All you need is on-line learning

I was just about to reach out for my one hundred and first mince pie the other day when I caught sight of this article:

“The Kindle and Nook may make for not only the most important advance in reading since Gutenberg, but also, quite likely, a major lesson in unintended consequences.  Especially for the educational establishment, because for the first time in history, Americans should be able to envision a future without public-school teachers — indeed, a future without public-school administrators or state departments of education with their rigidly enforced, politically correct social-transformation curriculum.  A future without onerous school taxes, “education president(s),” self-preening school boards, or million-dollar classrooms.  But most happily, a future without a single supercilious finger wagging in our face as we’re forever lectured about how much a securely tenured, part-time, self-important, overpaid class of public employees “cares” about our sons and daughters.  Really, really, really cares.  And, of course, knows much better than we do how to bring them up.”

Of course, this sort of thing could never happen in the UK (?), but this is exactly the sort of thing I’ve been concerned about. It feeds the public myth that all we need now is on-line learning. There’s no doubt that on-line learning has a significant role to play in our future education system, but to my mind, there’s still a long, long way to go before artificial intelligence systems are good enough to replace a real teacher. One day, they probably will – but until then we’re going to have to prepare a really convincing argument to persuade the bean-counters that anytime, anyplace access to the Khan Academy on its own just simply isn’t going to do the job.

And then there’s the nonsense suggestion that, unlike today’s textbooks and teachers, on-line resources are going to be free of indoctrination and propaganda and bias of all types.

“But suddenly, with a Kindle or Nook in hand, children can skip the propaganda.  At the fingertips of parents armed with a one of these electronic reading devices, there are eight hundred thousand free books — and a million for sometimes as little as ninety-nine cents.  They can find their own lies if they want to.  Or, more importantly, the truth.”

To be fair though, the article does make a number of valid points that cover the inappropriateness of existing schools and the potential value of one-to-one tuition and home-schooling, while carefully ignoring the costs of these essential ‘extras’ that will quickly get cut out of the calculation to save public funding in times of recession. But the main problem remains – that we are being led to believe that teaching is something that anyone can do.

Recently someone who was not an educationalist casually asked me how do you teach someone something? After a moment’s blankness in response of the complexity of the answer required to answer such a simple question, I remembered AIDA. No, not the opera, but the mnemonic used by the advertising industry. The letters stand for:

A – Attention (Awareness): attract the attention of the customer by using unexpected, exaggerated or puzzling words and images
I – Interest: raise customer interest by focusing on and demonstrating advantages and benefits in a context they will be familiar with, often using analogies and metaphors, and telling a story
D – Desire: convince customers that they want and desire the product or service and that it will satisfy their needs.
A – Action: lead customers towards taking action and/or purchasing.

Not that long after I started teaching I realised that in many ways I was applying the same approach.

Attention: attract the attention of the learners by using unexpected, exaggerated or puzzling words and images that make them curious.
Interest: raise learner interest by focusing on and demonstrating the key points clearly and simply and putting them in a familiar context, often using analogies and metaphors, and telling a story
Desire: convince learners that they want and desire to know, understand and be able to successfully apply the content
Action: lead learners towards taking action, through some sort of practical activity.

It’s a general approach I still use today. Take the photo and first sentence of this post, for example. What have multiple mince pies got to do with it? Nothing really, except that it places it in the current context of Christmas. And surely a hundred and one is an exaggeration? Or course it is. But, assuming you’ve read this far, it clearly got your attention and raised your curiosity.

Of course there’s a great deal more to teaching than just applying AIDA, but it begins to demonstrate what makes it a complex, sophisticated and professional job. It also provides a reference to evaluate a Khan Academy video, or for that matter, the vast majority of similar content being rapidly produced by new media companies and increasingly by learning institutions themselves. And the on-line learning experiences I’ve seen tend to focus on just presenting the facts in a passive way, without much in the way of stimulating attention, interest, desire or action. Until they start to do so they are likely to remain a poor substitute for the passion and infectious enthusiasm of a good teacher and the chance to learn first-hand about team-work and collaboration.

Finally, of course, all that remains for me to do is to now encourage you to take action by responding in the comments box below! And to eat my hundred and second mince pie.

Mr Gove’s Splendid New Irrational Curriculum

I wish to make a complaint…

That nice Mr Gove delivered his Christmas presents early this year. Not too early of course, otherwise teachers might still have been at work and managed to find the time to unwrap them before the end of term. In case he missed your chimney, here’s a link to a downloadable copy of the Report of the Irrational Curriculum Review.

So far I’ve not had the time, or to be honest the inclination, to read it in detail, so it’s quite possible I may have missed something significant in the small print. However, the item I was mainly interested was about the future status of D&T. And, as anticipated, the news is that D&T has passed on. This subject is no more! It has ceased to be! It’s expired and gone to meet its maker! It’s kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil. D&T is an extinct subject.

Well, demoted to a so-called ‘basic’ subject anyway, which means, along with ICT, it has been deemed to be of no academic relevance. Which it never was in the first place. Which is why I think that this is actually good news, in that it will free up the good D&T teachers to extend and develop the subject further, beyond the constraints of its Attainment Targets levels and Programmes of Study. And enable all those woodworkers and metal- bashers to get back to what they do best. I’d much rather children were taught good basic craft skills than bad D&T. Meanwhile it’s also good news that Art&Design has deservedly retained its place as a Foundation subject through to the end of Key Stage 3.

But what makes the Irrational Curriculum Review truly irrational is the focus on old-fashioned academic subjects at a time when other ‘white heat of technology’ countries are busy forging ahead with the development of skills for the 21st Century, about which I shall have more to say next year. To now delay UK curriculum reform further until 2014 just gives our competitors another year to move even further ahead.

Defining what knowledge should be taught from 2014 onwards is quite irrational, given that the amount and nature of knowledge changes by the day. What’s really needed is some form of flexible, responsive approach that enables what you didn’t know today would need to be taught tomorrow to be easily introduced.

If D&T has any sense, which sadly it rarely does, it will hastily re-position itself in the market as a purveyor of 21st century skills, delivered in a ‘basic’ cross-curricular learning space, along with IT, Business Education and Citizenship.

But finally, this Christmas, let’s spare a thought for those less fortunate than ourselves, deemed to search amongst the scraps for a stale curriculum morsel of Food Technology, which currently appears to be completely off the menu. For it was the wise Food Technologists who probably delivered the best that D&T ever provided, achieving a successful mix of traditional cookery skills combined with industrial understanding and practice. They will be sadly missed.

Meanwhile, a Merry Irrational Curriculum to one and all!

A cat amongst the pigeons

Well, it’s been an interesting week. Sources revealed that various academic and subject-based associations are meeting together and conspiring to put together a revised Design & Technology National Curriculum in the unlikely belief that it will remain a statutory subject at the end of the current review. Of course for academics and subject-based associations it matters a lot that D&T retains its status, but the reality is that the future of D&T lies more appropriately in a vocational rather than academic context. Meanwhile we all need to accept  that, for a large proportion of children and teachers, the D&T National Curriculum has over the last twenty years been a complete waste of time for all but a few schools where it has been done well. At a time when some forward-looking, non-academically-led vision is needed, the last thing we need is another patched-up version of the past, and another attempt to make a somewhat 19th century view of engineering compulsory for all. And a further danger is that what is submitted as being suitable for an academic National Curriculum will then end up as ‘non-statutory guidance’ for a vocational experience.

The 1989/90 first D&T National Curriculum was seen by many at the time as being over-ambitious, which of course it was, given that not nearly enough was subsequently invested in the in-service training needed to enable a workforce with largely no previous design experience to deliver it. Instead it was simplified, and by the mid 1990s had ‘settled down’ into something more manageable. But that’s where the development largely stopped. At a time when technology started to race ahead, a limited 1960s approach to 3D product design for mass-manufacture was still being offered – the only real change being the introduction of expensive CAD-CAM equipment that tended to limit rather than extend creative design ideas.

While 1999 was not so very different from 1989, 2011 is a very different world from 2001. Back then mobile phones just made phone calls and the internet was an expensive dial-up affair. There were no mp3 players, no sat-navs or domestic digital video cameras. And flatscreen, widescreen, catch-up TV viewed on hand-held tablets was still a wild aspiration. Few had even dreamt of the possibilities of Facebook, Blogs, Twitter and YouTube. Today’s 21st Century children think, communicate and learn in very different ways to their teachers

Sadly Technology education is now hopelessly out-of-date, and the problem is we don’t have a generation of enlightened twenty and thirty-somethings coming through into the profession who are capable of teaching children about things such as collaborative, agile ways of creatively solving complex problems for an unpredictable future, how to design apps or intelligent sensor-driven products and interfaces made from composite smart materials, or how to design and program an App that interacts with its environment. Technology education now needs a framework that enables it change rapidly, not once every ten to fifteen years.

But what made the week really interesting was the sudden appearance of a short, anonymously published, somewhat disruptive pdf document that got rapidly circulated amongst the academics and subject associations still trying to pretend that D&T still had a place in Mr Gove’s flawed academic vision for the nation. The document was simply a collection of responses to the question ‘Should D&T continue to be a National Curriculum subject?‘ Although the responses varied, the overall conclusion was a resounding No!, and that it would be better if it were left to those teachers who were actually able to deliver it well, leaving the rest to focus on something more worthwhile. With Mr Gove extremely unlikely to admit D&T into the sacred academic ‘essential knowledge’ circle, it was suggested that this might be a good moment to try something completely different.

2D&Tornot2D&T? ( .pdf download)

This, as someone remarked, put the cat amongst the pigeons. The response of some of the academics and subject associations to the document was particularly revealing in their haste and vehemence in dismissing the responses as being of no interest or relevance, seeing it as an attack on the value of the subject, rather than the reality of its delivery. At the same time others are unbelievably still trying to define what is meant by ‘design’, as if this was not extensively explored in the 1960s and 70s.  Though after a number of days an increasing number of academics started to come out of the woodwork, so to speak, and admit that the document did make some very important points that needed to be taken into consideration. All of which simply begs the question – How many academics,  administrators and politicians does it take to make a mess of the next National Curriculum?


Every Gove Matters

‘Which Mr Gove am I today?

At The Schools Network conference during the last week, Mr Gove’s much less controversial twin brother turned up to give a speech.

You can watch the video here (worth it for the first few minutes), then read the official  transcript here, tantalisingly minus the ‘un-scripted’ remarks.

This time there was no talk from Gove of the great philosophers or elitism, and no bible-bashing. Apart from a rather poorly judged ‘spontaneous idea in the back of the car on his way there, off-the-cuff’ moment which was meant to suggest that, along with all us plebeian teachers, he regularly watched and took a great interest in X-factor and Britain’s Got Talent and even knew the difference between Simon Cowell and Gary Barlow, there was little to aggravate even the most disruptive amongst us. We were promised that, using new technologies, ‘children’s learning would be liberated from the dead hand of the past’ –  though one suspects this largely involves regular attendance at the Kubla Khan Academy.  Mr Gove’s much smarter twin brother even went on to  endorse the conference theme that ‘every child has got talent‘, though cleverly without mentioning the implications of the EBacc and the demise of so-called soft-subjects, or his actual belief that of course academic children have more talent than others.

I suspect the two Goves – or there may be even three or four, or an infinite number – carefully match their speeches just a little bit too closely to the views of the particular audience they are addressing (eg a Russell Group University, the Daily Mail), with the result the audiences they are not speaking to at that moment are enraged by what he says. The problem is that this presents an impression of him as series of confusing and contradictory multiple personalities. It is starting to make All Change Please! wonder if one day he might have to try to explain to us that he “is but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.” (Hamlet Act II, Scene ii )

Which would probably reveal something of the limited extent of his D&T experience when he was at school.