Sunday, 20 February 2011
Saturday, 19 February 2011
There's been a flurry of excitement recently over hedge-fund trader turned educator, Sal Khan. If you're getting money from both Gates and Google, the chances are you're doing something innovative. The Khan Academy (1 principal, 1 faculty) sets out to be the world's free classroom. It does so through a growing collection (currently over 2000) of video tutorials in maths, science, history and economics, plus a cleverly structured series of exercises which the student can work through (in a game-like format) to check comprehension, and score points. Importantly you can do exercises in a non-sequential fashion, if you want to. (Educators regularly use 'sequential' as a marker for rigour, when it's rarely how we ever learn in practice). Take a look at a typical tutorial in my favourite subject, algebra:
Why do I say it's better than having in a teacher in the room giving explanations?
1. It's true just-in-time learning. If you get stuck on a particular maths problem, you can go straight to the relevant video, when you need it, not when the teacher is able to get around to you.
2. You can go at your own speed. Students, listening to a teacher, invariably would rather pretend they understood what was being explained, than hold everyone else up, by asking the teacher to repeat something.
3. It makes learning less stressful. Students, even with the best teacher, can get pretty stressed, worrying if they're going to be asked a question, or why they're not getting it, or because other students are disctracting them. Here, it's just Sal coming out of your headphones, and he's never going to pick you out for questioning.
4. You can go at your own speed. Ever wish that you could rewind (or fast-forward) your classroom teacher? Well, here you can.
5. It's truly personalised learning. 30 kids in a single class can be working on different parts of the syllabus. Their exercise progress can be seen at a glance.
6. You focus on the explanation, not the teacher. You don't see Sal, but you can see the working on 'the board'.(I speak as someone who spent their entire high school career too embarrassed to wear prescription glasses, pretending I could see what was being written on the board (and dutifully copied down by my fellow students). Can you imagine the needless energy you expend, bluffing like that for 5 years?
If you begin to connect the opportunities that such tutorials provide, with a 'flipped' pedagogy, you can start to see what a real 21st century classroom might look like. Kahn certainly presented a powerful argument for this in a recent interview.
Does this mean that online video learning does away with the need for teachers? Give it another 5-10 years, then the answer's probably yes - but only as in the form that we're forever casting them. A teacher as lecturer/expert may be superfluous, but teacher as mentor, guide (to the vast wealth of learning tools which are out there) will be worth their weight in gold. School as a 21st century learning commons, will need teachers who can design, connect and network, so that the social learning which should by now be pervasive (through blogging, YouTube and other forms of social media) but sadly is largely absent, or banned, in our classrooms, can be made purposeful, through students using the knowledge gained to solve real-world problems, in their own communities.
Chris Anderson recently put forward a powerful case for video learning. I'm sure the concept of flipping, or of teachers letting Sal Khan do the explanations, horrifies some teacher unions and many parents. They'd have an argument to mount - but only if they themselves hadn't used online tutorials when they were trying out a new recipe, or struggling to get the back off their iPhone, or looking at any of the millions of 'how-to' vids. And I'm willing to bet they have, so why isn't it good enough for their kids?
And any young teacher coming into the profession who won't embrace these tools - and I'm surprised by the number I meet - preferring instead to 'perform' at the front of their class, should probably think about another career.
[[posterous-content:pid___0]]Last week-end I attended a family celebration - a golden wedding anniversary - up in the North-East of England. At these events I usually get hauled on to the nearest piano or guitar, and do the human juke-box thing. Last week, however, I had a throat infection so I was relying on others to carrying the singing. I'm grateful for the fact that, thanks to a childhood piano teacher who positively encouraged me to play by ear, and a father who insisted I accompany him on beery Saturday nights as we trawled through the Great American Musicals, I learned to 'hear' chord patterns from an early age. So, I can usually handle most songs people throw at me - with the exception of Stephen Sondheim's oeuvre, but you don't get many requests for 'I'm Still Here' at Whitley Bay Social Club.
It was an all-age gathering, so we had the usual 70's/80s/90s catalogue. Over the years, I've learned to talk people down from starting songs like 'You'll Never Walk Alone' or 'The Wonder Of You' from their middle register, because it's usually an ambulance job by the time they get to the closing line. So, all was going well. And then someone with the lungs of a blast furnace grabbed the microphone and whispered "Be My Love, in G". Now this is always a dead give-away that you're now in the presence of someone 'who can hold a tune' (it's a delightful phrase, isn't it?) And so it proved to be. Sadly, I didn't do him justice on the ivories because Mario Lanza is just, well, before my time. In the event, it made no difference because he'd wrestled that song into submission well before the end of the first chorus.....
But, as I looked up at him, carotid artery bulging, I suddenly thought "he's only about 10 years older than me, how does he know this stuff?" And then I recalled that, in over 30 years of visiting care homes, the songs which seem popular with residents have more or less remained the same - they're usually war-time songs. But over a 30-40 year span the songs we grew up singing have changed dramatically. So what happens? Why is it that when today's 30-somethings are living out their final years in the Happy Valley Rest Home, they're going to be singing 'Pack Up Your Troubles', as voiced by Gracie Fields, and not Eliza Doolittle?
Maybe there's some mysterious process takes place when you enter old age: you lose your short-term memory, but gain an ability to sing songs made popular 20 years before you were born. Perhaps, it just appears in the post on your 65th birthday: pension book, your free bus-pass, and the collected works of Vera Lynn?
(Oh and by the way, this is NOT me in the following extract - I just include it, because the comments show the song's capacity for triggering early-onset dementia)
Tuesday, 15 February 2011
I was listening to a great talk today, given by Lawrence Lessig (one of the founders of the Creative Commons). Regular readers will know of my fondness for the metaphor of the 'Global Learning Commons' in trying to explain the changes which are taking place in how we learn: in sanctioned settings (schools, college, university) as well as at work and how we learn socially (where we see the greatest changes). In fact, I'm so fond of it that I'm currently writing a book about it. But that's another story.
So, Lessig is talking about the 'Tragedy of The Commons', as first explained by Garret Hardin. Hardin's argument has been a powerful counter-argument to the benefit of the commons, so it's worth explaining. The 'tragedy' was that if you put a few extra cows on to a commons you might get a short-term gain - a better yield from your cattle - but, if everyone does it, pretty soon the grass will disappear, the pasture fails, and self-interest will have put paid to the common good. (Hardin was a tad more loquacious, but I realise your time is precious, so I'm abbreviating). First appearing in 1968, Hardin's premise has often been credited with foreseeing the collapse of communist ideals.
Lessig's argument, however, was that those who look for the 'Tragedy of The Commons' in modern day contexts (environment, intellectual property, transport, etc) miss an important interpretive distinction. There are finite, and therefore 'rivalrous' properties (if you eat my apple I no longer have an apple), but there are also non-rivalrous properties - like ideas or, education. If I share an idea with you, you may gain from that idea, but I don't lose from the exchange - I still have the idea. These principles helped establish the 'Creative Commons' license which does so much for the spread of contemporary thinking, untethered by overly-restrictive copyright mechanisms.
And this applies particularly to the business of learning. As there is no loss of illumination when a taper takes light from one candle to another, so no-one should lose out when teaching and learning proliferates. Even the teacher learns more about the subject through explaining it to another learner. These are the lofty ideals which attract people into the teaching profession.
But most accountability structures in education are built upon the belief that, when it comes to schooling, rivalry is good. It drives up standards, right?
Well, wrong. By making competition the focus of schools' activities we've enforced a rivalrous framework around something as innately non-rivalrous as learning, and that's the real tragedy. Instead of creating a true learning commons, the obsession with ranking turns something as pure as learning into a competitive 'enclosure', where there have to be losers, so that there can be winners. This affects us all, from the global measurements of PISA International Tables, to county/authority performance data. It distorts one noble vision - making learning the shared, ubiquitous, resource it ought to be – through the prioritisation of another (though still laudable) goal: to support governments and parents in making the right choices for their young people. It may, indeed, seem a laudable aim, but competition contaminates what should be the non-rivalrous environment of learning.
How does this tragedy manifest itself? Well, for a start, schools soon realise that doing the required thing invariably trumps doing the right thing. Schools won't be interested in becoming learning commons – spaces where a wide range of occupants adopt a shared involvement in, and responsibility for, learning - so long as their very existence is threatened by not keeping up with their rivals.
But that's just the start. The testing mechanisms which turn education into a rivalrous property, also de-moral-ise the professionals in whom we place our trust. Once there's a system with such high-stakes, they're almost duty-bound to find a way to 'game' it. We know we can manipulate student options, (as we're currently doing to improve English Baccalaureate performances) or find the easiest exam boards to boost results, but we lose our sense of moral purpose along the way.
This question of whether learning should be a rivalrous or non-rivalrous property is much more than a philosophical exercise. In recent years it's easy to observe almost a global sense of resignation in school senior leaders, here in the UK, through No Child Left Behind in the US, and in other countries. Many have lost any sense of self-determinism, instead questioning why they came into a profession which seems to reward only compliance and conformity.
But not all.
Six years ago, I sat in on a workshop at a Specialist Schools Trust Conference. The school in question, Walker Technology College, had attracted a highly excited crowd by showing them how to garner a cheap, quick, GCSE pass in art & design, from the Students Who Mattered (the borderline literacy and numeracy students), so that time could be freed up to unleash a torrent of literacy/numeracy improvement strategies on them. Sitting in the audience, I could have wept.
Nor did it work. In 2008, Walker was made a 'National Challenge' school: a euphemism which means 'you've got two years to improve, or we close you down'.
And yet, at last week's Whole Education Event in Manchester, I found myself welling up for a very different reason. This time the presentation from Walker school outlined their transformation into a 'Human Scale' school. It was genuinely inspiring. They are turning their school into a learning commons, taking learning outside the classroom, bringing parents into the learning conversations, enabling students to co-construct the lessons and working with anyone who can make learning more engaging for the large proportion of their disengaged kids.
Faced with such rivalrous pressures, the overwhelming temptation upon Walker would have been to do the required thing: circle the wagons, and drill-and-skill the 'bubble' kids to within an inch of their lives - or boredom thresholds. Instead, they did the right thing, by creating a commons and not worrying too much about the exam results. So far, they've seen significant improvements in behaviour, an improvement in literacy levels, 93% hand-in rates for homework (previously around 30%) and much greater parental engagement. Like I said, moving and inspiring stuff.
And at the same event I met Andrew Chubb, the Principal of the Archbishop Sentanu Academy in Hull, who has taken a one-man stand against the imposition of the English Baccalaureate by announcing that he would create his own version. Far from being the attention-seeking self-publicist one might have imagined, Andrew is an unassuming – but determined – school leader who simply thinks things have gone too far. And he's far from alone. In less than a week, a fast-growing coalition of agencies have come together to create a 'Better Bacc', one which is designed from the 'bottom-up', through the input of school leaders themselves, not imposed by dictat from on-high. But more school leaders need to get behind this campaign if it is to gain the momentum it needs.
So, I'd urge any school leaders reading this to contact the Build A Better Bacc coalition , show that positive resistance is far from futile, and begin to create a better alternative by signing up here.
It may be naïve idealism to re-think schooling in terms such as learning commons and non-rivalrous environments. But simply finding ways to do the right thing, not always the required thing, as both Walker Technology College and Archbishop Sentanu Academy have done, helps restore the higher moral purpose of education and lift spirits, at a time when both seem to be in short supply.
Thursday, 10 February 2011
On Monday of this week the UK Secretary of State for Education, in responding to the Henley Review of Music Education , declared it a great day for music and that everyone involved in music in the UK should be pleased with the government's response. Well, perhaps now that the sound of party-poppers and backs being slapped has died down, it might be an appropriate time for a more objective consideration.
My concerns around the Henley report are three-fold:
1. That it was largely discussing the stuff around the edges, and didn't focus enough on the core of music education. What goes on in primary and secondary schools, as part of the 'core' curriculum, is where the bulk of music in this country is made - from kids aged 5 to 14, and, thanks to Musical Futures, there's been a big increase in numbers of students still making music, beyond that stage. I lost count of the number of times that I read in the papers this week that music education receives £82m per year. No, I'm sorry, music education receives a heck of a lot more than that - think of every classroom music teacher's salary, for a start. The whole debate pre and post the publication of Darren Henley's report has placed the extra-curricular work of music services' instrumental tuition services, above the core provision in every primary and secondary. There was more space spent discussing the much-heralded In Harmony projects (which currently run in a handful of schools at an unsustainable cost) than there was on the quality of the core entitlement in the curriculum. Which brings me to...
2. That it was almost entirely uncritical of the quality of current provision and structures - how is it possible to do a comprehensive review of music education, and not refer to the most recent OFSTED review of music provision in school? Could it be because OFSTED assessed music provision in primary and secondary schools as less than 'good' in half of schools inspected, over a 3 year period? When does a review become a piece of advocacy? I suspect it's when the myriad number of representative groups bombard you with pleas to mention their project/provision and you produce a report which, as this one does, praises everyone and therefore upsets no-one. Why did the report, for instance, not mention that the notion of coordinated local provision ('hubs') was first mentioned in the Music Manifesto report six years ago? If it was approved then as a good idea - and it was - and we have had music services charged with creating Local Area Music Partnership Plans for the past four years, why is it still necessary to say we need better local music coordination, and recommend that the same music services be responsible for it? The unpalatable truth is that many music service 'plans' haven't been't worthy of the name, and yet making the same call seems to be the new 'big idea' of the review.
Please don't get me wrong - I'm not having a pop at music services. Some of them do coordinate activities very well indeed, but for most of them it's simply not what they are good at, nor does their lack of external connections make it possible. Their core business is providing small group instrumental tuition, and why shouldn't they be left alone to do that? The report is essentially asking them to do what the school sports trust does for sports in local communities, but with no recommendations as to how to re-structure themselves. Well, here's a radical idea, one I would have liked to have seen in the review: nationalise the music service. A National Music Service with a single, centralised, (and cost effective) back-office function would not only save a ton of money, it would also ensure that priorities are common across regions, best practice shared quickly, and would prevent the patchy quality of provision so frequently referred to in reports.
3. The lasting impression is that our organisations are effective and the quality of provision is excellent. Why, therefore, would anyone feel the need to follow Henley's urging for a single national body speaking for music? Fragmentation alone is not a good enough reason - if it's working in its own slightly chaotic way, why the panic to fix it? The net result of the report, and the government's response to it, is a huge collective sigh of relief, and, frankly, there'll be little sense of urgency on this issue. There was some classic political posturing before the report got published: everyone expected the worst in terms of funding, so that when music service jobs, and a few projects, were financially saved for another year (and it's only another year) we were all meant to be grateful.
If the music community had attended the Whole Education event this week there may have been a new sense of urgency instilled. For they would have heard Mick Waters (former head of curriculum at QCA and a man well used to reading the political runes) strongly suggest that music, and other arts subjects, will be taken out of the compulsory core curriculum when the National Curriculum Review concludes in two years time. We've already seen large numbers of schools taking steps to remove their music options post-14, so as to funnel students into the new English Baccalaureate subjects, and the Guardian carried a report this week of similar fates befalling other arts subjects. So, it's entirely possible that we could lose music at all stages of the curriculum in most of our schools, by 2013. We know that the government is determined to reduce the number of subjects within the core curriculum: cue subject pitted against subject in an unseemly scramble to make it into the pen before the gate closes (which is why having a single voice for music education is so pressing).
I'm not a conspiracist by nature, but I believe there's a very real possibility that the hidden agenda behind the government's support for the review is to get it off the political hook when such a scenario occurs. Having supported all the stuff which goes on outside school hours, it can claim that kids are still getting a 'rich cultural experience' - it's just that second period on a Thursday is reserved for 'real' academic subjects, not mucking about on guitars.
But that's the problem. Fewer than 10% of kids access music instrumental tuition. If you add up all the kids who take part in all the other stuff - projects in the community, playing in their local orchestras, etc - you might get that figure up to 25-30%. Music in the primary and secondary curriculum is the only place where every young person gets exposure to music education - and, please take note, media outlets and politicians: there is much more to music education than learning to play a musical instrument!
So, will we still look back on last Monday as a great day for music if, in a couple of year's time, it's been preserved for the minority, but lost as a universal entitlement for everyone?
Monday, 7 February 2011
If there's one good thing to come out of the so-called 'Age of Austerity' we're entering, it's that it makes us bring some new ideas to the table. Facing significant funding cuts, North Ayrshire council is, apparently, considering switching to a four-day school week, and putting the school starting age back a year, to six (kids start school in England and Scotland aged five). There's been a predictably hostile response in the media, and the leader of North Ayrshire has quickly decribed the plan as a 'worst case scenario', adding "Parents by and large work round about the school week ... and it really wouldn't be practical to move away from that."
It seems like we oraganise our school systems to suit the needs of schools first, parents second, and children third.
But why is cutting back the number of hours a child spends in school such a sacred cow? Consider the Finns (I know, I'm sick to death of considering the Finns, too, but you can't ignore their results): their kids have, for decades, started school not aged six, but at seven. Academically, they seem to catch up, and then overtake, our kids pretty quickly.
There's little historical evidence that our statutory starting age - two years ahead of the Finns - was taken on educational grounds. The early start was introduced in 1870 to guard against neglectful Victorian parenting, and to ensure that industrial employers could access young child workers at an early age, on the basis that the sooner they started school, the sooner they finished. (So, let's change that priority of needs to schools, parents, employers, then children).
Finnish kids also enjoy an 11-week summer break, (compared to our 6) and yet still spank us in PISA tests. So, perhaps Ayrshire should be praised, rather than pilloried, for having the guts to think differenty - our obsession with getting kids to do more, work harder, doesn't seem to be working, does it?
And if they need further encouragement, let me relay a story I heard at a Head Teacher conference I was speaking at, last week. I heard from a parent whose child was in the crucial Year 10, when their school burned down. Senior leaders moved quickly to set up learning opportunities in local libraries, community centres, town halls - even the local race track. Students organised themselves into peer learning groups, and a virtual learning environment was quickly set up for them. Students followed the curriculum in a way which Sugata Mitra would define as minimally invasive and self-organised learning.
Whilst local people people were glad to see a community spirit re-establish itself, no-one believed that the temporary arrangements were any substitute for the real thing. Except, that year, the school had their best ever GCSE results.
Rather than working kids so hard, and piling homework on top of them, perhaps we should try letting them work shorter hours, with the opportunity to organise more of their own learning?
Friday, 4 February 2011
Two weeks ago (the original post is here) I detailed what I called a 'game-changing' piece of kit being released by Google. 'Factoid' was designed to bring knowledge and facts to the writer/learner, utilising the powerful search capacities they have developed through ad sense, linked to their huge digital repository of knowledge. The filters you could apply, would bring you relevant economic, geo-political and historical data, without you having to look for it, simply by typing key words into your document.
Lots of people got very excited about the radical implications that such a technological breakthrough would bring to teaching and learning. It's time to confess: I made it up. I'm afraid Factoid was Fictoid. The only thing that was true was that I do own a very small number of Google shares, but that was never going to get me sneak previews of new lab developments, as I claimed.
Now, I apologise to anyone who was taken in by the story, but I hope people will see that the point I was trying to make was worth the deception.
You see, over 3,000 people have viewed that post in the past two weeks, and not a single one (including some social media experts – sorry, Ewan, Sorry Dan) questioned the likelihood of it being true. What does this tell us? That people were half-expecting it, and that it's merely a matter of time before such apps do exist. The real question lies in how we respond to such technological advancements.
I have never agued for skills over knowledge. To my mind, they're equally important. It's just a shame that the fixation we now have with testing, means that what we can test the most easily (what we know) invariably takes precedence over what really matters (what we can do with that knowledge). And, despite there being no proven connection between PISA/TIMMS scores and national prosperity, industrialised countries have judged the quality of their national education systems by PISA performance, and have therefore conned themselves into believing that what can be PISA tested is what we should be teaching. PISA doesn't test skills, so knowledge becomes everything.
Skills are acquired experientially, knowledge isn't. You have to fathom out how to make knowledge work for you, and that, in my experience, is what teachers really want to be doing: helping their kids apply knowledge, not standing in front of them, turgidly chronicling the kings and queens of England.
Witness the surge of interest in 'flipping' the conventional relationship between the classroom lecture and homework. Instead of using valuable class time lecturing 30 kids, and then setting them homework to see if they understood it, growing numbers of forward-thinking teachers are podcasting their lectures – to be viewed as homework – so that they can use class time to support students in putting that knowledge into practice. Flipping's popularity has occurred because it appeals to teachers' intrinsic desire to grow human beings, not fact accumulators.
So, I believe that the English government has misjudged the mood of teachers, by signalling a reversal of pedagogy, away from skills, and back to facts. Or perhaps it's a cunning ruse to make deeper public sector cuts in the future. After all, once something like Factoid really exists, who needs teachers?
I really do hope that teachers will become more vocal in expressing the importance of head and hands, of knowledge and skills. I know that their excitement at the prospect of a powerful technological aid to knowledge acquisition was because they could see they might have more time for knowledge application with their students. And I'm sorry if I raised their hopes prematurely by perpetrating my little hoax. I promise it will be the last time I'll attempt such a stunt.
And I do hope Google cut me in on a royalty when they eventually do create Factoid – remember, Do No Evil – you read it here first!