Posts filed under ‘Learning environments’

Peripatetic me – amongst the washing up

Monday 30th July 2012 – Day one of my peripatetic journey.

If you don’t know what this is all about, and why would you, I shall explain as succinctly as I can.

For the last 10 years (at least) the Vivid office has overlooked the splendour of the Royal Pavilion here in Brighton. On a daily basis I have strolled from my house, by Queens Park, down Edward Street to the office on the Old Steine to attend to Vivid business around this bustling centre of the city.

Last week we, Vivid staff, moved out of that office with no new office to replace it. We moved out because the owners of the building are seeking vacant possession so that they can sell it. In some ways it suited us because in, any case, most of the people who work with us do so remotely maintaining contact through digital communications, getting face to face only periodically. This is the reality of the increasingly mobile digital world we live in, a reality that actually renders our office with it’s splendid views a luxury rather than a necessity.

Functionally the office had become a means of getting me out of the house, a place where others could occasionally work when we needed them, a mailing address, an anchor. But latterly none of this has been essential to the work we undertake. Indeed our recent award winning (winner of the British Council ELTon award for innovation in learning resources) development of the Sounds app for Macmillan Publishers was undertaken virtually (ha,ha) wholly remotely by the complete team.

So we have complete confidence in our ability to maintain the very highest of standards of the work we undertake whilst operating remotely, and indeed save a bit of cash by ridding ourselves of the permanent physical office overhead.

But there is another important reason for the decision to become mobile. I spend a significant amount of my time describing my vision of the education ‘system’ of the future, a vision that has personalisation, in which each individual can undertake their own unique lifelong learning journey which feeds their individual talents and aspirations, at its core. This is made possible because of digital technology with mobile technology an important component of this.

In essence digital technology rids us of the necessity for a single teacher to teach 30 pupils the same thing, in the same place, at the same time. Now 30 people can be learning 30 different things at any one time. This means that ‘place’ takes on a different aspect. The school building was designed to coral pupils into one place for the purpose of being taught. Now there is a growing recognition that the role of teacher is changing from one of teaching to one of enabling learning, and that learning takes place in a variety of ways, individually and collaboratively.

With mobile technology people can be undertaking learning activities, digitally, individually or collaboratively anytime, anywhere. This doesn’t mean that physical presence, getting together, is not important, or indeed essential, but that such events do not have to be undertaken in the one place called school, between the hours of 9.00am and 3.00pm, during term time.

Thus education itself becomes peripatetic, weaved into our lives, as part of our lives, a combination of individual and collective effort, on-line and off-line, digital and physical, here and there.

In this 21st century, with ‘always with, always on’ technology in most of our hands, the boundaries between learning, working and playing are diminishing. The way that place defines our lives is shifting, the need to delineate the places to learn, to work, and to play is becoming redundant. Whilst my vision for education is of a more dispersed environment, so my vision for the workplace is the same, indeed they are inter related.

Our decision to explore the reality of this, by going mobile is us ‘putting our money where our mouths are’, saying that the future we foresee is happening now. For me it is living my life within the philosphies I profess to.

This ‘diary’ is a device to track progress, to document the highs and lows of this journey, to establish what works and what doesn’t.

My first act is to sit amongst the washing up in my kitchen at home and write this. More later….

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August 1, 2012 at 7:51 am Leave a comment

Ditch the acronyms (DtA)!

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So holidays have faded into the background, kids are back at school grinding their way through a new term, I’m trying to make sense of the ‘system’.

To do this I thought it might be useful to review the current state of the various government schemes for education that have been developed over the last few years. As a specialist in digital media for education I consider that I have a reasonable grasp of these.

As a starting point I made a list of acronyms of these schemes with their actual definitions with the intention of reviewing the current state of play with each one. Initially I came up with about a dozen or so of these including things like bsf (Building Schools for the Future), ECM (Ever Child Matters), AfL (Assessment for Learning), HTG (Harnessing Technology Grants) etc..

Then I read the ‘National Strategies Annual Plan Summary’ for 2009-2010 which at 45 pages is a helluva summary and lists in an annex 65 acronyms that are used within it. This makes the ‘summary’ virtually incomprehensible. Here is a typical example:

‘A significant number of LA’s are struggling to mainstream NPSLBA within their school improvement services and their CPD offer and need to target recruitment of priority schools and with PRU leaders and staff to NPSLBA.’

Even when you decode this it doesn’t make any sense. It is little wonder that our education system is in a state of apparent disarray when such a plethora of acronyms abound.

One of the difficulties, I think, is the attempt to force uniformity on an education system that actually needs diversity if it is to be appropriate for the 21st century. As a useful report about barriers to innovation in education produced by Futurelab puts it:

“…(education policy) should be committed to promoting, encouraging, archiving and sharing the development of widely diverse educational responses in order to ensure that there is diversity in the system to allow adaptation whatever changes emerge, rather than seeking out and disseminating universal and uniform solutions.”

The attempt to impose uniformity, and the failure of that attempt, can be aptly illustrated with the framework of Personal Learning and Thinking Skills (PLTS). This framework neatly divides the essential skills ‘that will enable young people to enter work and adult life as confident and capable individuals’, into the six categories of, independent enquirers, creative thinkers, reflective learners, team workers, self-managers, and effective participators. Having made these divisions the framework then helpfully points out that:

“The groups are interconnected. Young people are likely to encounter skills from several groups in any one learning experience.”

In other words every child is an individual. Any teacher worth their salt already knows this and, within the constraints of class numbers, will respond to each child appropriately. Unfortunately the PLTS framework simply panders to the misconceived desire to package every child according to a single set of rules, ‘universal and uniform solutions’.

I do understand the temptation to think this way. With an average class of 30 kids it seems to make things so much more manageable but it does not allow individual talents and aspirations to flourish.

Back in the dark industrialist days there didn’t seem any other way to manage things. But now in the 21st century we have different aspirations and we have technology to help us.

So we don’t actually need to try and package things in a neat ‘PLTS’ way. We just have to loosen up a bit, ditch the acronyms, trust the kids, support them, and let them get on with it. That is true personalised learning.

October 1, 2009 at 8:44 am 1 comment

Education! We just gotta get radical.

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This is a rather long blog post, after some absence from posting to this blog due to pressures of work, (filling a senior sales position at Vivid) and as you will read, a great holiday in the USA. After this it will be back to ‘business as usual’ with more regular and shorter posts to come. Thanks for sticking with it.

Holidays are often a time of reflection and the gaining of new perspectives. No more so for me following my family holiday in California with my partner and two children (aged 14 and 12). This was a touring holiday taking in the diversities of San Francisco and Los Angeles, Death Valley and Las Vegas (in the same day), the wonders of the Grand Canyon, snow in the boiling heat of Mammoth Lakes, chilling in Santa Cruz.

Aside from the time we all spent in the car (we covered around 2,500 miles in just under 3 weeks) we also all lived in one room in different motels around the place. So this was quite intense. Mum, Dad, and the teenage kids in such close proximity 24/7. Although Diane and I had been to various places in the US prior to this visit, many of the places we visited on this occasion were as new to us as they were to the kids. So for much of the time there was a shared sense of discovery in all the places we visited and experienced.

For example, nothing prepared any of us for the 118 F heat or the eeriness we experienced in Death Valley, or the contrasting glitch and glamour and madness of the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas when we first walked through the doors, the breathtaking first sight of the Grand Canyon, the sheer vastness of the Redwood trees in Yosemite, being at the centre of simulated flash floods at Universal Studios, discovering a tarantula as big as a fist sidling up to us at a restaurant in Seligman (on Route 66).

And all of these experiences excited the curiosities of the kids, sparked myriad questions across a rich variety of disciplines – the origin of language,  weather systems (naturally, being brits), the solar system, politics, history, geography, and so much more.

We also all kept daily diaries (mine a series of tweets).

There were some tremendously evocative moments, like when we all surveyed the scene at Badwater Basin (in Death Valley and the lowest point in the USA at 182 feet below sea level), the salt flats stretching into the distance in the intense heat, and imagined the gold rush pioneers trudging along, no shade for miles, tired and despairing. A hugely compelling image and one that grabbed the imagination of our kids sparking loads of questions. Of course we were unable to answer all the questions they had but had wide ranging discussions in which we all explored the issues raised.

If this is not education I do not know what is. Yet, the rules are that family holidays within school terms are not allowed, or only allowed on a limited basis with the express permission of the school head. This means that because everything is much more expensive during the school holiday periods hundreds and thousands of children from families who simply cannot afford to holiday at the inflated prices demanded are excluded from the wonderful experiential and enlightening educational opportunities thus afforded.

I used to think that an answer to this is that legislation should forbid the holiday companies from inflating prices during school holidays. Or that families are allowed to take their kids out of school for holidays if they can demonstrate the educational benefits of doing so. But I now think differently because these propositions simply pander to the view, and our obsession with the idea, that education is something that is wholly controllable and measurable and can be contained within constraints established by government.

As 16 year old Michael Jones in a Teachers TV video puts it (http://www.teachers.tv/video/17058 – start at 56.00), ‘I learn loads of stuff on the streets, learning is everywhere’. And so it is. From the streets of New Delhi where Sugata Mitra first conducted his ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiments, to middle class holidays in the US, to messing on the streets, learning is taking place.

Change is occurring in our education system, politicians messing with stuff they know little about, but as David Warlick in his recent blog post on ‘2¢ worth’ says:

‘it seems that every time we sit down and talk about education reform, there seems to be something in the way, preventing us from what we want to do right now.  We can’t move that tile in the puzzle, until the one next to it is out of the way, which we can’t move until another one has been shifted, etc. etc.’

OK this is a blog from USA but the issue is the same. This is just messing around the edges of a system that is clearly failing with the unfortunate effect, actually, of making life increasingly more difficult for those on the ground, those who are delivering education, our teachers. And in the process the voice of the young people for whom the system is designed is completely ignored.

A new Ofsted report on progress with the new diploma system has just been published. The conclusions are that ‘teaching of functional skills, maths, English and IT, must improve’.

This, of course should come as no surprise to anyone who knew from the start that the diploma debacle was wholly misconceived. It explains why resultant qualifications from the diploma are not ‘A’ levels, truly on a par with the more ‘academic’ qualifications. This is because excellence in the so called ‘vocational’ skills is simply not valued. Just as the arts are similarly undervalued (see Ken Robinson on this), placed at the bottom of the existing hierarchy.

So it’s back to square 1. The diplomas appear to have been conceived with the crazy notion that offering more vocational subjects within a new structure to the less ‘academic’ will somehow magically make these people more academic, say in subjects like English, Maths and IT! It won’t. They will continue to struggle and will continue to be treated as second class because they are seen as struggling with these subjects.

And this will continue to happen until a new approach, a pupil led approach, to learning is developed and until we rid ourselves of the elitist view that academic prowess is the route to fulfilment.

When the worlds financial systems went into meltdown last year a great opportunity emerged to rethink the whole of that structure and to make radical changes accordingly. Unfortunately it looks like that opportunity is lost and the signs are that the financial institutions, propped up as they are by government, are simply reverting to the old greedy ways and habits, bonuses are back!!

There is a danger that a similar thing will happen with education. It would be great if holiday prices were not inflated during school holidays so more people could afford to go away, it would be great if parents were encouraged to take their children on holiday during term times with the wide educational benefits that that offers but in the end that’s just tinkering around the edges, simply moving the tiles around.

With technology there is the real potential of delivering an education environment that is truly personalised, is aimed at self fulfilment, and is pupil led.

Yet this potential will come to nought unless we have the courage to remove the barriers to learning, to knock down the walls around the classrooms, to trust our young people, to listen to what they have to say, and to radically rethink the whole purpose of education, and deliver for the 21st century.

August 21, 2009 at 12:42 pm Leave a comment

Try leading by example!

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To a question I raised on Twitter, ‘Can we persuade parents to be radical with their kids education?’ I received the reply, ‘Try leading by example’. The question arose from my previous blog item, ‘Education. It’s a risky business’ in which I raise the issue of the innate conservatism us parents tend towards when it comes to our kids education.

Yet we have an education system that is out of step with the times, an education system that was made for the needs of industrialism, not for the current needs of information based digital society.

And we do, right now, have a unique opportunity to change that, by invoking digital technology to allow truly personalised learning. However, for this to happen, radical changes to the current system will be required.

For example, we must move away from a classroom model to a more fluid model, we must move away from a 9-3, 3 term, September to September model to one that recognises that learning can and does take place 24/7, we must find ways of  replacing exams with other means of assessment (ideally self assessment), we must value creativity as a lynchpin for all learning and most important of all we must value and trust our young people and give them control of their own learning.

These are radical changes which depend for their implementation on winning the hearts and souls of governments, teachers, parents, and pupils alike.

There is no panacea. I cannot do something with my kids that somehow ‘leads by example’. This would be a misunderstanding of the issue. What I want to see changed is the system itself such that my kids and everybody’s kids can satisfy their natural curiosities and become self fulfilled. I want to see a system that delivers on the promise of the 1967 Plowden report that:

The school sets out … to devise the right environment for children, to allow them to be themselves and to develop in the way and at the pace appropriate to them……… It lays special stress on individual discovery, on first-hand experience and on opportunities for creative work. It insists that knowledge does not fall into neatly separate compartments and that work and play are not opposite but complementary.

The example I can lead with is one of raising the issues, producing evidence, working with the players towards the desired end just as I did in my campaigning efforts that led to a fairer admissions system in Brighton and Hove.

I can also, of course, lead by example by myself being kind, giving, caring, compassionate, all the virtues we would like of our children. In this I do my best.

June 4, 2009 at 12:08 pm 1 comment

Who needs schools. You live and learn!

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‘You live and learn’ is an idiom that has come to mean that as you go through your life so you learn new things, actually that if you live, you learn. It comes to mind because I have recently been looking at John Medina’s Brain Rules book (and DVD and website) that was written on the premis that most of us, including teachers and others responsible for education, do not to know how the brain works. If this is true (and I fear it is) how can we evolve good teaching and learning practices?

Medina goes as far as to say ‘If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like [the picture above] a classroom.’

The book by-lined ’12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home and school’ divides the study of the brain into the twelve principles of:

EXERCISE | Rule #1: Exercise boosts brain power.
SURVIVAL | Rule #2: The human brain evolved, too.
WIRING | Rule #3: Every brain is wired differently.
ATTENTION | Rule #4: We don’t pay attention to boring things.
SHORT-TERM MEMORY | Rule #5: Repeat to remember.
LONG-TERM MEMORY | Rule #6: Remember to repeat.
SLEEP | Rule #7: Sleep well, think well.
STRESS | Rule #8: Stressed brains don’t learn the same way.
SENSORY INTEGRATION | Rule #9: Stimulate more of the senses.
VISION | Rule #10: Vision trumps all other senses.
GENDER | Rule #11: Male and female brains are different.
EXPLORATION | Rule #12: We are powerful and natural explorers.

….all of which are wholly relevant to our education system, and give compelling evidence of what is so wrong with our current system but point the way to how to put it right. A few thoughts on this.

Whilst PE is part of the curriculum we should actively encourage other forms of exercise at school, including dance, drama, etc.. We should also consider ways of transforming the typically inert lesson period into something more active.

The physical, proven fact that all brains are wired differently not only exonerates, but should make compelling and essential the drive for ‘personalisation’ in education.

Everyone has a story of a bad teacher, or bad teaching, that not only meant nothing was learned, but also in some cases that a whole subject was tarnished. We have a ten minute maximum attention span so it is easy for something to become ‘boring’.

Repetition in the classroom is crucial because one missing piece of information can damage the understanding of other information related to it. But information is best remembered if it is understood. Our memories work in particular ways. Repetition for memory is useful, but not in isolation to understanding.

Retrieval of information works at its best when the retrieval occurs in a similar context its original encoding. So, if something is learned during a geography field trip, probably retrieval of that information is hardest in, say, exam conditions.

Sleep is essential to learning so it does make sense to consider the naturally changing sleep habits of young people and take these properly into account in our education system.

Stress impairs learning. So apart from any stress a young person my be under through other circumstances subjecting them to the slow drip feed of stress as they move closer to their exams will severely damage their learning.

One of the overriding assertions is that ‘we are powerful and natural explorers’. We are ‘born with incessant curiosity that compels us to aggressively explore our world’ and from birth we have the innate ability to ‘form a hypothesis, design an experiment and draw conclusions.’

This for me is key. Rather than try and force learning to happen, which in my view is what the current education system attempts, I believe we should allow innate functions to let learning happen.  So who needs schools. Just live and learn!

May 11, 2009 at 2:27 pm 1 comment

19th century education meets 21st century building under BSF

I was having a look at a Teachers TV video about a building completed under the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme.

http://www.teachers.tv/video/22993

This is the  Hadley Learning Community building in Telford which was completed in January 2007 and is regarded as a flagship building under the programme.

The building is designed to house facilities for primary, secondary, children with severe and profound learning difficulties, early education and childcare, and a variety of community activities and is something of a behemoth

There were a couple of issues that were raised in the video that I found disturbing and perhaps typical of what goes on under the BSF programme.

Firstly it became clear that when the building opened to secondary students the needs of the students in respect of their settling into this radically different environment (from their older, smaller school) were not properly accounted for.

In fact the centres principal Dr Gill Etough, who guided the whole building project from its beginnings, doesn’t feel that ‘anybody in the whole Building Schools for Future has really [noticed that we need to know how to] deal with the kids to make them more settled’.

This is astounding considering that the secondary school exists to serve the needs of its pupils, or should do. I suspect that the senior management of the centre were blinded by the glory of the building itself.

Secondly when Dr Etough went into one of the classrooms and the children didn’t stand up she said to them, ‘Aren’t you supposed to stand up when I walk into the room’ to which they were all required to stand up and intone ‘Good morning Dr Etough’.

This is astonishing and something from the 19th century, not the 21st.

For me this one of the issues with the whole BSF programme. Apart from the fact that it is attempting to ‘predict the future’ at a time when the future is particularly unpredictable, there is a disconnect between the architects vision of the 21st century school building and the education vision of those who will run it.

As one of the pupils commented when asked what she thought of the new building, ‘It’s ok, but schools, school’.

March 16, 2009 at 1:08 pm Leave a comment

Freeze frame

My 14 year old daughter came back from school yesterday enthusiastic about what she had learned in her history lesson about the suffragette movement. This was a little surprising because she has told us in the past that she has no enthusiasm at all for history largely because her teacher does nothing to inspire the class –  ’45 minutes of the teacher droning on followed by 15 minutes of us writing things down’.

On this occasion, however, my daughter found the actual subject matter so compelling that she forced herself to take notice. She was particularly taken with the story of Emily Davison throwing herself in front of the kings horse at the 1913 Derby at Epsom and suggested that this moment would have been ideal for the class to do a freeze frame.

The way a freeze frame works is that a moment in time is selected and the students enact a freeze frame of that moment (in the case of Emily Davison this would be the moment she threw herself in front of the horse). The students hold the freeze frame moment until they are tapped on the shoulder by the teacher when they describe what they feel is going on in the characters mind at that moment.

I don’t know why I haven’t come across this before but I think it is a fantastic technique, which judging from my daughter’s reaction the students enjoy. Yet in her experience the technique appears to only be used in Drama and English.

In my vision of a 21st century learning environment in which the students themselves select from the range of resources available to them I imagine freeze frame would be rather popular.

March 5, 2009 at 11:02 am 13 comments


Mick Landmann on education, digital technology, and the 21st century

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