This week I'm back at Building Learning Communities (#BLC11), Boston, MA, after a three year hiatus (as I dipped my toes into something totally different). I can't wait to see old friends and make some new ones, and to hang out with some of the brightest thinking you can get in the education space.
The keynote is the one thing both Alan November, the host, and I wanted to do differently. Based on NoTosh's work with Cisco this past 18 months, I'm delighted to be in a conversation with their Director Global Education, Bill Fowler, a conversation we want you to help shape, whether you're at the event, or spectating from afar.
There are seven key questions we're probably going totally fail to tackle over the hour, but I vouch on my part to follow them through for the next few months in the work I do with schools around the world with Tom. Most of the readers of this blog have influence - on their school, their district, their government. We want you to join the already burgeoning debate and contribute your own take on things.
Can you add your own thoughts, arguments, research pieces to these questions and help us create a long-lasting set of strong arguments with which to influence the Governments, districts and schools with whom we all work?
The questions are co-written, and those of you who know me well will know what my own angle would be on some of them - but I want challenged, pushed, cajoled into thinking about others' views on the same subjects.
The keynote later this week will be tweeted live, hopefully webcast, too, and I'll be doing my best to keep up with the live online action as well as responding to points from Bill and the audience. I look forward to seeing you there, in person or online!
On my recent holidays in Florence I was lucky enough to once more bump into my former Channel 4 Education Board co-member, James Bradburne, who is the enigmatic Direttore of the Palazzo Strozzi in the home of the Italian rennaissance. He was kind enough to invite my young family into the Picasso and Dalí exhibition, and Catriona had great fun inventing her own cubist creations our of fuzzy felt.
One painting drew my attention in particular - the one at the top of this post. It's The Sailor, painted while Dalí was in Madrid's Neocubist Academy, and at about the same time he was thrown out of art school. The reason? He said that one of the professors was not good enough to grade him.
Rupert Murdoch isn't someone I'd normally have flocked to for advice on how to transform education, but I was delighted when a contact at the EU forwarded me a speech he had delivered to senior government officials from around the world this May.
Murdoch makes some powerful points that speak the language of Government and business, two groups that must be convinced the current conservative and Conservative means of bullying learning into doing better just will not do. Here are some of the most compelling parts:
Every CEO will tell you that we compete in a world that is changing faster than ever. That it is more competitive than ever and that it rewards success and punishes failure to a greater degree than ever before.
In other words, our world is increasingly, and rightly, a world of merit. In such a world, the greatest challenge for any enterprise is human capital: how to find it, develop it and keep it.
No one in this room needs a lecture about how talented people in tandem with technology are making our lives richer and fuller.
Everywhere we turn, digital advances are making workers more productive - creating jobs that did not exist only a few years ago, and liberating us from the old tyrannies of time and distance.
This is true in every area except one: Education.
Think about that. In every other part of life, someone who woke up after a fifty-year nap would not recognize the world around him.
My friends, what we have here is a colossal failure of imagination. Worse, it is an abdication of our responsibility to our children and grandchildren - and a limitation on our future. As Stendhal wrote: "Qui s'excuse, s'accuse".
We know the old answer - simply throwing money at the problem - doesn't work. In my own country, we've doubled our spending on primary and secondary education over the last three decades - while our test scores have remained largely flat. The reason this hasn't worked is that more money has fed a system that is no longer designed to educate - it's become a jobs program for teachers and administrators. And yet we Americans wonder why we have cities like Detroit where nearly half the population can't read and the disadvantaged are on a fast-track to failure.
The mandarins of mediocrity will tell you that the problem is that the kids they are teaching are too poor, or come from bad families, or are immigrants who do not understand the culture. This is absolute rubbish. It is arrogant, elitist and utterly unacceptable.
If we knew we had a gold mine on our property, we would do whatever it took to get that gold out of the ground. In education, by contrast, we keep the potential of millions of children buried in the ground.
Fortunately, we have the means at our disposal to transform lives.
Technology will never replace the teacher. What we can do is relieve some of the drudgery of teaching. And we can take advantage of the increasingly sophisticated analytics that will help teachers spend more time on the things that make us all more human and more creative.
Let me be clear. What I am speaking about is not the outline of some exotic, distant, fictional future. Everything I have mentioned is something I have seen in the here and now.
In schools and in 'educational' media created for young people, the adults always give too many instructions rather than investing in better structures for thinking.
Gever and I ran a session together today at INPlay where we wanted to take educators, games designers and media producers through the experience of being a learner again, learning how, not what, and hopefully gaining more empathy for the five year olds for whom they design media products.
We kicked off with some structured constrained activity, but with no knowledge of what the final result looks like, using John Davitt's LEG to find loosely structured activity for our delegates. The picture above shows one group doing "A 12 Bar Blues as a Mind Map", but harnessing filled glasses of water, laid out to create a blues tune when struck in sequence with a spoon.
We then asked the producers to conceive of a new experience, rather than an educational product, concentrating for 8 out of 10 minutes on experience, and only at the last moment working with the idea on what it might teach a youngster. It was hard for teams not to slip into the habit of tying things to curriculum-filling exercises, but there were some genius kernels of ideas generated after teams concentrated on empathising with what it feels like to be a four/five year old wanting a great engaging experience, first and foremost.
Encourage people to design experiences, not lessons.
Encourage people to speak less. Poorly reviewed games on the app store invariably have too much speaking in them, too many instructions and hints. Poor classrooms feature too much teacher-talk.
Producers and educators could experiment with concentrating first and foremost on quality of engagement and experience, only second of all on what content is being sought to be learned.
Producers and educators should invest more their time empathising, observing and asking young people what makes them tick, what experiences engage them and then co-design learning solutions to that, rather than pulling young people in to 'test' games or experiences after they have been designed by the adults (or co-designing lesson plans rather than being subjected to the planned lesson after the fact).
There is a difference between instruction and structure. Kids do not need instructions - games like Sesame Street's A-to-Zoo have so much instruction it turns kids off sharp: try it for yourself, below:
What works better for young people and creative designers alike, is not instruction from on high (with a degree of tacit pre-task knowledge of the outcome already in the teacher's mind - and quite possibly the learners') but structures within which the learning journey, or game, can play itself out.
With these last two structures the name of the game is divergence of thought and investigation. It's only having explored a large amount of content that the learner creates their plan for what they will construct from it. This doesn't work if the teacher feels the need to organise it, to direct, to instruct. It only works if the youngster is free within the confines of a structure.
Is there a difference between instruction and structure? I think so, but am amazed that until now I hadn't discovered much appetite for exploring the difference between these terms, and these approaches, in the world of game design, media production and, vitally, teaching and learning/instruction/schooling/education.
This is the most depressing picture out of yet another stellar Gever Tulley keynote, this time at INPlay11, a conference I help curate in Toronto, where play, learning and the video game industry meet. An infant's picture, graded. C+. I wonder what the + was for.
There are two things I despise about how elements of learning have been systemically misinterpreted in pretty much every school setup around the world. One is teacher-designed homework, and the pathological belief, against the odds, that it adds any value to the learning process. The other is the use of grades to justify the teacher's existence, while destroying the confidence, self-esteem and understanding of what learning is for amongst our young people.
As Gever suggested, there is one chap who covers both areas particularly well with great roundups of his research and others'. All school governors, principals and decision-makers in Government would be in a more informed position to make some seismic changes to the happiness of young people and the families, with whom they row every night about homework and the mission for great grades, after a read of Alfie Kohn's The Homework Myth and Punished By Rewards.
Most school management teams glaze over when you talk about cloud computing. But if I told you that one science test, administered across New South Wales, was delivered for $199,995 less thanks to being hosted in the cloud for one day, rather than on dedicated servers in the education department, would you be interested?
That's exactly what happened, and it sets on a grand scale why the relatively small student-by-student savings we see from digital material being held on a server farm in Texas, rather than a server in the school grounds or Local District offices, are so important in these straightened times.
Such services might be Google Apps being introduced to schools, and the use of web-based "software as a service" (SaaS) programmes such as Every1Speaks to capture and share learning. If schools can look after these pennies, then tens of thousands of dollars and pounds are freed up for teaching and learning.
Using the cloud to cuts ties with out-of-date learning environments
And as more schools feel tied to wonky learning environments that don't really serve their purposes, feeling tied more to the email services provided therein rather than the learning resources themselves, there is a super opportunity to cut ties and bring in the best of breed in email, shared platforms, communication tools and video conferencing on an 'as-needed' basis. This cuts not only the actual cost of services to near nil, but also cuts the educational cost of students using quickly outdated online tools that a school paid for upfront.
The New South Wales Department of Education (DET) is the largest department of education in the southern hemisphere. They wanted to improve the way they conducted Year 8 science tests to replicate what students did in the laboratory and believed interactive online science testing could test a wider range of skills than just pure scientific knowledge. However, DET estimated for them to host an online test for 65,000 students simultaneously would require a A$200,000 investment in server infrastructure. With the help of their partner, Janison Solutions, DET launched its Essential School Science Assessment (ESSA) online exam. In 2010, they trialled an online science exam hosted by Microsoft Azure that went out to 65,000 students in 650 schools simultaneously. Paying A$40 per hour for 300 Microsoft Azure Servers, DET estimated the cost of hosting the online exam for one day was just A$500.
Not only that, but the maintenance and robustness of those servers is handled by the experts, rather than an education department, and if more scale is needed, it gets added on without anyone ever needing to know.
It works on a State level. It needs to start working more on a school by school level.
This is a summary of the talk I delivered at the Norfolk ICT 2011 Conference, expanding on my TES editorial back in January.
During the final half of 2010, I asked more than 1,500 teachers around the globe two questions: what are your happiest memories from learning at school, and what are your least happy experiences?
When I do the "reveal" of what I think their answers will be, every workshop has a "but how did he know?" reaction. It's more akin to an audience's response to illusionist Derren Brown than to the beginning of a day of professional development.
For teachers' answers are always the same. At the top is "making stuff", then school trips, "feeling I'm making a contribution" and "following my own ideas". Their least happy experiences are "a frustration at not understanding things", "not having any help on hand" and "being bored", mostly by "dull presentations". "Not seeing why we had to do certain tasks" appeared in every continent. Most of these educators agreed that the positive experiences they loved about school were too few, and were outnumbered by the "important but dull" parts of today's schooling: delivering content, preparing for and doing exams.
But while a third of teachers generally remember "making stuff" as their most memorable and happy experience at school, we see few curricula where "making stuff" and letting students "follow their own ideas" makes up at least a third of the planned activity.
Design Thinking: the creative industries' framework for relentless creativity
Coined by design superstars IDEO, "Design Thinking" in a simple form is a four-part process of thinking and acting that I see replicated in every successful creative company in film, television, web startups or marketing with whom I work. I see it in some of our most creative classrooms, too.
What is the carbon footprint of the nation's shopping basket?
Who is the biggest polluter in our region?
How can we make the journey to school safer?
How can we better use the school budget we have?
We then follow these four stages of problem-solving:
Immersion is not just unleashing youngsters with a sketchbook, or sending them off to Google to find out everything they can on a topic. It's about students working hard to gain empathy with those affected by the problem they've encountered. It's about putting oneself in the shoes of another and capturing all the emotions, feelings, facts, viewpoints possible. This can be done in a huge number of ways, but capturing these insights we must: on digital photographs, cell phone audio recordings or videos, post-it notes, documents...
Every idea that has been captured needs to be brought together, preferably in a project space, a project corner, so that teams of students can work to find
information that needs further splitting down
outlier ideas that, at first, don't seem to belong elsewhere
Look at the IDEO team in action, one week over two minutes, in this clip, and you'll see how a ton of messy, asbtract information comes together into organised thoughts ready for turning into ideas:
The teacher's role in this stage, as in immersion, is critical, but not as deliverer of knowledge. The teacher's role is that of key questioner. Good questioning technique is the most important skill to master to pull this creative process off, and there are some structures you can use to help. The G.R.O.W model and similar coaching models are such frameworks to help frame questions at each level of the project's thinking (short, medium and long-term):
Mhairi Stratton, formerly at Humbie Primary School in East Lothian, Scotland, introduced me to this way of thinking, and she has seen other benefits coming from this way of 'coaching' students to success:
'The whole school is benefitting because the pupils are involving the other class and sharing their learning with them.
‘Pupils are now identifying what resources they need, and why, and then working out how to source these.
‘This is also having a very positive effect on parental involvement as the pupils are also discussing their learning more at home and often asking them to provide the resources!’
Actually coming up with solutions to a problem comes quite late on in the process. In schools, most of the time, though, the problem has been defined by a teacher or a textbook and most learners are thrust into the creative process at this point, at the point when the process is nearly over!
Ideation can be simple brainstorming, or it can rely on a greater box of mental tools to stimulate better, more unexpected, more sustainable ideas. For example:
everyone's a consultant, where each individual adds to everyone else's idea with a...
"yes, and..." statement - ban "no but"; it's anti-creative, and what didn't work last year might work now. Things change.
100 ideas now - set your students a challenge to take the available synthesised information and come up with 100 ideas in just one session.
FedEx days, where you invite learners (and colleagues) to deliver an idea within 24 hours.
This kind of pupil-led learning creates entrepreneurial, confident individuals. Professor Sugata Mitra's work shows that children in Indian slums are able to teach themselves and each other when provided with a computer kiosk on a street corner and access to the internet.
Within six weeks of starting my teaching career in the UK in 2002, I was fortunate to take up a spot on a small delegation to New Brunswick, Canada. There, since the 1970s, pupils have been achieving stellar results through experiential, project-based learning in which they have the lion's share of control over what is learnt, with whom and using what resources. And they have done it in a language that is not their mother tongue.
Yet the thought of allowing 30 assorted children at a time - or 90 at a time in the supersize classes I saw in New Brunswick - "free rein" upsets even the most innovative of educators. Far better to set a project theme for them; at least we know we will cover what we need to cover.
On the other side of the world in New Zealand, at Auckland's Albany Senior High School, deputy head Mark Osborne gives his pupils free rein every Wednesday through impact projects. "It can take weeks of discussion, reading and searching, but once you have struck their passion, their eyes light up and you can't stop them," he says.
Pupils have built a VW "Herbie" car, a rocket and a content delivery platform for the school's plasma screen system, inadvertently undercutting the commercial outfit pitching to the local university by NZ$280,000 (£137,682).
As US academic Professor Roger Schank puts it: "There is really only one way to learn how to do something, and that is to do it."
Over in California stands High Tech High, set up in San Diego in 2000 as a charter school. It was created with support from local businesses as an environment that would help fill the skills and attitudes gaps faced by the area's technology industries. Principal Larry Rosenstock believes that until teachers identify their own passions they cannot hope to facilitate the experience for pupils.
Further up the coast in San Francisco, Gever Tulley is developing his Tinkering School, an educational experiment with big ambitions currently acting as a one-week summer school.
Pupils learn by building bridges from dumped plastic bags, roller coasters from old crates or villages on stilts designed to provide secret niches for reading. The ideas come wholly from the seven-year-old collaborators and staff work tirelessly to spot and reinforce the learning opportunities inherent in the build. Elements of physics, mathematics, design, art, music and language are all wrapped in the vital skills of the 21st century for which there is, thankfully, no subject: ingenuity, collaboration, experimentation, failure and storytelling.
Don't think. Try.
Harnessing entirely pupil-led, project-based learning in this way isn't easy. But all of this frames learning in more meaningful contexts than the pseudocontexts of your average school textbook or contrived lesson plan, which might cover an area of the curriculum but leave the pupil none the wiser as to how it applies in the real world.
There is a line that haunted me last year: while pupil-led, project-based learning is noble and clearly more engaging than what we do now, there is no time for it in the current system. The implication is that it leads to poorer attainment than the status quo. But attainment at High Tech High, in terms of college admissions, is the same as or better than private schools in the same area.
The assumption that pupil-led, project-based learning offers less success in exams is a false but persistent one. John Hunter was the anatomist who defined modern medicine because, frankly, no one else had. He had a saying that has since become the mantra of the modern surgeon: "Don't think. Try the experiment."
Innovations in education that engage young people and have the most profound impact will not occur because someone told teachers what to do and how they should do it. They won't come by tinkering with the curriculum or seeking the perfect balance of assessment. The most important changes in learning this decade will come around because someone, a teacher, maybe you, thought that things weren't what they could be and that something new was worth a try. They will get together with colleagues and make time to talk through the possible and seemingly impossible. And then they will go and try it out.
When you listen to four politicians responsible for education and lifelong learning in their parties, it's remarkably easy to spot those with some savvy and those who choose to waffle on the clichés they think we want to hear.
At the Scotland on Sunday Education hustings this week the current Education Minister, Mike Russell, was at home sick, so the SNP's Lifelong Learning and Skills Minister Angela Constance took up the reins for the debate. She was joined by Des McNulty (Labour), Elizabeth Smith (Conservatives) and Margaret Smith (Liberal Democrats).
For all that she was a lastminute panel replacement, Constance was the only one speaking in terms of action, policy with the facts to back it up, with experience rooted in what she has seen herself in Scottish schools, on teacher unions' understandings of the current state of play and on the latest research, some of it commissioned by her Government over the past four years.
The others delivered platitudes, meaningless statements ("less indiscipline", "more testing", "more rigour") without any indication of what role a Government would play in achieving them.
Are we not all literacy and numeracy teachers? Des McNulty from Labour believes that Scottish education is 'in a mess' because of decisions from the current Government and from Local Authorities themselves. He wants add 1000 extra teachers to lead on literacy and numeracy, despite the fact that when I was a teacher under his Government I distinctly remember them spearheading the approach of "every teacher is a teacher of literacy and numeracy".
The best practice from around the world shows that integrating higher aspirations for all children's literacy and numeracy throughout their curriculum leads to greater achievement in these areas, something that works the other way, too: skills learnt in one subject area are useful elsewhere.
That's why Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence is so vital: it's less something to be "implemented" from on high (with screeds of policy documents and advice sheets) and instead embraced from the teaching community, who, rightly, can expect more videoed examples from inside classrooms where the planning, the tactics and the teaching style can be observed in virtual-first-hand terms. A visit to the Journey to Excellence or Learning and Teaching Scotland websites shows that the current SNP Government have done just that, and the process of changing the habits of 150 years is well on its way - although it was always going to take longer than 4 years to see a wholesale 180 degree change in practice.
We're talking about upending existing notions of how we timetable, moving towards longer periods of learning, less movement around secondary schools, more practice emulating that of the primary school environment. This is what's increasing attainment in reading, writing and 'rithmetic in schools like the Stovner School in Norway, and countless other schools in the small-country systems we like to fetichise.
The opposite is what we see in England under Gove, whereby the Education Bill makes reference to "The Importance of Teaching" without looking carefully at what makes the best conditions for learning. Not only that, it does away with the key institutions for developing the quality of teachers in our classrooms.
Labour & Tory: Drive standards, test more McNulty's other key platitude was that he wants to "drive standards with teachers". But what does that mean? Does he, along with his Conservative companion Elizabeth Smith, want to introduce "more rigourous testing, earlier, before students move on to secondary", testing the growth of our youngsters by pulling up their roots every six weeks? Do he and Smith want to increase the importance of "passing the test" later in school, and emulate the disastrous attempts to introduce "rigour" in the United States, which has left the arts, creativity and any teaching and learning outside the test out in the cold?
Greater rigour, and a return to 'traditional methods' as Smith put it, will meet only with disdain from our students, disengaging more of them at every turn. Look at what happened in Jamie Oliver's Channel 4 "Dream School" when Professor David Starkey, no doubt one of the greatest historians of his era with unbeatable knowledge, was unable to demonstrate, let alone inspire in his students, the kinds of soft skills so often berated by those who talk of "rigour": he exhibitted everything that's wrong with "rigour" in the classroom. Soft skills, which Starkey himself sees as less important than acquiring discreet areas of knowledge, would have saved him and his students much pain and embarrassment.
"I want to do something about indiscipline… [cue: tumbleweed]" Finally, McNulty got tough: "I want to do something about indiscipline." Great. How? I do believe teachers have been trying for some time, and some of us have started to work out what it comes down to. It's about engaging students in the first place (see above, "Rigour"), involving parents more (they need to want to be involved, though - dragging kicking and screaming, parent or child, tends toward the ineffective), getting better in-class training on handling different types of students and support from better school leaders. Tell us, please, what your potential Government's role is in helping what we're trying to do already go faster, deeper, quicker.
Teaching the Teachers While only the Tories are still daft enough now to think that Scottish students want to pay for their higher education, with Labour having changed their old position recently to align to that of the SNP, it was only the SNP who seem to have made the connection between Higher Education in general and those vital programmes that teach the teachers.
The Donaldson Report, commissioned by the SNP Government shows in no uncertain terms that higher investment in (free) teacher training is the only way to achieve long-term success in our classrooms. Not more testing. Not more textbooks. Not, as the SNP have nonetheless delivered, the smallest class sizes in Scotland's history (smaller class sizes inevitably make the teacher's job in developing youngsters easier). McKinsey's most recent research, as well as their 2007 report, repeatedly points out that teacher quality remains the sole factor in differentiating the average from the not-so-average education systems. Initial teacher education, yes, but above all continuing professional development.
This is one area, everywhere in the world, where Governments, teacher unions and teachers themselves can only ever work harder. It's mostly down to money and attitudes in the workforce - teachers need to know they can take up courses, take protected time out to reflect and do so without being told at the last minute they need to take the RE teacher's class again.
It is the SNP that has led the debate on Higher Education with the belief that higher education benefits society, not just the individual, says Angela Constance. She's right.
Invest in education and, generally, you always get more out the other side, and at least make some savings on the other budgets. Underspend or spend in the wrong places in education, and you might just break even, but the costs will re-emerge in health, justice and employment later on.
Education is the only Government spending area that really represents an investment. Everything else is spend. If we invest in education, in helping teachers improve day-by-day, the rest begins to fall into place.
[disclaimer: My company is currently working with the SNP on their election campaign's digital strategy. The views on this post are my own]
In a four-part video series for GETideas I travelled the world in 24 hours and asked four educators I admire what their "two stars and a wish" for learning would be for 2011. I'll blog the films here over the next week.
"The first interesting thing about this interview was the speed - or lack of it - in the internet connection. Gever, and the rest of the West Coast of the USA, had just awoken and, as happens every day in late afternoon London time, the connection speed dropped to a snail's pace. This, even in a country like the UK, is part of the real digital divide that still exists.
"Gever feels that we're finally seeing the integration of technology to the learning fabric of the school. The best programmes seem to be those where there's a hands-off approach, where students are trusted to bring in and use their own devices and ideas. The iPad has become the companion of choice for youngsters on their learning journeys in this corner of California, where ad hoc, on demand research enrichens the experience and conversation that Gever and his collaborators have with the learners.
"We're figuring out the value of the creative programmes that, in these tough economic times, have been cut. As we erode children's exposure to the arts we also erode the opportunity that science is beginning to reveal: for example, that a child who plays music at a young age happens to do better, longer than those who don't.
"We need to stop relegating the vocational arts to secondary programmes and start embracing making and doing as part of the regular educational experience for both kids and adults."
This is a great video, and hundreds of thousands have watched it to gain an understanding that England is not the United Kingdom which is not Great Britain (alone) and where on earth Canada, Australia and a plethora of small islands fit into the grand scheme of all things Crown and Her Majesty.
My question: why has it just been created when this is the stuff school students the Commonwealth over have studied at some point over the past nearly six YouTubed years. Because an essay whose writing felt like having teeth pulled was somehow better, more educationally sound, showed his or her understanding so much more? I don't think so.
If we're going to assess children on what they know, wouldn't it be more educationally worthwhile to also assess children on their skill at sharing what they know in a compelling fashion? And if we're looking to help children understand how to share effectively this means we have to use the same tools as their audience - the rest of the world - rather than confining their creativity to a class group on a Learning Environment or private, closed down blog that only a relativel handful can see.
And on an assessment note, this video would get some great marks from me. What would it take to get full marks, to improve next time?
School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.