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.

3 comments on “All Change Please!: Unplugged

  1. Very good analogy and some great points. Love the one about what we should be teaching in our schools; “it’s not Latin, or History or Philosophy. It’s Children”.

    A thought occurs to me when you refer to there being good or bad teachers rather than good or bad subjects, and that’s that it might work better by saying some are better than others, or “All teachers are created equal, but some are created more equal than others”.

    The same might go for the children: All children are taught equally but some are taught more equally than others. Or, all children have an equal opportunity but some more equally than others or equally they don’t care”?

    Re the OS 1952.2 upgrade versus OS 21C – I’m waiting for the iEducate implant v3 with memory upgrade slot and the 3 R’s add-on (Retinal Retention Reader).

  2. Fantastic! I await your invitation not to speak at the next Conservative conference. I’m intrigued that one of your fellow speakers blogged that a portion of the audience thought the idea of involving students in learning was bonkers. Was that true and what was their beef if so? My favourite is definitely Pearsonalised learning tho – that really is inspired

  3. Dear Tristram Shepard, I am glad to know your talk about What to teach in schools and I agree with you.

    I’ve been always asking me for this old and ineffective system. There is a HUGE NEED TO GIVE VOICE to learners specially at schools. They are forbiden to participate in the planning of their own learning. Curriculums prepared or cooked from the top are worthless, curriculum should be dictated by the learners, even young children know what they need to learn.

    We should start feeling respect for young learners, what they like and what they need to learn.

    Curriculums coming from government’s staff or even great PhD academics are meaningless to the personal interests of children.

    In my opinion the best learning environment starts asking the children what they like the most, if they answer: “dinosaurs, trains, basketball or butterflies”, then we should teach them to read with dinosaurs, to count with dinosaurs, science with dinosaurs, social impacts of discovering dinosaurs, and so on. And that drive us to a personalised education, which is more according to this century.

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