Polyunsaturated facts

Warning: this post may contain traces of disturbing words and sentences that are unsuitable for those who are allergic to change in education.

During the week I came across this blog post on Info-snacks, which made an interesting analogy between the intake of information and food. Essentially the author suggests that the increasing online availability of small chunks of easily digestible facts and figures is potentially at the expense of a series of ‘proper meals’ that form part of a ‘sensible diet’. Now I’m the first to admit that being able to rapidly search for and discover some fascinating fact can be surprisingly satisfying, possibly even more so than eating a Cadbury’s Chocolate Egg, and for substantially much less effort than having to sit down for months on end consuming a course in some rich, over-egged esoteric academic banquet and facing the prospect of an examination at the end in order to gain a certificate that will probably mark me as ‘over-weight’ to most prospective employers.

With the rapidly increasing range of easily available motivational Scoobie Snacks such as blogs, posts and a variety of Pick’n’Mix tweets it seems almost inevitable that the young will start to opt for info-bites rather than a desire to acquire an in-depth knowledge and understanding.

At the same time, in a related post, comes the suggestion of something called ‘Just In Time’ learning. In industry Just In Time (or JIT) is a management tool for cutting costs through setting up efficient work-flow processes, so that components for the assembly line through to deliveries to the consumer arrive exactly when needed. In a similar way, JIT learning would presumably deliver exactly the right information to you on your hand-held device at the right place at the right time. Knowledge becomes something that is provided on a strictly need-to-know basis.

What the anticipated growth in Info-snacks and JIT learning have in common is that they both question the established approach that knowledge and understanding of the world is something to be bulk force-fed and absorbed in one’s school and college days. Unless we change our approach to formal academic education courses, learners will increasingly turn to rejecting traditional forms of learning in favour of readily available, easily digestible, instantly forgettable fast-facts. And, as with the need for more healthy eating, it’s not a simple matter of ‘banning’ crisps and fizzy drinks, it’s about educating people how to develop good learning habits and to only consume high-fact information snacks in moderation. Remember everyone: ‘Information snacks between meals can spoil your appetite for real learning?’ There are times when a quick snack is appropriate to keep you going, and times when you need to sit down to a proper meal.

However, there’s one aspect of information snacking that has not so far been mentioned. Just as eating is essentially a social as well as nutritional occasion, so is learning. And it may just be that if these frequent information snacks are shared in some way across social networks that the collective and collaborative experience of the participants will ultimately provide a depth and breadth of learning that begins to transcend traditional methods of teaching and learning and produces a completely new approach to the whole process of education that is actually appropriate to the 21st Century.

Maybe then we’ll even start to read reports in the e-newspapers raising concerns about binge education?

The surgeon and the teacher

This week I’m indebted to smichael920, a primary school headteacher from Blackpool, for my post. In his ‘Creativity behind learning’ blog he records a story that I remember hearing years ago but have never seen written down:

A teacher and a surgeon from 100 years ago were magically transported from their places of work to an operating theatre and classroom today. The surgeon commented first.

“What’s this?” He cried. “What are all these machines for? These lights, these controls on the wall, the screen here that moves over the bed, are these cameras, what do these controls do? Does this go over your ears? What is all this? It is nothing like my operating theatre I would not know where to start or what to do. The world of the surgeon has completely and utterly changed.”

The teacher then arrived in the classroom.
“Oh yes” he said. “The tables, the chairs. This is where the teacher sits. The books on the shelves, the board looks a little different but is still here at the front where everyone can see it. Yes it’s all pretty much as I remember it! I’ll be fine here, not a lot has changed in the world of the teacher.”

The full text, together with some interesting comparative photos can be found here:

And while you’re there have a read of:


Of course there are now some hi-tech teaching and learning spaces that are distinctly different from the way they used to be, though the majority of schools still have a significant number of traditonal classroom layouts. But maybe what the teacher from the past might find most re-assuring is the content of the lessons and the didactive teaching and learning, even if the phrases ‘National Curriculum’, ‘Attainment Targets’ and ‘Ofsted’ might well cause him to wonder if in fact things were better in his day?

Cameron and Gove’s Laugh-in?

Readers old enough to remember the late 1960s might recall the excellent ‘Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in’ – a break-through late night US comedy show that, amongst other things, featured a young Goldie Hawn playing the archetypal dumb-blonde.

Meanwhile some 40 or more years later, that nice Mr Gove has been talking about the freedom he wants to give people the opportunity to set up their own schools in England:


As one might expect, Mr Gove explains that he would welcome companies such as the Swedish International English Schools to come here and ‘teach the sort of rigorous academic curriculum…students in poorer parts of the country are denied’ (No Mr Gove, it’s not so much that they are denied it, it’s just not appropriate to their needs and they don’t want it).

But then a lot less predictably he says his team has recently met with Goldie Hawn whose charity already runs schools in America and Canada, and that he could not see any serious barrier to her setting up a school within the English state system. Which is somewhat surprising, given that Hawn’s Foundation teaches the Buddhist technique of Mindfulness training, which emphasises social and emotional progress over academic testing and the use of simple breathing exercises to boost learning power.

Or is Mr Gove just ‘having a laugh’? You bet your sweet bippy he is!

Is this the future of education in England? I certainly hope so!


And for a more general reminder of what the Laugh-in was like:


Work less, think more…

Yet another quiet week in the world of education, unless of course you’re a middle-aged university lecturer hoping for early retirement, in which case, things are looking up.

I was about to give up on a post for this weekend when I came across this item:

Cut working week to 21 hours, urges think tank

Suddenly I was back in the early 1970s when Tomorrow’s World was confidently predicting that by the turn of the century we’d all be enjoying extensive leisure time. And here we are again – cut the working week to 21 hours and become better parents, children, citizens, carers and neighbours.

Now I fully agree of course – marvellous, can’t wait (though a bit galling for all those university lecturers who’ve just been given early retirement after a lifetime’s stress and anxiety). But as the foundation’s policy director admits: ‘A cultural shift will throw up real challenges’, and let’s face it that’s an understatement.

The trouble is that although we want massive cultural change in many things, including education, no-one knows how to even start the ball rolling, let alone achieve it.

Back in October’s inaugural post Going for Gold I made some suggestions as to the sorts of big issues we should be considering if we are really going to change anything. If we’re all going to work less and educate better, we are going to have think a lot more about how to actually get there.

Weeping iBalls *

It’s been a fairly quiet week in terms of rant-worthy media reporting of political nonsense about education.

However there was this item that caught my i:


Beyond the fact that there are some of us who were discussing the potential problem of the digital divide 20 years ago, it seems that some students are now using home computers for learning more than they use computers at school.

“Computers are no longer a luxury for the few, but are as essential a part of education as books, pens and paper.” says Ed Balls, a statement not lost on Microsoft’s on-the-spot spokesperson eagerly anticipating the procurement of new truckloads of over-powered and over-priced beige lined Windoze PC boxes to meet the demands of the £300m Home Access scheme.

Oddly both Mr Balls and Mr Microsoft somehow seemed to have missed the announcement of the iPad last week, or more accurately I suspect, have failed to grasp the educational possibilities of the device. Rather than investing in more desktops, laptops and netbooks, a more forward looking policy might be to kick-start the next phase of computing technology in which every child upgrades their mobile phone for a smart phone or iPad-type device.

Meanwhile, talking of the iPad, of all the recent reviews, it was Charlie Brooker’s that contained the most perceptive insights:


“it looks ideal for idly browsing the web while watching telly. And I suspect that’s what it’ll largely be used for. Millions of people watch TV while checking their emails: it’s a perfect match for them.”

Or, of course, for multi-tasking school-children, bringing new meaning to the concept of doing one’s homework at the same time as watching TV.

* Weeping Eyeballs was the name of a band I played with in the early 1970s. But that’s another story.