These days technology is often the last thing I'd recommend schools bother with when trying to engage students. There's plenty else we can invest time in before technology will achieve even a fraction of what it can in an engaged school. And now a set of action research reports in the UK is showing the path many schools might wish to take.
I'm working with several primary (elementary) and secondary (high) schools at the moment in England, Australia and the States. All of them face the same daily and long-term strategic challenge: students have never been so disengaged. Many have seen technology as a principal hook to reverse this disengagement, which is why they get in touch with us, but quickly on my initial visits to schools I'm keen to point out the other steps that we need to get through before technology will add what it could do. Otherwise, I'm just a tools salesman, selling tools that the owners don't know how to harness.
The journey is a complex one, and one that, in my opinion for what it's worth, most of the 'big' eduction commentators in North America still fail to recognise. I've complained numerous times before about the fetichisation of 'tools' and 'edtech' by those who work with and in schools where other elements of the teaching and learning process clearly deserve fetichisation first.
What are these elements?
A unique and undervalued research project based in the UK, with partners in the US (including High Tech High), is discovering, analysing and sharing those elements through its regular pamphlets, blog and, above all, grounded practice across nearly 50 schools.
It's our job to help scale this ambition to other schools around the world.
The irony, for commentators like Alfie Kohn, is that invariably, “when interest appears, achievement usually follows” (2000, p. 128). … It is almost as though we have accepted the inevitability of learning as a cold shower: you’re not expected to enjoy it, but it will do you good. ... We have recently seen a large number of students becoming disengaged achievers, performing well academically, keeping out of trouble, but rejecting further and higher education. … A second problem with the traditional model of engagement stems from its predominantly instrumental applications: engagement as a vehicle to improve student performance or discipline within school. Inevitably, such a mindset constrains success indicators within a compliance model. Students are deemed to be engaged, for example, when/if they: • attend regularly • conform to behavioural norms • complete work in the manner requested and on time • are ‘on-task’ • respond to questioning If we have greater aspirations for students—beyond compliance and toward a commitment to lifelong learning—then the conventional concept of engagement is inadequate. ... While project-based learning and activities that go beyond school can be liberating for staff and students, it is important that activities incorporate a sense of bounded freedom—that students are given a clear set of guidelines, procedures or protocols within which they can make choices. As one Year 9 student put it: “I’d like to have a little bit more of a say, but...I think you need the teacher there to sort of guide you.” … Students are absorbed in their activity: anyone witnessing a young person playing, say, on-line role playing games will know what this looks like. It is rare, however, to see such depth of absorption in school-based work. Munns and colleagues (2006) at the University of Western Sydney (2006) have quantified the difference as being in-task, not just on-task. Other indicators of high absorption would be students wishing to continue beyond the end of a lesson, or not even noticing the lesson had ended—what Csikszentmihalyi (1990) has described as being in ‘‘flow’’.
Listening to a presentation in Belfast from m'old colleague Andrew Brown from LTS, he reminds me of this quote from blogger, storyteller and, yes, content-creator Cory Doctorow, pictured:
Content isn't king. If I sent you to a desert island and gave you the choice of taking your friends or your movies, you'd choose your friends -- if you chose the movies, we'd call you a sociopath. Conversation is king. Content is just something to talk about.
One of the key points I've been driving in the past year has been the importance of schools providing places for conversations and exploration to take place, perhaps through a design thinking-based pedagogy and process. Such a process takes the onus off the teacher to be the one preparing resources for children, effectively doing the learning for the youngster. Instead, it forces interaction around content, rather than content to be consumed or 'learnt', to take centre stage.
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.
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.
"Children coming in and following what they're interested in has resulted in some of the most powerful learning experiences in my classroom. When a child chooses to understand more about the rocks they've brought in, the learning is deep. It takes time, we need to set that time aside. I've also enjoyed spending longer on some texts, and haven't been afraid to revisit the same texts further down the line. What kids produce after a second chance at a topic, later on in the school year, is so much better than what is learnt and produced in the timetabled time.
"And that is my wish - I wish we could find more flexible, alternative timetabling methods that allow students to do these kinds of things. We need longer periods of time, the ability to not finish a topic, but to revisit it months later."
You can have places where you cannot build a school. More commonly you can have schools in places where good teachers do not want to go. So what do you do? You still have children there who need and want to learn. That is the issue that Sugata Mitra is trying to solve with his latest experiment, the Granny Cloud.
He is building on the Hole In The Wall learning experiment, where children autonomously access an 'ATM' computer on the streets of India and South America and, with their peers, learn through the activities and experiences in front of them. Not just that, but given most of the content they are accessing on the web is in English, they're also having to learn English. All this without a teacher, without a school building in sight.
On one trip to see how the Hole In The Wall experiment was working he asked a girl to take on the role of the grandmother, standing in the background and applauding the self-directed learning going on with the "My goodness, I couldn't have done that" empathy that all our grandmothers, or grannies, take on.
The Granny Cloud was born. This is a group of grandmothers all over the UK who log on once a week to Skype with youngsters in India, and take on that appraising role that all grannies do so well, to tell stories, to stimulate fresh ideas and new ways of looking at the same old things. Mitra hopes to see a 25% increase in attainment thanks to this coaching/feedback mechanism.
This type of 'learning from the extremes' is working in schools in the UK now, too. By splitting up into groups of four, children answer 'impossible' questions simply through going to find out. For example, "Where does language come from?". In the video above you can see how the answers reached - without the aid of a teacher - are just as 'correct' as those that might have been 'delivered' by a teacher, but reached through some other mechanic, something other than the way we've traditionally thought children learn. It also throws into question the assumption that we always need a specialist teacher in front of kids in order that they learn.
When I was talking with Sudhir Ghodke at The Education Project last year, captured in the video below, he made a terrifying point: that in India there are not even enough bodies, skilled teachers or otherwise, to put in front of a growing child population, for the notion of traditional schooling to work at all. It's understandible in a country holding 25% of the world's under-25s, or 135m new people entering the workforce:
The Hole In The Wall was a product that benefitted those who had access to it. The Granny Cloud, or at least the findings of this experiment in reinforcing self-directed learning from outside the classroom, offer us a set of techniques and approaches that can be used wherever you are in the world. You might need Skype to harness the British Grannies themselves, but adults can change their approach to learning and teaching and have just as profound an impact: again, it's about getting out of the way of learning as much as possible.
Russell Davies and Matt Jones speak sense in Wired:
"...We're facing working lives far, far longer than [the garden centre moguls] ever imagined. Medical and health technologies are going to nudge, prod and support us well into our hundreds, and economic and demographic forces are going to insist we keep working for most of that span. (Perhaps that's why so many of us are reluctant to actually get started?) Many of you reading this can anticipate working lives of more than 100 years. Which, on the upside, makes any notion of career-planning seem ridiculous -- the wisest response is most probably to do whatever is fun and remunerative at the time. Entire industries are arriving and then disappearing within the span of a single working lifetime -- and this will not get any better. The idea of working your way up the ladder seems faintly ridiculous when said ladder is being set on fire from below, dismantled from above and no longer has anything to lean against.
"My friend Matt Jones has posted some of his thoughts about this on his blog: "I'm going to be 40 soon. I find myself thinking about how to become a sustainable/resilient 50-yearold… 50 might be halfway through… it might only be a third of the way through my life. I've been very lucky for the past 20 years. What the hell am I going to do with all that time? How will I be able to pay my way? How do I stay involved and useful?" These are good questions, and ones I couldn't begin to answer, except that I'm sure older life is not going to be about careers; it's going to be about learning to learn and being ready and willing to start all over again. And it's going to be work that involves a lot of sitting down. Because extending our lives is one thing, keeping our knees going all that time is another."
Six weeks ago I met Tina Seelig at dinner in Surgeon's Hall, Edinburgh, surrounded by some of the gruesome medical discoveries made over the past 300 years that have helped define modern medicine. If ever there was a dinnertime discussion point about how we build on prior lessons of life (and death), this was it.
We got talking about those life lessons, about how I only worked out I wanted to start my own company about 12 years later than would have been ideal, about how I'd always wanted to write a book ("well, what's the first chapter about?", she asked), and about never getting to the point where you say "I wish I had...".
Tina, in this mini shrink armchair moment, suggested I have a read of her latest book, which I bought there and then on the iPhone and delved into over the course of two evenings.
What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20 is a gem, and I've bought at least a dozen copies as 'prizes' for people in my seminars this past month. This "Crash course on making your place in the modern world" is a collection of life lessons, examples from Tina's teaching at Stanford University's School of Engineering, entrepreneurship center and d.school, and great techniques for bringing out the best in yourself and the teams with whom you work. Here are some of my favourite elements of the book:
Need-finding is not a given - it's a process that has to be worked upon to get good at it. (I wonder if that's why I feel that learning in schools is all too often based around "fake problems", ones that have been contrived to achieve a learning point but which haven't had enough thought given to whether there's a real, actual need that would achieve the same, but have more of a profound meaning to the learner).
If you throw gasoline on a log all you get is a wet log. If you throw gasoline on a small flame you get an inferno. Are you putting your energy into something that's going to pay off?
It's not enough to just find your passion and follow that. The sweet spot is when you find your passion in the form of a talent or skill set, find that those match your own personal interests, and then find a market that's willing to harness those skills.
Lao-Tzu, Chinese Taoist philosopher: "The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he's always doing both."
Lucky people are never just lucky. They're acutely aware of their surroundings like a traveller in a foreign land. They then find unusual ways to recombine their findings and knowledge.
Stories of those who have "bad breaks" and who are able to turn those into incredibly positive opportunities (like Perry Klehbahn's SnowShoe).
Those who are willing to learn can turn negative situations around (e.g. Jeannie Kahwajy's research on job interview candidates who've been knocked back for a dream job and end up truly content with what they end up doing - the same happened to me, actually, when I went for a the world's worst job interview for what I thought was a dream job. When I went to Channel 4 to meet friends and drown my sorrows with some bad coffee, I ended up with an inning to the job where I ended up kicking off 4iP).
Paint the target around the arrow - find out what people's passions are and find ways to harness the energy around that (create jobs and opportunities around that).
The Rule Of Three: Most people can only track three (important) things at once - work out what they are for you and follow through. "Avoiding the Tyranny or 'Or'"
"We're encouraged to "satisfice" - to do the least amount we can do satisfy the requirements."
Teachers show what's required and how to get there. "Will this be on the test?". We have to find interesting ways to get over that, as it's not a life skill. Or at least recognise that it's not a life skill and give it far less attention.
It's a great book, a quick read but one you'll come back to time and time again when you're needing some clever ideas for motivating a group around a challenge, or looking for some insight in where you go next.
I've been a Fellow of the RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) for nearly three years now, and have spent 2010 on the advisory board for its Opening Minds Curriculum, which relaunches this year and next with added support for those seeking new models for the new education paradigm.
We all want a curriculum that ensures the key skills for tomorrow's entrepreneurs and employment are taught and caught, but which empowers children to direct their own learning, don't we?
For the past year I've been part of the Steering Group for the RSA's (Royal Society of the Art, Manufactures and Commerce) Opening Minds Curriculum, a competence-based curriculum that is perhaps finding its moment as "organised education", whereby big institutions that do things for people, are being replaced by organisations that empower people to do great things for themselves:
Opening Minds aims to help schools to provide young people with the real world skills or competencies they need to thrive in the real world. It is a broad framework through which schools can deliver the content of a national curriculum in a creative and flexible way so that young people leave school able to thrive in and to shape the real world.
Opening Minds was developed by the RSA at the turn of the millennium in response to a belief that the way young students were being educated was becoming increasingly detached from their needs as citizens of the 21st century.
It is based on five sets of competencies, including Citizenship, Learning, Managing Information, Managing Situations and Relating to People.
What is the impact of Opening Minds?
Opening Minds is now being used in over 200 schools across the country and is growing rapidly. In 2008 the RSA opened the RSA Academy in Tipton which is the first school to be designed around the principles of Opening Minds.
One of the reasons I'm particularly fond of this curriculum is its genesis, summed up in the introductory conference video from a couple of years ago by RSA Chief Executive, Matthew Taylor, above, who points out that parents, politicians and even teachers seem to be under the impression that a "bad" school will always be a school for which improvement can never happen.
There has also been a near worldwide acceptance, with the occasional ignorant backlash as yet another test or stricture is thrown in by the politicians, that learning competences is arguably more important than learning 'stuff', and the RSA Opening Minds Curriculum is all about learning the stuff through these very competences that make professionally and personally successful individuals thrive.
Find out more and shape the Opening Minds Curriculum at our October 19 Conference at the new RSA Academy
To help teachers, head teachers and those managing curriculum better understand the small revolution that's been happening over the past few years with this way of working, the RSA Academy in Tipton, near Birmingham, UK, is hosting in its new building a one-day conference. It's a superb opportunity to experience, at first-hand, how Opening Minds works at the RSA Academy and gives you a chance to help shape Opening Minds as it moves forward into its next phase of assuring quality and useful assessment in a school-owned curriculum.
It could be a first step towards having the support and mentorship from successful partner schools in rethinking curriculum and learning across your whole school. This is not an event for an individual maverick to go off and innovate on their own. This is a whole-school innovation process.
The morning will be classroom based, working directly with our Opening Minds Team Leaders and students. The afternoon will focus on how the RSA and the RSA Academy are working together to move Opening Minds forward.
We will be launching the Opening Minds accreditation system and the Opening Minds Award at this conference. These are initiatives which are vital to the future of Opening Minds and we hope you will want to be part of these exciting developments.
The event will be useful for schools already developing their Opening Minds practice; those considering Opening Minds as a curriculum framework; together with those schools who have built up a number of years of Opening Minds experience.
How do teachers in high schools know where their subject crosses over into another subject area, where learning moments might be better coordinated and more in-depth projects formed? You invite teaching staff to construct a learning wall.
This is a lovely idea coming through from St George's School for Girls in Edinburgh in order to stimulate the kind of cross-curricular thinking that takes place in their junior school throughout the senior area:
There was talk at that time of de-cluttering, of repetition, of excess
overload on the curriculum and the need to actually slim that down, so
we thought it was a good place for us to start. Ultimately, we came up
with this thing called ‘The Learning Wall’. It's based on the capacities
from a Curriculum for Excellence - that's the main aim of it, and it
was thought that for the personal and social development, the actual
student had to be the focus and therefore had to be the main frame of
the wall. Each of these represents what one year group does within one
subject area. Many departments focused on colour and used colour within
the bricks to highlight different skills or different things within what
they were doing. It may be investigative, it may be trips, it may be
numeracy, it may be literacy - even within a different subject content.
They have recognised that there is overlap, they have recognised that
there is repetition, they've recognised that we are doing things at the
same time and then we've found out we're doing them slightly
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.