’s Andreas Schleicher – how much does he get paid I wonder for stating the blindingly obvious?   But, as the BBC News article makes clear, his role in this is to sell more PISA tests, especially given the competition in this particular marketplace from TIMMS…….   Thus we come to the crux of the problem – too much emphasis on high-stakes testing as the measure of educational outcomes, as if students are just commodities on a factory production line.

As long as teachers, schools (and, thanks to the likes of PISA and TIMMS, nations) are going to be measured by their results on such high stakes summative assessments then the results of these assessments are going to be the subject of manipulation and gaming.   To give an example: a Head of Dept in an English Secondary School is informed by SMT at the start of the year that he, and his dept., will be deemed to be successful or otherwise on the basis of their GSCE results – the target for the year is 75% of students gaining grade C or above.   More than 75% – plaudits all round and maybe even a payrise, less than 75% and the blame game starts and the HoD’s job is on the line.   It doesn’t take a genius to work out the result – C/D borderline students are targetted to ensure that as many Ds as possible are turned into Cs.   A student who is expected to gain a grade A is effectively ignored.   They are safely over the threshold anyway and therefore are not going to impact on the all-important C or above percentage – no matter that with a little extra help they might have gained an A* or had a more fulfilling experience immersed in their subject.   The student expected to gain an E or below – well, they are never going to improve by 2 grades so again there’s no reason to invest valuable time or resources as they are not going to make an impact on that all important 75% either so they are left to drift.   Bored and alone they are quite likely to vote with their feet before the end of the school year – much to the relief of the subject teacher as their boredom had turned into disruptive behaviour and meant that valuable time that needed to be spent with the target group had to be “wasted” in dealing with that behaviour.

Internet-enabled exams are not the “simple solution” suggested, but that’s not to say that they may not have a place in a future assessment scheme.   The first thing that always springs to my mind when technology is trumpeted as the new panacea is – what happens when it breaks.   And break it always does, usually at the most inconvenient time.  Internet connections fail, electricity supplies are interrupted, software is corrupted or just plain doesn’t do what it is supposed to.   Then what happens?

Technology does have a role to play in a new assessment regime but a supporting role, not a central one.   The only way to remove the tyranny of high-stakes summative assessment is to replace it with assessment which has taken place over a longer time period, been more formative in its approach – in other words, continuous assessment.   The kind of questions envisioned by the authors can then form part of the assessment process alongside more traditional methods of assessing learning.   Then assessment can be where it belongs, at the heart of teaching and learning, wherever it takes place (which may or may not be in a traditional classroom, or even school).

We’ve been here before, or close by anyway, in the late 1980s with the introduction of GCSE examinations and the National Curriculum.   The original concept of the NC was based on students providing evidence, throughout their school careers, that they had mastered certain skills and knowledge defined by the government as being appropriate for a particular level.   The problem with this, as I remember only too well at the start of my teaching career, was record keeping and recording the evidence – this is one area where the technology available today could certainly make everyone’s life easier.   GCSEs – most, if not all, of them had coursework elements where students were given open-ended tasks and encouraged to think for themselves.   Over the years these were gradually killed off because of gaming of the system by unscrupulous (or over-pressurised) teachers and students but also by a succession of government ministers of education who just didn’t understand education and wanted a return to the O Levels and A Levels that they had to take because that’s what they understood and that’s what they deemed valuable.

There have been some attempts by some Examination Boards to try to introduce examinations that emphasise research, critical thinking and problem solving skills, that aim to develop those very “21st century skills…….associated with the effective use of multiple forms of technology.” asked for in the article.   Cambridge International Examinations have, for example, an A Level in Global Perspectives and Research and an AS Level General Paper both of which assess the 21st century skills referred to in the article.   The problem?   The Universities which choose to specifically exclude as eligible for consideration for entry requirements such exams (including, I am ashamed to say, Newcastle University)meaning that students are reluctant to invest the time and effort required to take them.

Schools’ curricula are driven by external examinations, examination boards are driven by the universities and, increasingly, by the demands of commerce and industry so until the Universities and employers themselves start to value “21st century skills” by encouraging applicants for both degree courses and jobs to take these new subjects and examinations, then I’m afraid that we will just have to make do with what we have, even though most right minded people realise that the current system is obsolescent and becoming ever more unfair and unfit for purpose.