August 09, 2007

BLC07 McIntosh No.1: Why Scotland Has Been Blogging For 5 Million Years

Part one out of three parts.

Before the presentation title puts you off, Scotland is blogging. It's education system is arguably using proportionally more social bookmarking, online video sharing, image sharing, wikis, feed readers and blogs than any other country in the world.

There are a couple of immediate questions that might need answered here: why blogging and social media, and why is Scotland appearing to be so much more connected than elsewhere?

The answer lies unapologetically in looking into our past, as well as our future. That said, I apologise for the length of the post, but it might be worth it...


Why Social Media?
The "why social media" is quite easy to answer, based on some of my previous posts on what social media is now offering us and offering leaders, which has been hard to achieve before now: the increased audience, the creative opportunities to express oneself in more than just words, the richer differentiation and means of assessment, the ubiquitous nature of doing top quality activities, here and now, without having to wait for equipment to arrive.

Answering why Scotland appears to have grasped better than other nations (and I stress 'appears') is a different matter.

Why has Scotland been blogging for five million years? (or why storytelling is so important)
It's one of these claims that is delectably waiting to be blown out of the water by the literal, the doubtful, the Scot, the non-Scot. They'd be quite right. If you've ever tried to find out what was actually happening five million years ago you'd be hard pushed to find much more than the dinosaurs.

But that is where our story begins. The dinosaurs are, for most of us, something of a myth. We know they once lived on earth, we know that they were made extinct by a huge change in our planet's ecosystem, but, above all, we enjoy telling tales, many of them rather tall, about what it was like when dinosaurs walked the earth.

Myths and stories are incredibly important for the Human as a means of knowing where they have come from, where they are now and where they are likely to head in the future. Without myths as a foundation we tend to flounder, pushing back on empty air, to tread water as fast as we can but not get very far, wasting our energies and risking burnout and a lack of impact on our progress.

Yet myths are often viewed as a waste of time by those wanting to 'get on' with the future. Prensky worries that we are looking into the future while walking backwards. My proposition is that rather than walking into the future we use our technology to walk faster, to drive, to rocket even into the future, while at the same time looking over our shoulder for juggernauts from our past coming to ram us down. You know what I mean: "Ewan, we did that back in the 1960s. It didn't work then, it won't work now". Well, sometimes it might just work now, thanks to the significant changes in the tools we have to make things happen.


What's so different about Scottish education?
Scotland has always had a peculiar awareness of its own history, as a mark of distinctiveness not to be assimilated with England. This distinctiveness is based largely upon a set of particular myths on Scottish education, but not a myth in the stuff of legends sense. For us a myth is:

"...a story that people tell about themselves... for two purposes... first, to explain the world and, second, to celebrate identity and express values." [ref]

The Scotland 20:20 report sets out eight myths, eight stories on which Scottish educators, politicians, parents and pupils have drawn over the years to explain away why some things work and others don't. The links on these give you John Connell's excellent summaries of what they mean:


The myths play out in education
The early arrival of near universal literacy and a precocious university system of the 15th Century helped lead to the democratic myth of Scottish education: the lad o' pairts, climbing the educational ladder into the professions. There were always links with the universities, with schoolmasters teaching enough Latin to give direct entry to the unis for the boys, with bursaries in support. Then, Scotland had three universities in the 15th Century (St Andrews, Glasgow, King's College Aberdeen) and two more at the Reformation (Edinburgh and Marischal College Aberdeen), with huge degrees of success. The educational opportunities offered in the countryside made Scotland rather unusual.

The First Book of Discipline in 1560 sketched out an educational structure, from parish school to university. Landowners were obliged to provide a school and pay a salary to a schoolmaster, supplemented by parents' fees. In the meantime, in America at around 1680, it was Scots setting up schools in the South. In Norfolk, Virginia, nearly everyone there is a Scot and nearly every physician in America is a Scot.

A desire to share our education system and spread the/our word had started.

Where Scotland leapfrogs - what was the push in innovation?
By 1775, Scotland is the most literate society in Europe, yet those who had gone to America were holding on to their culture - the culture, now, of a hundred years ago. Already there were "digital divides" of a sort, where Scotland was leading the way into the Enlightenment while America dawdled in its past.

Adam_smith How was Scotland leading the way? Adam Smith (left) was working out the economic dividends of the division of labour, while James Watt was busy inventing the steam engine. The Gregorys & Munros, in Glasgow and Edinburgh respectively, were teaching medicine & Darwin - that is, the Munros were really teaching Charles Darwin. Cadell was jointly responsible for coming up with the idea of the modern factory, basing his capital investment on the work of fellow Scot Smith.

Meanwhile, as the Scots continue to sail to America and spread the word, James Lind found that citrus fruits stop scurvy. This was useful in 1785 for one Captain James Cook, argued by many as a Scot by birth, who was discovering the worlds beyond America. Back home John Pringle realises that the field hospital needed invented to stop doctors being blown up in the battlefield. John McAdam started to pave Scotland's roads with his invention, tarmacadam, or tarmac.

Telford Between 1793-1812 the self-taught lad o' pairts Thomas Telford (left) started building some of the world's most impressive aqueducts while Henry Bell was the first to successfully commercialise the steamboat, on the River Clyde. Meanwhile, on land, George Stephenson set the railways in motion using Watt's steam engines. This is a huge innovation for the cotton mills, invented by fellow Scot Archie Buchanan while another, David Dale, came up with the concept of the factory town.

In health, Scots come up with some amazing innovations at this time. Charles White started the first infimary, in Manchester, England, and John Farrier put standards at the top of the priority list by inventing the Board of Health. James Simpson happily invented anesthetic while another Scot, William McEwen, thankfully came up with some antiseptic. Samuel Smiles finished the 19th Century do-gooding with his appreciation, quite distinct from the rest of the UK, that where private money can pay, the private money should pay.

Innovation's effects on education
When the 1872 Education Act came along, frankly, most of its aims had been met, including equality of access to education for the sexes, the Act itself bringing in compulsory schooling. This formalised a nationalised ideal of public education, secular now instead of supported by the church, with cultural uniformity traceable to the Reformation, another strong part of Scottish education. Illiteracy survived but was stigmatised and deplored by the church and the secular authorities, and the ability to read and write was broad enough to support the beginnings of a tradition of working class self-education and self-improvement. A lifelong education already had small wings.

As an industrial pioneer the class differences were marked, so the myth of universal and democratic education was important to attempt to cut through these divisions.
John Stuart Mill, pulling on the last of our Scottish heros, in Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help, writes:

“The worth of a state, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it.”

It's this attitude, of individuals making up the whole, of small pieces loosely joined, that makes Scotland at least some 150 years ahead of the Live Web, Web 2.0, School 2.0 movements.

Technology and curriculum: YouTube in 1940
1888 saw the introduction of the Higher exam, which was still celebrating its birthday 100 years later.

In the 1940s educational technology made its first appearance, in the form of the Scottish Central Film Library, sending out 4000 16mm films every week to schools across Scotland's mainland and islands. School was the place where many children discovered film and television for the first time. The organisation was split in 1974 into the Scottish Film Council and SCET, which later became part of Learning and Teaching Scotland, for whom I work today.

1990s: Reinforcing the professionalism of the teacher
Scotland's always historically been in relative poverty and so the notion that parents would look after the interests of their own children at the expense of others provoked a degree of cultural and moral revulsion when more 'choice' was offered. For example, there was very little take up of the Self-Governing Schools act of 1989 - equality and social unity might be as much myth as reality but it's not important; it's what the people believed). School Boards were largely rejected by parents who had no desire to interfere with the professionalism of the teacher. They did not take over the running of a school from a Head Teacher, taking a minimalist platform.

Policy was developed logically and managerially: conception, development, implementation and evaluation. Once the framework was decided the emphasis was, tragically, on delivery and action:

"Endless reflection on issues of meaning and purpose is seen as unprofitable, an intellectual luxury"
(from Scottish Education, a quote from Scottish Office Minister Forsyth in the early 1990s - has this changed?)

In 1988 the Highers celebrated their 100th birthday, but there was now recognition of too much cramming along with the Standard Grade which replaced the O Level. There was a vocal desire to educate, not examine, and a revised system is ushered in.

Teachers now used self-evaluation with superiors to identify professional development opportunities, rather than to root out the incompetent.

In the 21st century before it begins

"Building generic skills for the 21st century to let Scotland flourish in the Information Age and the knowledge"

This is a quote from a report, written by Nigel Paine of SCET, the former technology and education organisation, in 1999. It's ahead of its time by perhaps four years, but its sentiment lives on in everything we do in Scottish education, or at least everything we strive for.

So how does one start to understand the success stories of Scottish education, social media, gaming and other technologies? Well, you need to appreciate this strong past, this foundation on which we are building, in order to understand why there is less floundering than we see in other parts of the world. It also reveals the struggles that remain and why some things aren't happening faster, that continual resistance to change but the "publish and be damned" attitude of the innovators who pushed the envelope.

It might be helpful, also, to ask yourself the same questions as I have:

  1. What are your guiding myths?
  2. Have emerging technologies through the ages, and now, always led to emerging practices?
  3. Do your students own their own learning path?
  4. Are you meeting children at their (high) creative level?

However, there is also a new set of values which is driving at the core of changing the practice of our teachers. This set of values and strategies are what we will look at in the following two posts in this three-part series.


Next, How Public Is Your Public Body? and We're adopting! An Adoption Strategy for Social Media.

Image credits:  |  Scottish football = social media  |  Robert The Bruce myths  |  Early university: Marischal  |  16mm film


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Fascinating and far-reaching! Fits in nicely with How the Scots Invented the Modern World which I'm currently reading.

I think it also fits in nicely with a comment that John Connell (I think) made about Scotland being an ideal size for making the changes we see as being necessary. It's large enough to support big changes, and small enough to make them feasible.

I'm really looking forward to the rest of this series.

A tour de force, Ewan - thank you. And you're right, of course - I disagree with some details, but they do not matter, because the message it absolutely right, and one I have been arguing for for such a long time!

@Neil - I used the book for large swathes of research. Slap on the wrists to me for not including a references further up.
@John - your blogging gave me a great starting point for the whole thing of myths - you won me over!

The Cook reference is questionable. But you could replace him with David Hume, a contemporary of Adam Smith and arguably a lot more important.

But the main thing I want to observe, is that there are many similarities between the Scotland of the late 1700s and Canada of the present age.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

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.

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