My head is swirling after two days at the ‘Learning Without Frontiers’ 2011 event in London. Based on the ethos of “rebooting education” the 3-day event dubbed itself a festival, comprising the former Hand-Held Learning and Games-Based Learning conferences under the ‘Learning Without Frontiers’ banner. There were very few “suits” here, even the speakers were smart-casual in their jeans and jackets.
But despite the sartorial laissez-faire, the event clearly means to change paradigms in education globally and the word “disrupt” was widely used by the plethora of high profile speakers who ranged from Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia to graffiti artist Evan Roth; from Lord David Puttnam to controversial teacher Katherine Birbalsingh alongside a healthy dose of games, apps and educational software developers and visionaries. The one fact I am left with, though, is that we haven’t really achieved a new paradigm in education with the use of technology in British schools. The real question is “do we need to”?
The UK primary and secondary school sector – driven largely by a state-funded mechanism – comprises some 7.9 million pupils aged 4 to 18 years, approximately 25,000 schools and 445,000 teachers. The outcomes achieved over the past generation have been about attaining a greater number of qualifications like GCSE and A-Levels and rising standards in the grades achieved. The state has traditionally sought to improve standards by using a “carrot & stick” method, pumping ever greater sums of money into infrastructure and teaching (the carrot) with the compensatory imposition of league tables and Ofsted audits (the stick). On average, the mechanism can be deemed to have worked – most students now have a greater number of qualifications than their parents or grand-parents.
Everyone complains about education
But employers complain about the lack of basic numeracy and literacy skills among school-leavers and critics claim that schools are “fudging” the choice of subjects to attain a better league table ranking and that the exams themselves are becoming easier. Parents complain about lack of access to good local schools, teaching unions complain about the stress modern-day teachers face, head teachers complain about the lack of autonomy, education ICT suppliers complain about the lack of productivity gains from the software they have developed and the cumbersome “red tape” of supplying into schools in the first place. Pupils themselves complain that lessons are boring and that they can’t take exams any earlier no matter how quickly individuals progress through the curriculum and Government worries that it needs a creative economy yet its pupils don’t seem to be able to gain the right skills to create one. Nobody seems to be happy.
But, if one considers the educational system as a whole. First, it is “fair”: in this country both girls and boys have, on average, the same access to the curriculum (hurrah!); let’s recall that a hundred years ago this was not the case and that in some parts of the world, education of girls lags way behind that of boys. Secondly, the education system is about more than the qualifications you gain, it is a “civic society” in a microcosm – learning the ability to live and learn alongside each other is an important lesson in life. Thirdly, the education system is about trying and failing and learning in a style that suits you: for some that means learning by rote, others can deduce and learn logically, some act-out and learn by teaching others (note the importance of drama in the teaching of English literature for example) and increasing numbers learn by playing video games. The latter was obviously a key issue at the LWF event with a number of video games exhibitors displaying their wares for children from the age of three. It could be argued that playing games is not that different from the combination of learning by rote (e.g. memorising facts for trivial pursuit) and the repeated ‘try and fail’ method represented by the increasing levels of difficulty incorporated in each game. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Outliers’ he asserts that to excel in a particular field an individual needs to practice – the “10,000 Hours” golden rule was born. In essence this is exactly what gamers do, they practice over and over again.
The gaming industry wants schools to open up teaching methodologies: allow handheld devices like iPads to be used during class and an increase in the use of tools like interactive whiteboards as more than just blackboards. They cite many examples of success stories like young children being able to draw with iPads and create their own video animation sequences. Nobody denies the value of technology for those with disabilities – Assistive Learning Technologies have proven revolutionary in opening new means of communication and creativity for those with particular disabilities. But when you introduce wholesale technology into the education curriculum, it can indeed be a disruptive influence. Teachers already use a combination of audio, video, role-play, interaction, modelling, talking and homework to make their subjects interesting, so adding more technology may not necessarily make things better. Indeed it may make things worse.
I recall that I always paid attention during school trips because we usually had to answer a set of questions and would not have enough time in the gift shop if we failed to finish. Paying attention at the right time paid dividends in more free leisure time. Today, if you could take a virtual tour while taking a real tour and crib all the answers from Google or Wikipedia, I am not sure how much retained information you would be left with at the end of the trip. I am not harking back to the days of gas-lit classrooms and squeaky chalk on blackboards, merely the fact we should stop trying ‘fix’ education with technology.
Allowing teachers the freedom to teach is one of the greatest assets a school possesses: some may choose to use technology and gizmos; others may choose to lecture in a monotone and ask penetrating questions to dozy students afterwards! The most important issue is the attention that the teacher gives to the student. I speak with a small amount of experience: as an ambassador for STEMNet, I have spoken to secondary school pupils on issues about technology, business, career development and skills. Those that responded well were the ones who felt they got the most attention; either in the form of praise and encouragement or just by me noticing them. The human interaction between teacher and pupil is paramount in how the pupil learns and consequently, what they learn.
The one thing I learnt at the ‘Learning Without Frontiers’ 2011 festival is that digital creativity is alive and well in Britain. Let’s stop trying to define it into a deliverable teaching module for the educational establishment. Creativity exists because it is disruptive, because it needs the counterfoil of uniformity and boredom and because people need a moment of pause to derive a single, original thought.
About Learning Without Frontiers
The brainchild of original ‘disruptive’ thinker Graham Brown-Martin, ‘Learning Without Frontiers’ is a festival that provides a global platform for disruptive thinkers and practitioners from the education, digital media, technology and entertainment sectors to come together to explore how new disruptive technologies can drive radical efficiencies and improvements in learning.
Learning Without Frontiers takes place in London, UK (9-11 January 2011), Accra, Ghana (June 2011) and Boston, USA (November 2011). Visit www.learningwithoutfrontiers.com for further information.