March 06, 2009

Is education's transformation just down to the teachers?

I've explored before how the number one element in quality education systems is the teacher, according to the growing pile of research. But do parents and the children themselves not have independent roles that, regardless of teacher intervention, have their effect on the course of education's transformation? Of course, they do.

There is, after all, an undeniable role of parents in the faring of their offspring, a role that is often better fulfilled, though not as a rule, in more affluent areas than poor ones, more university-educated communities than not. There are even the first glimmers of this correlation in some maps coming out of the USA, with more, I hope, to follow from 4iP's work in the mapping domain, making English schools maps like this and impenetrable uncomparable Scottish banks of data like this begin to tell the stories behind the data.

We've also seen the importance of parents, top management and full complements of school staff both understanding the point, the issues and the opportunities of using, say, social media in the classroom, or undertaking active learning techniques or coupling them with games technology. The eduBuzz social media platform and community I helped create with David Gilmour in 2005 goes from strength to strength, building an open platform and enticing small passionate groups onto it. To some degree, it has tended to ask for forgiveness later rather than stop trying now, let people in for the richness they have to offer, and rarely chucked - or had to chuck - anyone out.

But eduBuzz moments are in the minority. I don't think parents feel as involved or in control of the more overarching elements of their children's destiny as education policy wonks would have us believe. I also know firsthand how quickly one falls from being "in education" to being "out of education": within weeks of starting work at Channel 4 I was no longer a 'teacher' but a 'media' person (can't I be both?), and I've oft heard the remark of whether someone who's not an active teacher can ever have anything worthwhile to say about education and learning (from consultants to pushy parents...).

We have over the past 10 years talked increasingly of the importance of professionalism of teachers, though the policy-talk has a long way to go before being translated into action in some areas. But, as Julie Lindsay pointed out in a discussion this morning, it's maybe long overdue that we start conferring that same professionalism, with its responsibilities and expectations, on parenting and on young people. For young people, this means caring enough about what they have to say on learning to take major decisions on the back of it. For parents, it means helping parents in parenting as well as giving them a reason to want to think about learning (and not just when their child starts to falter or when they're seeking out a new school).

Local schools often do a great job in communicating to teachers, if not always at providing platforms that allow them/us/the kids to respond, question and bring to account publicly. But on some of our biggest ongoing education transformation discussions we all have to ask two questions:

  • Are we taking our debates global enough to see how what we're doing is different from or building on others' successes? Given that most education systems' reforms resemble each other - the UK's nations almost to the letter - it could be concluded that we are not pushing the boundaries of thought far enough, just settling for what one long-past (2002!) public consultation said we wanted. The reason there are not more public consultations is that they are time-consuming and tend to halt development, but this is merely a problem of the 19th century way in which we cultivate those consultations - by email, forum, over a fixed period of time. Where Sky TV employ a Twitter-based reporter, maybe everyone in Government and education policy needs to spend more time listening to the reams of electronic chatter that can steer projects towards more up-to-date conclusions.
    Online networking for teachers and most public servants remains a niche activity. I firmly believe that discussion around pedagogy needs to take place beyond the echo chamber of one school's staffroom or VLE (affected by its school policy) and arguably beyond one nation's intranet (where views cannot be challenged or questioned by those working outside the system).
  • Are we taking decisions on pedagogy or are we taking decisions on curriculum and assessment that affect pedagogy in unexpected ways? By acting merely on two parts of the equation - Curriculum and Assessment - most education systems fail in the execution. Time and space spent on developing the execution, the pedagogy, is nearly always lacking, and left to the 'stars' of a given school to do in their own time, with little opportunity to share with colleagues, parents and even students why changes in pedagogy might be worthwhile.

Pic: All Rights Reserved: Binxie


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I do not have the insight to comment on the main points in your blog post but as a parent and someone who has worked in the web industry for too long, I would like to make the following comment.

I recently worked on a project to kick off the design of the next generation solution for a leading UK learning community vendor. Having been involved in designing web solutions for over 10 years, including one of the biggest elearning projects of it time in NI, I have to say, speaking as a solution architect, a parent and trying to view it all through the eyes of a child, that this project was potentially one of the most exciting client projects I have worked on. When you treat technology purely as a facilitator and start to consider how different communities from around the world can connect with one another; how each and every user from within can be empowered to engage in authentic personalised learning; where Teachers can be students, students can be a teachers, as can a parent or even a representative from a local business; and where there are no geographical boundaries enabling connections to take place within the Cloud - the possibilities are endless.

So much lip service seems to be played by politicians and too many negative voices, from within the teaching community, seems to be listened to. In my experience there is great enthusiasm and belief in the role technology can play, particularly from the generation of teachers coming through. However there does seem to be a lack the joined up thinking or funds required to really maximise the potential available. The danger is this potential will not be reached because the public sector is too slow, seems to overcomplicate everything and is entangled in red tape to push this forward, whilst the private sector is in too much of a hurry, lacks the funds or is too focused on competition to give it the time needed to get it right – resulting in solutions that don't quite deliver.

Thanks for letting me get that off my chest:-)

twitter: @mistersmeetme

I am part of an initiative in a number of New Zealand schools aimed at raising Maori achievement. In simple terms the cornerstone of the project is building respectful learning relationships in the classroom.

Of course all the external factors you mention have importance but as a classroom teacher what can I change - can I change the home background? the financial well being of the student? the space they have to work in? Of course not. The only place that I have any power to make any change that may impact positively on the students and their academic outcomes is inside my classroom.

Hi, Ewan

It seems that there are some issues here that lack definition.

You can talk about "great teachers," but what does that mean? High test scores? Broad coverage of content? Brilliant pedagogy?

As your keynote at ECIS suggested, we don't have as much control over the learning process as we would like to believe. Since students learn so much outside of school, that our approach to building learning communities may need to change to simply trying to understand learning communities as we do our work.

In the end, maybe the interpersonal communication skills (and emotional intelligence) may be what really makes a "great teacher," if we are demoting content and curriculum in the equation. Not surprisingly, those same skills may be what makes a "great parent."

In the end, maybe the professionalism we'd like to reach for is on the realm of building strong relationships between teachers and students, as well as between parents and children. The content, learning and assessment may all take a second place to this in the end (and happen in spectrum of opportunities in and out of school).


Hi Ewan,

My 8 yr old son jumped up and down like a kangaroo when I told him I might be interested in looking at some of his games because this is what I had learned at the ECIS Tech Conference. He said it's one of the best things that ever happened to him!(worrying)We've already created a character in Runescape for me. Hmm....

There is something about harnessing a student's affinities and strengths (Mel Levine:All Kinds of Minds)in planning engaging lessons. My son is representative of our future students in High School so it's not hard to see the value of looking at what games can offer teachers. Now we 40+ teachers need to give the games a go and see what they're all about.

I teach students with SEN so this approach is particularly interesting in teaching the harder to teach, but as ever, what works for these students will also be useful for all students.

For this to fly at my school we teachers need common planning time to share ideas and work collaboratively to link games to curricular objectives and to make introducing new ideas like this a reality.

If you support these core initiatives:

• Effective, empowered teachers and school leaders;
• Student assessments that stress 21st century skills;
• Universal access to high-quality early education;
• A safe, healthy learning environment; and
• Affordable college for all students;

Then let President Obama know! Visit EDVOTERS.ORG and sign the petition today!

In the end, maybe the interpersonal communication skills (and emotional intelligence) may be what really makes a "great teacher," if we are demoting content and curriculum in the equation. Not surprisingly, those same skills may be what makes a "great parent."

I created an Alternative Education Program in our Special School about 18 months ago. It filled a need for those students that were disengaged. We have often used the analogy of square pegs in round holes because the students opted out of the education system, they didn't fit the mold, so they moved on.

In a nutshell what worked with these students was relationships. Not anything like a traditional teacher/student relationship, but a real, connecting relationship. The adults in the room focused on modeling what attributes a good relationship has. Unfortunately parents are not much of a positive influence on the students, either through absence or abuse.

Two of the students in particular have completely turned their lives around, with 2 others well on the way. Don't underestimate the value of a good relationship in the students life. Sometimes it can only be found in their school!

18 months ago ?

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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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