Society or Education – Which to Change First?

I’ve shared a number of articles in the past about the ways in which modern education is failing to rid itself of the ‘industrial model’ mindset, with the result that it is poorly serving today’s young people who need to be equipped with very different skills and competencies if they are to excel in the fast changing, technological age of the Twenty First Century.

Here’s a very thought-provoking article from Mindshift, that quotes extensively from the work of John Abbott, Director of the 21st Century Learning Initiative. So many of the opinions he expresses in the article strike a chord with me and reflect issues and concerns that have been very much in my mind. Particularly, Abbott stresses that conventional schooling is not enabling young people to develop the transferable, higher-order thinking skills that they need to become true lifelong learners.

On one point I disagree with the conclusions in the article. It’s right to point out that the problems in schools cannot be looked at in isolation from the challenges in the rest of society. As technology changes the world in fundamental ways, we have options and choices about what kind of society we want to have (and therefore what education will prepare us for it). However, to suggest that the changes in society must happen forst, and then educators will adjust later is to risk leaving a generation of young people to flounder without the skills and equipment to operate effectively in the changing world. I believe those of us in education have to have the courage to look in to the future and reshape the education that will prepare young people. We cannot necessarily know what choices the world is going to make in terms of the shaping of society. However, if we help young people NOW to develop greater independence, interdependence, resilience and flexibility then they will be more empowered to deal with whatever the future holds. Sometimes I fear that too many of my peers use lack of certainty as their primary excuse for not bringing real meaningful changes in the education arena.

There was a particular sentence in the article that really stood out to me – “Adults who feel hard-pressed to predict or control their own destinies, and who feel confused about the “big issues of life,” Abbott notes, are less willing to give children the time and space they need to shape their own futures.” I read this in the context of both educators and parents. There’s no doubt that we see such sentiments from some parents at times. The more uncertain they become about their own lives and feel like so much flotsam tossed on a tumultuous sea, so they seek to control more and more aspects of their children’s lives. In plain terms – it doesn’t work! Our children need courageous parents working in collaboration with courageous educators.

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ICT and Children – Extreme Measures

The ICT (Information and Communication Technology – a broader term than simply IT) juggernaut is steamrolling its way through education throughout the world with many schools and whole education systems taking drastic (and very expensive) action on instinct, feeling that they’ve got to be part of the wave, but really not sure of all the implications.

For every movement, you’ll be able to find a counter-movement somewhere. When it comes to ICT, surely this private school in London represents a pretty extreme set of reactions;

Quartz – Article – Banned Technology – In School and Home

I share concerns with many others about what happens to children when they are exposed to ICT so extensively at a very young age and have often written about those issues here on the blog. However, I’m not sure that banning addresses those issues, especially in a world where major companies have been making announcements over just the last month about how they intend to bring “free” internet to millions in the poorest countries of the world (more on that later).

I think the article raises a number of interesting issues:

a) To what extent does a private school (as a commercial provider of a service) have the right to impose strict rules on its ‘customers’ regarding behaviour in their home as well as on the school premises?
b) Would it, in all practical terms, work? Is it even possible?
c) Even if possible, will such a ban serve a worthwhile purpose?
d) What risks are there for a child growing up cut off from the reality of ubiquitous technology?

With regard to point a), I guess some will say that if the parents know what they’ve signed up for, want the education from that school enough and are prepared to make the commitments, then there’s not so much wrong with the school setting down certain expectations about what will go on at home as well as at school. Whilst i’m all in favour of schools that stand for their values and who work to set down some core principles, I believe the way to work with parents is as partners. It is important that educators don’t take the lazy route of giving what parents say they want for their children, but rather take the time to educate and advise parents on what they should want, and why. It’s important that we don’t make the mistake of treating parents like children!

Whilst they’re not necessarily on the same level, couldn’t this be compared to communities that deny children blood transfusions when they’re sick because it goes against their religious beliefs? Whilst as parents, guardians and educators we have a duty of care over children it really isn’t a right of control that goes beyond the needs of society. So, for example in more and more countries the law prevents a parent from using physical forms of punishment with their own child. Could an education approach like this be seen as risking the delivery of only one set of messages, beliefs and views about the world, denying children access to wider and alternative perspectives.

Can a child really get away from the media, TVs and computer screens? How far would you have to go to enforce this kind of policy? For example, restaurants, airports, malls and shops have screens and media. It’s in taxis and buses, on planes and on billboards in the street. Would such children be prevented from having friendships with children of any other schools? Surely, sleepovers and visits to such friends’ homes would be way too much of a temptation? Would we prevent the child from joining a sports team or club because they use video cameras to analyse players’ performances and then watch them back? What about the child’s wider family? No more trips to Grandma’s house because she has a TV?

How will parents live their lives if they’ve signed up to this kind of commitment on behalf of their children? No TV in the house? Never working on a laptop in the evening? Or, sneakily rushing the children off to bed as early as possible, so that they can secretly engage in elicit technology use behind their children’s backs?

Will it just simply lead to blatant dishonesty? Children, potentially lying to their parents and even whole families attempting to hide their infractions from the all seeing, prying eye of ‘Big Brother school? I’ve even seen in India that attempts to impose ‘screen time’ limits or to suggest that there are particular types of programmes a parent doesn’t want their child watching leads to creative underhand behaviour as the child relies on loyal friends to offer them the alternative routes to the alluring, out-of-bounds things they’re being denied. After all that, if directly challenged they have no choice – lie completely! Should parents and educators be creating such situations in which children will almost inevitably be lured in to dishonesty, thereby undermining trust and family bonds? When the evidence of such dishonesty emerges the emotional bank accounts take a real pasting.

There have now been many research articles and commentaries referring to the ‘digital divide’ or ‘digital deficit’ – the shortcomings in learning for children who don’t have access to the internet compared to those who do. Now, I’m the first to admit that this is the excuse for the kind of subterfuge that sees Google, Microsoft and Facebook making out to the world they’re heroes for bringing internet accessibility to poorer countries and communities (while I fear it will actually be a trojan horse for pumping enormous volumes of highly profitable advertising and ‘agenda based’ messages to young and impressionable minds).

nevertheless, are we really going to create situations where there are vast areas of employment opportunities not open to these young people when they grow up? With their lack of exposure to technology and media, will these children grow up to be merely quaint and outdated? Those of us who have become very familiar with all aspects of media, especially online know that there’s a vast array that is inaccurate or at best worthless. There’s the well written and the amateurish, the naive and the thought-provoking, the quality and the ‘chaff’. There’s also the creative, enlightening and sometimes downright dangerous. I believe that young learners today need to be acquiring critical skills about how to decide and discern between all these different messages – the 21st Century skills of Media Literacy. Can a student who is cut off from and denied access to such material learn to engage with it critically?

Then, when it comes to writing, students need to learn difficult but critical skills about how to absorb the ideas of others, build them in to new and original ideas without abusing the rights and ownership of the originator. Plagiarism and ‘passing off’ others’ ideas as one’s own is now a vast problem and challenge – good for the law courts, but ultimately bad for creative and original discourse in any field. This isn’t happening more because children today are less moral, lazy or dishonest. Rather, I believe, it’s happening because as vast amounts of writing become accessible, they struggle to find a path through what exists to reach their own original thoughts. Also, too often, educators are overtly or covertly discouraging original and independent thought causing students to feel it’s safer to simply replicate the thoughts and views of others. Effective use of source materials takes practice, and I’m not sure that children cut off from the online world will get the exposure they need to master those skills.

In the end, I’m left with three big concerns;

Firstly, are these well meaning educators who genuinely believe it is their duty to protect these young people from the perils and evils of mass media exposure? Or, is there a more sinister intention to propagate particular perspectives and world views amongst these children, free from balancing and countervailing voices, views and opinions?

And secondly, if we’re unhappy about the more negative aspects of what children get exposed to in the media, as educators don’t we have a duty towards all children to raise our voice to get the content cleaned up or segregated in ways that are beneficial for all children. Instead, this seems to me like taking a handful of children and enclosing them in an ivory tower.

Finally, there has long been a strong force in the rearing of children, parenting and education that starts from the premise that children cannot be trusted, that they are inherently listless, wilful and if left to make their own choices and decisions will always make the wrong ones. This manifests in the control structures in schools, sticks and carrot approaches to rewards and punishments in parenting advice etc. Here, these educators who might at first seem quite progressive and innovative in going against the tide are actually really being quite traditional and backward in their approach. The starting assumption is that no amount of teaching, guidance or advice about safe surfing, the perils and downsides of excessive screen use etc. will lead children to make good, healthy positive choices and decisions in their lives. Therefore, we (the adults) must impose draconian ‘all or nothing’ controlling regimes until we deem them old enough and fit to make decisions (i.e. they’re not children any more). I would like to have higher aspirations for children and a greater belief in their innate goodness. Yes, they’ll make mistakes, but when they do I believe we have to look at how we guided them and how we might do so better, rather than see it as justification for taking all decision making away from them.

The Qualities of Great Teachers

In many ways the debate about great teaching goes to the very heart of the debate about education’s purpose, objectives and what teachers ought to be held accountable for (and hold themselves accountable for). If we can figure out what it is that great teachers do, or at least do more of, we all hope and believe that we can bring about significant improvement in quality and standards of education for all the children in our schools.

In these days of obsession with data as ways of measuring and defining when good education is or isn’t happening, it’s dangerously possible to forget that there can’t be good education without good teaching. Whilst I’m an advocate of things like Khan Academy, I truly believe that the school and the teachers in school have the ability to support critical learning of 21st Century skills in ways that IT alone cannot (the key is to have teachers harnessing the powers of IT as critical tools in the process).

Over the last few months, I’ve been gathering together some interesting materials that reflect on these issues of what makes a great teacher. One of the things that i found most interesting is the combination of timeless attributes and ‘new’ 21st Century skills.

The first resource is a video presentation by Sir Michael Barber for an education conference in Jamaica. He was one of the presenters in the film “We are the people we’ve been waiting for”, a senior adviser to the Tony Blair government in UK on education and now a thought leader for Pearson’s on education policy and future directions:

Next we have a debate/ exchange of ideas amongst a panel of five prominent educators with some interesting reflections:

NPR-Ed - 5 Great Teachers on What Makes a Great Teacher

The third piece is an ASCD blog post by educational consultant, Elliott Seif who deliberately sets out to discuss 12 qualities that are given less attention, but are nevertheless vitally important. He sets them out as a brief list first and then elaborates in some detail on each of the 12:

ASCD Blog Post - One Dozen Qualities of Great Teachers

I would love to hear what people think. Do you agree with specifics in some of these pieces, or think the writers and presenter are missing the point? Are there some qualities listed here that you really think shouldn't be focused upon? Are the qualities of great teachers culturally specific or do the same qualities hold good in every education system in the world?

If we were to agree that these represent a great foundation for defining great teachers, is it realistic to look for these qualities in all teachers, or is that just too far beyond what's possible?

Discarding the Dysfunctional From Education

Here’s a nice article that has caused many different feelings in me when I read it.

Mindshift: 21 Things Obsolete by 2020
(Click on the link above to read the article)

The first was – if so many of us already believe and acknowledge these things are obsolete, why will we have to wait until 2020 (another 5 years) before we see them gone? Then I became even more troubled. Can we really hope that these things will be gone in five years when there are so many actions being taken now that will cause so many educators to cling to these things for a lot longer? Schools are still being built all over the world as great monolithic monuments to yesterday’s education dogmas. Millions of teachers are still being trained and required to pass qualifications (Yes, I’m thinking especially of the Indian B.Ed) that are based on the moribund and failed ideas of yesterday’s teaching methodologies.

The truth is that those of us who believe in the need for change must redouble our efforts to make sure that as many as possible of these things are on their way out of the door, at least by 2020.

We Are The People We’ve Been Waiting For

I’m sharing here again the trailer for this very powerful film that touches upon so many of the issues that are foremost in education today:

I think every educator and parent would do well to find 7 minutes to watch this trailer.

Defining 21st Century Learning

11 different prominent American educators share their views of what really constitutes 21st century learning:

Defining 21st Century Learning

21st Century Learning

New Brunswick, is on to something with this video in my view. I want to see all of us, educators, parents, business people, entrepreneurs, employers, students engaging in debates about what high quality education for India in the 21st Century will look like (instead of all those tired debates about percentage cut-offs, quotas and semesters)

Here’s a further contribution to the debate – a presentation made in 2007 that has had an impact on millions of people around the world already.

Join the debate.

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