I’ve been quite strongly affected by news of the protests by young people against HE teaching cuts, against the tripling of tuition fees, the removal of the Education Maintenance Allowance for 16-19 year olds and cuts across a great board of social and cultural provision. You notice I’ve written a long list of things that students are protesting about? It seems a bit longer than the press reports, which focus on the tuition fees. But, really the list is this long and more. It’s pretty clear that a lot of young people are frantically worried about their prospects for future employment and, beyond that, the incomprehensible threat of global warming.
Most of the young people who tried to march last week (but were prevented by being kettled for hours) were school children. They were charged twice by police on horseback and some were punched and hit with truncheons. They can’t vote until they are 18 but they all have Citizenship lessons that tell them it is their right and responsibility to be critical of decision-makers, to express their voice. They are taught Citizenship (or teach themselves) well enough to know that even when they do have a vote, it won’t give them proper representation. They see our deputy PM breaking an earlier pledge to abolish tuition fees, and a Coalition with no proper mandate rushing decisions without consultation. They see MPs that care so little about sustaining the future of the planet that only 12 of them turned up to debate the country’s climate policy at Cancun.
I was affected by the young protesters partly because it stirred memories of my own experience. At my secondary school, I took a day off and got a 4 hour coach to London to march against education cuts. I was disciplined for it and that felt unjust. The education cuts in the early 1980s were 15% from a higher baseline than now and they were devastating for two decades. Those cuts are the reason why HE is relatively efficient (perhaps more in its teaching than some of its research projects). I am struggling to understand how universities will cope with the cuts to teaching grants imposed now. Many of these universities contribute a great deal to the cultural and creative capital of the UK.
I was only 14 when I marched in London. I was driven by my wish to do a university degree, because my parents had not been able to go to university and I was fearful that these cuts threatened my future chances. The reality was that I was lucky enough to do a degree without having to pay fees. The situation for our children now is far worse.
Although I was very obedient as a teenager (I hated to be in trouble) I was also very political. I could see so clearly what was wrong and I needed to protest. Above all I was a pacifist. I demonstrated against nuclear weapons and for environmental conservation. In being someone who tends towards global and abstract ways of thinking, others saw in me a kind of grandiosity and began to bully me. Unfortunately, I took to heart the criticisms from my more docile peers and the discipline from teachers. I didn’t want to be seen as different. I wanted to be seen as good and I wanted to be successful. I wish now that I had been more radical and consistently so. It seems more important now than ever to make our voices heard to people who hold power (not just politicians, but also corporations, wealthy individuals, the media etc), to do it in a way that is non-aggressive and creative, to keep imagining and expressing better ways of running the world.
I hope the young protesters have not been disheartened. We need them to be seen and heard, and we need to be there with them and guide them to maintain a non-violent stance.
I’m working on a project right now that involves looking at the Learning Outside the Classroom scheme. This has been running since 2006, supported mainly by DCSF. It began as a manifesto to promote schools getting out to explore the natural and built environment, to get active and engage with culture. It has now grown to include a Quality Badge for providers and guidance on how to get the best out of different sectors.
It looks to me a scheme that will survive whatever bonfire (and regrowth) of quangos happens after the election (though don’t hold me to ransom for saying it). One reason is that it has been established, and is well run, as an independent charity (the Council for LOTC). I also think it will succeed because it is comprehensive enough to provide an efficient infrastructure for maximum value. It’s not focused on single regions or sectors of provision.
However, the more comprehensive any scheme the more robust you need your information system to be. It is extremely difficult to portray the landscape of ‘enhancement providers’ or resources for schools. That challenge is being tackled by BECTA in a major taxonomic exercise in the creation of a digital content ecosystem for education. LOTC is only dealing with a subset of that, offers that are primarily outside the classroom. But I think their information system is rather confusing, as you can see in the sliding racks on their home page. There are several categories of provider that don’t fit their categories, such as libraries and science centres. Museums and galleries are within heritage, which is unusual. There isn’t an overt attempt to explore a range of practice that blurs the boundaries between the classroom and beyond it (e.g. using mobile technologies or creating museums in schools). I wonder whether, if this could be redevised as a strongly digital service, responding to users’ own terminologies and heirarchies, it would function much better.
I needed to test Gliffy, a free online tool for making diagrams, so I spent a quick 20 minutes working up a visualisation that shows a spiral of provision outwards from the classroom. I didn’t particularly like Gliffy, and because it was a bit clunky, I didn’t make a very clear or finished diagram. But, the picture is starting to suggest a more complex but understandable way of categorising offers outside the classroom. The only issue is that my model assumes a fairly urban context for schools, where built environment is more accessible to them than countryside, wilderness or adventure. Most schools are in such a situation but not all. Maybe the LOTC service could be developed so that you could configure the map according to your context?
Overall the point I’m making is that LOTC has been devised mainly as a manifesto, an accreditation system and a means of ensuring child safety on trips. There is a mountain of great, worthwhile guidance in here but it is all one way, and relatively buried. It hasn’t been devised as a digital service. The website has emerged to provide information about LOTC. But this is different from an approach where tools such as visualisation, user tagging, data feeds and also a wider web strategy, are fundamental to the thinking about how the service can be effective.
If the brilliant LOTC scheme is to survive and be effective it should really be looking now at reinventing itself with digital engagement, including more voices of teachers, CYP and providers, and more visual content.
Frank Furedi in ‘Turning Children into Orwellian Eco-Spies’ warns that there are resonances of Stalinism in the new orthodoxy by which we use children to teach adults about climate change. I have concerns about the same phenomenon but I’m coming from very different perspectives on both education and the environment. I’ve also had qualms when meeting people who are convinced that the solution to climate change is to educate children. The reasons for my qualms are many: It’s too late to wait until children are running the world; they can’t vote until 18 so if we should focus on educating anyone it’s the late middle-aged and elderly, who make up the majority of voters; it doesn’t seem fair to put the onus on children. The main reason I baulk is that The Government’s reductive and misguided response to every problem (the root cause of which is usually gross inequality or unchecked capitalism) is to add yet another subject to the curriculum. Firstly these expensive initiatives are based on a misconception, that children will learn by being taught a lesson, by teachers who have been told to deliver compulsory lessons. Secondly, every time a new lesson is added, the less time there is for learning that might help children adapt to a difficult future.
Furedi has written a book called ‘Wasted, Why Education isn’t Educating’ in which he decries the erosion of traditional disciplines by endless additions of trendy topics (for example in the Rose Review of the Primary Curriculum). In the article he says that environmentalism is infecting every subject, such as geography and history (as if they’re not utterly relevant to those subjects). I’m not concerned so much about the death of traditional disciplines in schools, but more that those in power are so wedded to the idea of subjects per se, old or new, that they continually add more to the diet. I’m not so concerned that the environment is infecting every subject, than that ecological systems thinking has been and still is so absent from education. Furedi conflates environmental topics with ‘scare-mongering’, but, on the contrary, effective environmental education is not about frightening people. It is about empowering them, helping them develop adaptive coping strategies. The more that is understood about a frightening scenario, the more people are able to resist and cope.
I suspect that if we framed school learning differently, whereby children had more involvement in deciding what enquiries are relevant, they would decide pretty quickly that the environment is pretty relevant. If we made clear to them that learning is about preparing for the future, that to live well in the future they would need to learn how to solve problems, co-operate, access knowledge and design new solutions, they would gravitate towards the biggest problems. Furedi’s position is that our current education philosophies undermine the authority of adults. I believe that adults (in affluent societies) have eroded their own authority by becoming infantilised, yet we form myths around the gravity and arduousness of an adult working life. We underestimate the ability of children and young people to think because we have forgotten how to think ourselves. We have progressed into a state of mature denial, treating problems too abstractly, too much in isolation and too much as issues for agonistic debate.
On Saturday, we visited the Hunterian museum in the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. http://www.rcseng.ac.uk/museums
It was recently refurbished, beautifully, and is just one of those perfect museum experiences. It is small enough not to be exhausting, rich enough not to be exhausted in one visit. It stretches your thinking about the history of education, about looking and disgust, about the representation of difference and disease, and about museums as curiosity cabinets. It makes you marvel at the skill of surgeons (there’s an interactive where you try your skill at keyhole surgery – impossible!) It offers accessible interactivity (discovery drawers and so on) without spoiling the aesthetic integrity of the displays. There are some really quite shocking objects, for example a realistic model that shows many possible plastic surgery operations. For all its realism, it looks at first glance like a monster. You feel your mind reeling away then control yourself and pull your eyes back to the wounds and distortions to learn more. I was wondering whether many teachers would resist organising a visit there because they would worry about the children’s reactions. I’d be interested to know how school groups behave there. Our 6 year old daughter has no squeamishness whatsoever but was happy to sit and draw ghostly bats and the Irish giant’s skeleton (see picture). I wonder whether she is completely unsqueamish because she takes after her father (who does lots of anatomical drawing) or because she has become inured by visiting the Bodies exhibition and so many medical museums. It is a little of both perhaps…
Brief update: Flow Associates helped the Hunterian with fundraising for a fantastic project called Exhibiting Difference. This was recently successful so watch this blog for more news as it takes shape.
Anyone who has worked with me will be shocked. I’ve said ad nauseam that museums are all about learning more than any other function. So what am I saying? I’ve been thinking hard about learning in the process of setting up a new company Flow Associates. What if we said that schools and other learning centres are not about learning but about making, if their purpose is not primarily to impart & test facts & skills but to make makers? But how can making be valid in the information age when craft is less important than abilities to access information across many modes? I mean that we need makers of:
Self: Reflecting, growing, relating
Things: Texts, artworks, products
Meanings: Seeing patterns, links, purposes
Solutions: New ideas and applications
Enterprises: Creating projects and businesses
Changes: Sharing ideas, applying solutions
The world: Expanding realms of action
At the weekend I might say to my daughter, what shall we make today? We’ll make cakes, pictures, dancing shows or plaits in her hair. I might also say, what shall we play? We might invent a new skipping game or a display of cuddly toys. I don’t think I ever say to her, what shall we learn today or what skills shall we practice today? That isn’t natural in a conversation between adult and child. As a fairly academic learner myself, I still struggled to be motivated by formal learning which is driven ultimately by prospects of certificates or good marks or by the threat of failure. Some rare people may be disciplined and able to practice skills for the sake of proving that they’re getting better at them or to be able to read a book when ordered. But what are they disciplined by? I would guess they are either disciplined by fear or they have an extraordinary ability to see a longer-term application of their efforts now, or an uncomfortable swing between the two depending on the particular activity. How many times have children heard teachers say ‘You come here to learn’? What if we changed the record to ‘You come here to change the world’?
There’s a long set of responses to Jackie Ashley’s article on Susan Greenfield’s warning to the House of Lords about the need to research the effect of technology on our brains and the way children think and learn.
Here’s my post to the Comment is Free blog on the Guardian site:
I thought I’d have a proper read of Susan Greenfield’s piece rather than pick over Jackie Ashley’s muddled article. Greenfield skims over a lot of ground, conflates lots of ideas and begs loads of questions, but I think she means well in arguing, ironically, that the key skill in education is learning how to ‘pose appropriate, meaningful questions’. She also supports Futurelab’s work, which is good work because it positively embraces the potential of new technology to generate enquiring minds. She is calling for an open debate and I would suggest that an agency like Futurelab is best placed to articulate the questions. However, it’s fun to pick holes so I can’t resist pointing out where she begs some questions: 1) She assumes that young people aren’t reading sustained narratives anymore. But I remember seeing that there had been a huge increase in children reading fiction (need to check that though). In my schooling, 23-34 years ago-ish, we didn’t read sustained narratives but bits of text on the blackboard and in worksheets. My sustained reading was voluntary. If you look at the 50 years of mass secondary education, much of the effective learning would be through crafts, science experiments, physical and social activity. Very few children learn mostly through reading and writing, although some do and then they may find the time for sustained reading out of school. 2) She says that in a multimedia presentation ‘you would be having an experience not learning’. But doesn’t brain-based learning theory say that you learn through sensory reinforcements and experiences? 3) She assumes that children are spending most of their time learning via screens and seems to have wiped teachers and other mentors out of the equation. I understood that access to ICT and multimedia presentations in schools was still too limited. 4) She assumes that children or teachers don’t make time to reflect or talk during or after seeing a multimedia presentation or film. She suggests that films (e.g. films of books) will make us lose our imaginations, but films can inspire children to read books, write books, write comics, invent new stories, imagine other worlds, want to travel, want to solve the world’s problems. The heart of the issue she raises is the ‘wow’ and ‘yuck’ factor, that our responses to stimuli will become too superficial. The way to avoid this is to invest in education, to ensure that education enables young people to develop critical thinking skills, to take ownership of their learning and to learn through experience, through problem solving, and to have as much access as possible to web-based information, films, books, sounds and more to help them solve these problems.
I watched Yo Beckles on TV last night, working with 3 bright and funny kids from Fortismere School, having read the media controversy about her. I’m pretty sure any teacher could have done a better job than she did, if they were given the time to focus on coaching 3 kids. Many teachers would have taken a more subtle approach, more suited to these questioning kids. The programme missed many opportunities to ask questions about what education could be and how these kids could actually help to change it. Just as Yo’s single colour is purple, the single issue hammered home was ‘you have to play the game, do what the teacher tells you, no questions asked, work hard, because if you don’t….’ These students were into sport, drama, music and computers. Yo got them to look at achievers in these fields and translate that ambition into their academic work. Pressure was put on the students and their parents. But there was no discussion with teachers about opportunities to integrate music, drama, sport or creative computing into their subject. There was no talk about how to harness the passion, practical skills and wit of these kids. There must surely be lots of teaching at the school that does engage these kids in such ways but we didn’t see it. The impression formed was that for too much of the school day, individuals have to subjugate themselves, sit still and quiet in boring classrooms, tackle abstract subjects by soaking in words in order to regurgitate them for exam success. The programme budget could have been better spent on curriculum experiments, enabling teachers to break from the norm, enabling students to be challenging, funny, different and productive. These students were being encouraged by Yo to work only for their personal success, not for the community or for bigger goals. Personalised learning shouldn’t mean just learning for your own gain but working in teams, contributing your strengths and your questions, learning from those of others.