Now where did I leave my Google?

Is this the fatally-flawed new iPad 3 tablet?

‘Too much internet use can damage teenagers’ brains‘ screams a headline in the Daily Mail.
How Googling can harm your memory’ announces the Daily Telegraph above a further, and entirely un-related, article headlined: ‘Fatal tablet dispensed in error‘, which as it happens, was nothing to do with accidently issuing a schoolchild with a faulty iPad, but just for a moment it made me wonder.

The Telegraph report is on some rather limited research data that suggests that the way we remember things may be starting to change. It’s interesting that they interpret ‘change’ as ‘damage’ and ‘harm’. What the researchers actually discovered was that people are making less effort to remember facts and more to recall where they will be able to find particular items of information when they actually need  them. We are thus apparently developing our ‘transactive’ brain abilities. And the researchers go on to suggest that as a result educators need to become increasingly focused on imparting greater understanding of ideas and ways of thinking, and less focused on memorisation.

Meanwhile the ever-dependable Mail goes a step further and provides a test to discover if you are already addicted to the web, with the sub-head ‘A terrible shame – It’s a wake-up call’. Apparently excessive internet use may be causing parts of teenagers’  brains to waste away, based on a study of 19 year-old students who spend between 8 to 13 hours a day, six days a week playing games online.

There’s no question that we do need to do more research to discover the ways in which the internet is disrupting the way we think and behave, and as a consequence changing the way we learn. There are some facts we do need to memorise, and it would be crazy to spend all day, every day living in a virtual world, but we have yet to work out which are the essential facts to remember, and when it’s best to be online or in the real world.

But to promote the idea that using computers is damaging our brains  makes it more difficult for teachers and parents to swallow the pill and accept that IT and learning are a positive development. Until then, we are just going to need to keep taking the tablets ourselves.

Who? What? When? Where? And, most importantly, why not?

Now here’s a quite interesting site:

“Get live help from other students. Be a hero to your peers.” it claims.

Obviously in its infancy, the site’s proposition is simple – a student asks a question, and someone else helps answer it. Perhaps oddly, I suspect the greatest value is probably not to the student who asks the question, but the one who answers it: learning is, after all, a two-way process, and there’s nothing like trying to explain something to someone else to sharpen one’s understanding.

But what is sad to note is that the introductory video perpetuates the myth that wisdom (the adult wise spec-wearing owl) is gained simply through the speedy acquisition of knowledge. As a result, most students’ questions seem to be looking for short factual answers – simple facts, that could have fairly easily been discovered elsewhere. Don’t schools teach kids how to use search engines and find out things for themselves anymore? Oh – no, of course they never did, did they?!

Few questions seem to be open-ended, prompting any discussion that might lead to some ‘deep-thinking’, or even less so, ‘deep action’. Click on ‘View All Groups‘ and some of the more important subjects emerge, such as Art and Design and Communications and Media. And finally in Art and Design there are the start of some more interesting and engaging questions, such as ‘ Who is the best designer of our time?‘ and ‘Does every artist have the spirit of art?‘  It’s a shame sites like these often simply ignore the needs of creative students and subjects.

Meanwhile I’m reminded of a conversation I had way back in the late 1990s with someone who had foolishly offered to reply to children’s e-mails from around the country about their textiles projects. She said the main problem was that the students didn’t know how to ask the right sort of question to explain what their enquiry really was really about in the first place, and she had to send a series of questions  back to them first in order to be able to go on to subsequently make a worthwhile response .

More recently I was working with a group of Geography PGCE students, and I suggested that instead of giving them the questions about a site they were studying, they could perhaps work out for themselves what the questions were? They and their tutor looked at me in astonishment….

Back in the 1980s, my GCSE students were expected to start projects by generating their own list of ‘Starting Questions’. They found it difficult at first, but it didn’t take them long before they got the hang of it.

So ‘How to ask the right questions’ would be high on my priorities for a curriculum.  The question is…?

Little thinks or Big thinks?*

I’ve been doing some deep thinking recently, about…’the art of deep thought’. Not this time the computer in the HHGTTG, but the phrase being presently used by academics and politicians without, as usual, any clear explanation as to what they really mean. For example: (Nice Mr Gove) said he ” wanted to switch emphasis back to examinations taken at the end of two years of study in order to revive the art of deep thought.”

And this very morning on the Andrew Marr Show on TV he explained that if there was a return to a two year A level course it would enable students to spend more time on things like Art and Music to provide a balance to those subjects that required deep thought.

So what exactly is deep thought? And will I be able to buy some in the deep freeze aisle in M&S?

Well, some research (now there’s the first clue in itself) reveals a lengthy text (clue number two), full of obscure words (ah, have I cracked it already?). Well, no, not quite – it seems it’s a bit more complicated than that. Apparently deep thinking skills include:

  • Asking different sorts of open-ended questions about things
  • Thinking about your own thinking processes
  • Putting things in your own words
  • Applying principles to real situations
  • Analysing information into component parts
  • Connecting separate pieces of information to form larger patterns, guidelines or products
  • Evaluating the validity, morality and aesthetic value of ideas, data or products
  • Drawing logical conclusions
  • Deriving principles
  • Making a case for and against an argument
  • Identifying cause-effect relationships
  • Identifying ethical issues
  • Generating creative and imaginative ideas and innovative strategies

And it also seems there is something called ‘deep reading’ which involves a mixture of horizontal reading (ie in bed?) and vertical reading (ie standing up?).To be effective, the information gathered by horizontal, broad reading needs to appropriately interact with narrow, vertical reading.

So what deep conclusions can we draw from all this? The first, and undoubtedly the most surprising, is that just for once All Change Please! finds itself in agreement with nice Mr Gove that more deep thinking would be a good thing. Except of course, in his desire to return to a romanticised, ivory-tower view of rigorous academic study, he has himself probably not thought through his sound-bite very deeply. If he had, he would have realised that many so-called ‘soft’ subjects, with their extended practical open-ended coursework requirements, provide an excellent opportunity for deep thought and action. And that deep thought is not necessarily verbal in nature, but can also be visual, symbolic, musical, etc. Meanwhile if he is really interested in promoting deep thinking, then what better place to start than by promoting and accrediting the QCA’s Personal Learning and Thinking Skills as part of his new English/French Baccalaureate GCSE proposal?

And has Mr Gove yet realised that what we need is not so much deep ways of thinking, but new ways of thinking, focused around things like complexity, community and communication, related to the new world we find ourselves living in, rather than past times.

As I’ve suggested before, we urgently need to understand a lot more about the way in which people start to think and learn deep and wide from an effective mixture of horizontal Pot Google ‘information snacks’ and vertical five-GCSE Baccalaureate course ‘main meals’ as they gather and process information about the real and virtual world they live in.

Hmm – I think I’ll avoid the deep thought counter at M&S for now. Anyone else for some shallow Pot Googles?

* Those of you with the doubted privilege of an academic literary education will of course immediately recognise the reference in the title of this post to HG Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau. Or, like me, needed to look it up on Pot Google to discover:

‘that to babble about names that meant nothing was the proper use of speech. He called it “big thinks”, to distinguish it from “little thinks” — the sane everyday interests of life. If ever I made a remark he did not understand, he would praise it very much, ask me to say it again and again, learn it by heart, and go off repeating it.’

**Meanwhile those of you with an academic art history education will instead immediately recognise the photo at the top as an image of a human brain as portrayed by the 1960’s Pop artist Peter Max.

“I want to teach the world to learn…”

In my last post I innocently asked one of my famous awkward questions when I queried how we might actually start the learning revolution advocated by Sir Ken Robinson?

It’s true that education has got so far behind the times that a major change is needed, but unless we can imagine school-children, students and teachers rioting in the streets and sending all the Oxbridge-educated politicians and journalists to the guillotine in a bid to achieve a really effective sort of education cut, it’s hard to imagine what other event could possibly act as a catalyst for the revolution.

Instead, somehow we have to find ways to be more sophisticated and strategic, working from within, getting the politicians and the journalists to buy into a simple media message that sounds positive and attractive to Daily Mail readers, and that isn’t going to cost too much to implement.

Now I’ve always considered that learning is a basic survival skill, not that far behind breathing, eating and keeping warm and dry. Children have an instinctive desire to learn, but the problem is that what they are currently being taught is not what they know they need to be learning. There is no longer a fixed body of knowledge that will see them through their lives, and the former holy grail of an academic degree is no longer a guarantee of life-long employment and a good pension.

One of the main problems with education is that as a society we still think of school as being somewhere children go to learn about things, and that’s what is they are then examined on. Perhaps all that’s really needed to achieve something more appropriate is a shift of focus towards an emphasis not so much what you learn, but how you learn? The QCAs ‘Personal Learning and Thinking‘ skills have been around for a few years now, but I doubt whether many teachers are aware of it, and students are certainly not assessed and certificated in things such as being independent enquirers, self-managers and effective participators. Of course a reliable and valid means of ‘on the fly’ collaborative assessment would need to be found to enable students to measure their progress against the learning performance of others, but we all know something that will do just that, don’t we?

Wouldn’t it be great if teachers were encouraged to share and pass on their own expertise in how people learn, instead of keeping it to themselves?

And as an employer in the 21st Century I’d much rather my future workforce had certificates to show that they have the capacity to work collaboratively to acquire the unforeseeable knowledge, understanding and skills that will emerge over their future working lives, rather than having a list of academic qualifications rooted in the incomprehensible suburban sprawl of the ‘just in case’ subject knowledge defined the National Curriculum.

So as a more positive reason for going to school, maybe ‘Learning how to learn‘ is a catchy enough proposition to one day persuade some enlightened and ambitious education minister (sadly not the present incumbent) that here is the basis of a policy that might actually make a difference and also be a potential vote-winner?

Let’s provide some TLC in our schools! That’s: Thinking, Learning and Creativity.

‘What’s your best subject?’

That’s what we always ask children. But it’s the wrong question. One of the most important things that school-leavers need to have is a clear sense of where their particular strengths lie so that they can be as competitive as possible in the employment market and thereby make the maximum contribution to the economy, and/or to society. Now although I’m sure that some children leave with a sense of where they are going, I suspect most only have a vague idea – ‘I was always good at History’, ‘I got an A* in Science’ on their own are of limited value. What they really need to be aware of are things like ‘I have excellent communication skills’, ‘I’m good at team-work’, ‘My strength is in finding things out’, ‘I’m a patient and persistent sort of person’, etc.

In our university-entry, subject-led curriculum  our schools are being diverted from what’s really important.