I was delighted to see a 4 page ‘Special Pullout’ in last week’s edition of London’s Evening Standard, which sported the headline ‘Future Learning’.
The first article contained a summary of 100 education academics’ warning to the UK government that the content of the new curriculum is so focused on rote learning rather than learning with a comprehensible context that it risks becoming meaningless. In the article Paul Collard, CEO of Creativity, Culture and Education, who has just spoken at this year’s excellent WISE Summit in Doha, Qatar, observed that ‘We all want good results for our young people and for them to learn and develop. However, what we test is the acquisition of a narrow collection of facts, not whether we have the skills to succeed in employment, not whether we have the capacity to build and maintain, the ingredients of a fruitful adulthood… Creative teaching nurtures and develops these skills by creating a learning environment in which pupils are challenged, rather than directed, where learning is relevant to their lives.’
The WISE Summit is the world’s premier international platform dedicated to innovation and creative action in education, so there is little surprise that organisations such as the Confederation of British Industries (CBI) have joined the chorus of dissent, including UK Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt, against England’s increasing exam factory culture.
But there is nothing new here. Take a look at this clip from the 2009 film ‘We Are The People We Have Been Waiting For’ in which Bill Bryson, Sir Ken Robinson, Germaine Greer and Henry Winkler, amongst others, talk powerfully about the emptiness of the factory model of learning. Yet here, 5 years later, is the WISE Summit 2014 and The Evening Standard delivering yesterday’s news.
There are alternatives. Graham Brown-Martin, erstwhile hero of the excellent London based conference ‘Learning Without Frontiers’ continues the theme of context over content in an article encouraging a worldwide ‘classroom reboot’. Having toured the world for four months in search of the very best use of connected devices to support learning in classrooms, Graham discovered that world leaders such as High Tech High in San Diego and Essa Academy in Bolton had learnt to blend technology into the pupils’ environment. Interactive Whiteboards were ripped out and replaced with Apple TVs, courses were made available 24/7 through iTunes U and lessons were adjusted to allow longer, broader study periods.
Yet these ideas are hardly the radical reboot that Brown-Martin urges us to embrace. There are very few innovations listed in High Tech High, California that my own school in Birmingham, UK has not implemented, for a very modest outlay. TV studios, radio stations, Animations suites, 24/7 flipped learning tutorials and site wide Apple TVs (instead of IWBs) linking classes and enabling pupils to publish their ideas to their classmates are all common place for us. This is not future learning, it is already here.
Don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly endorse the view expressed in this Evening Standard Special Pullout around the WISE 2014 theme of Imagine – Create – Learn. However, a reboot is going to require greater ambition than mere technological transformation, if the slow moving wheels of national government, regional sub-districts or large educational organisations are going to transform education like Brown-Martin hopes. The good news is that the real reboot required won’t cost a penny. And yet it is the most challenging demand that our education systems and organisations face and a change which they are seemingly very reluctant to embrace. The greatest reboot of the 21st century schooling agenda is the shift to an emotionally intelligent understanding of how adults working in schools can be inspired.
Imagination, Creativity and Learning are all strategic attitudes that organisations may, or may not nurture in their school staff. In previous posts I have commented on the common sense of that world-beating province, Finland, in not attempting to make individual schools outstanding, but instead to ensure that every one of its schools is at least good. Unsurprisingly, very many of their schools then became outstanding. Why is this? Largely because there was a spirit of collaboration between them, not competition, an emotional intelligence to the organisational strategic leadership of a large number of schools that is often lacking elsewhere. School leaders are not inspired by castigation, humiliation and derision. That is a very 19th century model of understanding how people work. They need inspiring and encouraging if they are to imagine new ways of achieving great heights in their own context. Is this any surprise? It shouldn’t be: we wouldn’t accept it for our students and we shouldn’t accept it for our teachers and school leaders.
The fixated and narrow approach of the GERM model of education, much criticised by Pasi Sahlberg and Yong Zhao, is the context in which school leaders are struggling. Incessant grade watching, or ‘weighing the pig’, does not improve the calculated risk taking, imaginative creation and improvement of world class schools. The content of the various programmes the schools deliver is quite irrelevant in contrast to this far more important lever on school improvement. Are the leaders and teachers free to fail, to improve and to achieve better? And are they positively or only negatively encouraged to continually improve and innovate? If the whole spirit of the organisation and its context is not positive then it will embody limited future vision, the school improvement will have a glass ceiling or it will produce highly articulate, superbly qualified, yet ineffective future employees.
This is the reboot that is required: breathtakingly ambitious, well supported and nurtured leadership, which cascades that same context and those same qualities to all staff and students. All the technology in High Tech High pales in to insignificance compared to the transformative effect of this kind of support from provinces, school districts or para-organisations on school leaders and teachers. Chicago’s failed attempt at leveraging improvement through the wholesale distribution of iPads is testimony to that.
Dr Abdulla bin Ali Al-Thani, chairman of WISE, observes that ‘When you look at what is going on on the world today, it is clear that the need for innovation in education has never been so urgent. This means we need to think bigger and show more determination in our quest to bring innovation to the field of education.’ I am sure that that sentiment is right. However, the important qualification is that the innovation so badly needed is not centred on technology, as important as that is to modern engagement.
Instead, innovation can only be delivered by giving schools and school leaders the energy, encouragement and inspiration to keep taking risks. After all, the winner is not the one that takes least knocks, but the one who keeps getting up again. Let us hope that all educational leadership groups, wherever they are, embrace this WISE understanding of school leaders’ contexts and truly inspire them to achieve greatness.
As Stavros Yiannouka, CEO of WISE, says, ‘No doubt the education challenges faced by communities around the globe are varied, complex and daunting. However, WISE is confident that as we sort our priorities to supporting creativity in all facets of our education systems, and as we encourage partnership and collaboration, we can make a great difference in building the future of education.’