Ban p-learning now!

For this post I am indebted to Tony Wheeler for the following:

“If we had only discovered pencils 5 years ago, and it had taken till now for most people to get one? We all spent the first couple of years jotting down a few words with a stubby black IKEA sized pencil on post-its passing them to each other by hand. Then, Apple came up with its full colour i-Pencil set and David Hockney had shown us that you could also make small bright images on the post-its too and later stuck them together in a single sheet. Now everyone is sketching large colourful images on ever bigger sheets of paper at home, at work, on the bus, in the library…  everywhere the world has been transformed by this wonderful new technology…

But not at school… because:
– teachers have not been trained properly to use pencils
– pencils do not fit with traditional teaching methods
– pencils are expensive to buy and replace when they break or wear down so small you can’t hold them
– we have not budgeted for additional running costs of supplying paper, and pencil sharpeners
– they present a health risk through young fingers gripping too hard (and dust from sharpening)
– pencils need new suites/specialist pencil rooms where they can be used properly under supervision
– pencils can be used to cheat in exams (rubbing out and correcting mistakes)
– pencils are disruptive and children use them in class to write messages to their friends
– pencils are dangerous, they are far too sharp they can cause serious injury if not used carefully
– pencils can too easily be used as a weapons
– pencils are unreliable they are always breaking and blunting
– additional training is needed to service and maintain pencils in a proper condition
– secure storage and theft is a problem, special lockable pencil trollies are needed for class sets
– interoperability is a problem as colours from different manufacturers don’t blend together
– pencils encourage bullying as they can be used to write hurtful messages on books and walls.”

Meanwhile The Daily Mail continues to warn of the dangers of pencil abuse in schools, before things get out of hand.  Apparently, it claims, most teachers just can’t see any point in them, and would prefer to stick with slates which they maintain have reliably worked for centuries. There are also concerns that children will just spend all their time playing noughts and crosses with them. But most worrying is the threat of lead poisoning. Meanwhile other teachers have expressed concerns about falling standards, and consider the use of 2B pencils to be a soft option, insisting on a minimum of 4H pencils.

But elsewhere the Daily Mail has been quick to spot the potential of developing interactive apps for its readers, and recently introduced a new innovation not previously thought possible – the crossword puzzle.

Beware of Learner ministers

The 1950s specification for the L Plate

So Mr Gove, champion of the Academic, how are you and your department when it comes to the more practical things in life? Not so good, it seems. For example, on the 21st March he was asked a question in the house about his policy of not allowing re-sits in e-bac subjects:

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): Ofqual says that the Secretary of State has asked it to look at A-level and GCSE re-sits, including in the English bac subjects. We learnt this month that it took the accident-prone Secretary of State seven attempts to pass his driving test and that his car was badly damaged recently when he got it stuck in a car parking lift. If it is seven times for  Gove, how many times will mere mortals get to pass the bac?

In the same session, John Hayes, an education minister, was asked about the teaching of design. Not only was this incorrectly taken to refer exclusively to design and technology, but it was assumed that d&t was something to do with apprenticeships.

Mr Hayes: The white heat of technology has never been more important. Britain’s future chance of success lies in our being a high-tech, high-skilled nation, which is why the Government have agreed an unprecedented level of commitment and expenditure to apprenticeships, which are being taught in many schools. We will continue to build that high-tech, high-skilled nation. I recommend our strategy to my hon. Friend – signed copies are available.

And elsewhere, again equating D&T with getting your hands dirty, Nick Gibb said in response to an Ofsted report suggesting that D&T needs to place more emphasis of robotics, electronics and computer-aided design:

“The Budget set out a big expansion of technical colleges – to provide high quality vocational education alongside academic classes, to thousands more pupils.”,

What’s emerging seems to be a fundamental ministerial misunderstanding of the difference between technological education and technical education. The Government clearly has a lot to learn about what Design and Technology is all about. Perhaps it should make more of an effort to read the D&T Subject Importance Statement as laid out in the National Curriculum documents? And then perhaps a re-sit of its policies?

Let’s just hope other government departments are a bit better informed about matters such as the economy,  the health service and Libya…

The joy of learning, and is history bunk?

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646 to 1718).  Shortly to become a household name?

It makes a considerable change to read something in the media that supports new ways of thinking about education:

“We want young people to become independent and capable, yet we structure their days to the minute and give them few opportunities to do anything but answer multiple-choice questions, follow instructions and memorize information. We cast social interaction as an impediment to learning, yet all evidence points to the huge role it plays in their psychological development.
We have tried making the school day longer and blanketing students with standardized tests. But perhaps children don’t need another reform imposed on them. Instead, they need to be the authors of their own education.”

It’s just a pity that the item comes from the New York Times, and not a UK newspaper…

Meanwhile, here’s another enlightened comment from a blog:

“Had an interesting conversation with my 11th grade daughter about her young brother’s joy of learning. She said to me: “His joy is clear to me. We, human beings, love to learn like we love to eat and breath. When a baby is born the first thing he does is breath, then eat, then learn. How else would we get to sit, stand, walk and talk??”. Then she went on to explain that schools actually kill this natural instinct by creating limits and frames and rules that disrupt the natural evolvement of learning abilities and skills.

My daughter thinks one of the reasons she survived 11 years of school and still loves to learn is because she has created, in her mind, a total separation between “learning” and “schooling”.”

However, in contrast was an article in yesterday’s London Times (no link available I’m afraid) about the proposed revised History UK National Curriculum. Ignoring contemporary history all together, it’s based around the Renaisance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions. As such I would suggest it’s totally undeliverable as it has no immediate relevance to pupils’ lives whatsover. I just hope one day its author, Niall Ferguson (who lectures at Harvard) has to stand in front of a class of 16 year-old inner-city kids and teach them about ‘The Enlightenment’.

Example test question cited in the article : ‘Which is the odd one out: Locke, Hume, Leibniz, Mill or Voltaire?”  Well, of course I know you can spot the answer immediately, but just in case you can’t, it’s Leibniz, who was a rationalist, whereas the others were empiricists…. It’s always so obvious when you know the answer isn’t it?

All Change Please!: Unplugged

Last Thursday All Change Please! was invited to give a five minute talk at a debate entitled ‘What should be taught in our schools?‘ The text of its speech is reproduced below. ‘The ‘Going for Gold’ portion will be familiar to regular listeners, as will ‘Pearsonalised learning’. But the final section, ‘Where are all the children?’ is a new number.

Other speakers included the now infamous and somewhat more moderate Katherine Birblesingh, and Toby Young who is clearly obsessed with everyone learning Latin.  Meanwhile Dawn Hallybone reminded us that education and politics just don’t mix. And Donald Clark did his best to contradict Toby Young’s facts and figures about learning Latin and served up some references to Jamie Oliver’s Dream School which had been broadcast the night before. Ralph Townsend, Head of Winchester College, talked about the need to sustain the notion of ‘high culture’ in education. Studying IT and BTecs was widely and ignorantly criticised by the academics, but some of the other things that were said seemed quite reasonable. I don’t quite understand why academics often tend to be extremely closed in their thinking – maybe it’s because they feel under threat from the real world?

Anyway, All Change Please! had some suitably disruptive fun, and even managed to make the audience laugh despite the fact that everyone seemed so serious – though in the end it seemed that no serious conclusions were reached.

There’s a full audio stream of the event available here:

And here are two accounts of the proceedings:

And here’s what I said:

I just want to briefly interrupt the proceedings to update you on some rather surprising ‘breaking news’ that’s just come through on my futuristic iClipboard tablet. Apparently:

‘The London 2012 Olympic Games Committee made a shock announcement today, in which it stated that, in future, Gold medals will only be awarded to the winners of the one hundred metres, which it considers to be the only true test of an athlete.

Winners of other track events that involve at least some competitive speed running will only be awarded Silver medals, while other, so called ‘soft sports’ , such as rowing or horse-riding, in which contestants remain seated throughout, will only gain Bronze medals for their winners.

Team games, in which it is impossible to identify a single winner, and sports that can be played commercially, such as football and boxing, will still be offered as ‘recreational’ fringe events, but no medals will be awarded for them.

A spokesperson said ‘It’s essential not to further devalue the gold standard, and we hope that this action will encourage more athletes from different backgrounds to come first in the 100 metres’.

It sounds crazy, doesn’t it?  It’s quite unbelievable.  Utter nonsense – which of course it is, as I made it all up.   Except that, in the UK, that’s exactly how we view the current education system – we try to prepare everyone for success in just one event that only a small proportion of entrants are actually capable of succeeding in.

And what I don’t understand is why we are all supposed to want our children to be brilliant academics, but are quick in any everyday discussion, to dismiss someone else’s ideas as being rather ‘academic’, that’s to say only of theoretical rather than any practical value or relevance?

Our academic  learning, assessment and qualifications culture is something that we have been dearly clinging on to for far too long, while many other countries seem to have been able to move on and value non-academic, creative, technical and vocational education in a far more positive way.

Simply re-naming schools as being ‘free’ or ‘academies’, making A levels more difficult, and getting more people to study degree subjects such as English Literature, History and Philosophy – and other so-called ‘deep thought’ subjects – is not the direction we should be going in. Indeed, there are no such things as good or bad subjects to study, only good or bad teachers to teach them.

We need to start recognising that people have multiple  intelligences, skills  and abilities that are of potentially equal value. I’m not suggesting that everyone should be a winner, but let’s at least equalise the value of the range of worthwhile competitions and qualifications we can all enter for.

However, I’m increasingly of the opinion that this debate about the content of the curriculum is becoming somewhat, err ‘academic’. I suspect that the major players  in the next few years are not going to be so much the politicians and the media, or the teachers, but the globalised educational publishers and games companies.

The future isn’t therefore so much personalised learning – it’s ‘Pearsonalised’ learning and, unless we start to do something about it, it will be created by administrators, programmers and new media companies who are far more intent on showing off their latest animation techniques to win an industry award, and who rarely seem to have much understanding of the complexities and subtleties of the range of different ways in which people learn, and what motivates them to do so.  As a result, it’s likely to do little more than provide an endless diet of PowerPointless presentations, lovable YouTube cartoon characters, and to promote an unshakable belief that somehow points mean education.  And that’s just not a recipe for healthy learning unless they are placed in the hand of very experienced educators.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be here tonight discussing the National Curriculum Review – what we should really be exploring is some sort of National e-learning specification that sets out and defines the minimum pedagogic requirements for electronic educational publishing and gaming, and how the role of the teacher and the learning institution needs to change as a consequence.

And finally, to, slightly ungrammatically, answer the question “ What should be taught in our schools”,  the answer is simple, it’s not Latin, or History or Philosophy. It’s Children.

So how many school-children are there on this platform, or in the audience here tonight? In any organisation or company it would be crazy at some stage not to involve the end users of the product or service to gain an insight into how they perceive their needs, wants, aspiration and values.  But, as usual, we’re adopting a superior attitude in assuming that children are ‘too young to have an opinion’, to ‘know what’s good for them’, or to be able to ‘adequately express their desires and expectations’.

In my experience children have great insights into their learning needs. They intuitively realise that learning is a basic survival skill they they are going to need to get through life. I’ve never believed that children don’t want to learn. It’s that they often don’t want to learn what we want to try to teach them, and that we don’t know how to teach them what they know they do need to learn. And they are the ones who are perhaps best placed to use the new technologies to bring about the changes that they know are needed.

So it seems to me that the current system is clearly beyond its sell-by date, unfit for future purpose, but we still continue to try and mend it, rather than starting afresh. We urgently need to move on from our romanticised ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’ view of education and recognise that although academic learning is best for some, it’s not appropriate for everyone.

At a time when we need a completely new 21st Century Operating System, all we seem to be getting is an OS1950.2 upgrade patch.