Tidying the Toys in the Sandpit


It’s very rare that you can bring together a room full of educators to talk about where we should be going in education without pretty universal agreement that the status quo is not acceptable. All will agree – things must change! In such circumstances you then really have to wonder why so little really does change.

When there is change, I would argue that almost all of it really amounts to little more than twiddling at the edges. Somehow, despite the voiced acknowledgement of the need for significant changes, we just really haven’t changed anything very much. I find this the equivalent of lining up the toys in the sandpit. It’s still the same sandpit and the same toys and it can only be a matter of moments before those toys are thrown all over the sandpit just like before, with no evidence remaining of how tidy they were.

99% of change and reform in schools and in education is pretty much the same.  Incrementalism is the norm. So, a teacher or group of teachers take a process or a policy. Debate it to death. Tweak it a bit and then move on to the next thing. If enough of these little tweaks happen in a school, then the school gets tagged with the label ‘progressive.’ To some, that’s praise – to some, an insult implying that they just leave well alone.

Often these initiatives are so fragile and minimal that a change of personnel and the phrase, “this is how we used to do it,” can be enough to make them disappear leaving no evidence – just like the toys in the sandpit. The response from parents and students is often a rolling of the eyes and phrases like, “I wish they’d make up their minds what they’re doing.”

Attempts to reform, bring real change or to get people to look at education in different ways also come up against big challenges. I have noticed an invidious process whereby something new gets attacked with the challenge, “prove it works.” This leads to paralysis by data and supposed research. One striking recent example is in relation to Grit. This was a concept expounded on particularly by Angela Duckworth and expanded in her book:

Angela Duckworth – Grit

I found this book very thought provoking and intuitively felt that the ideas in it were valuable and had a real place in education. However, subsequently, since that book was published there seem to have been a whole bunch of ‘experts’ who have been hell-bent on refuting the key points behind the ideas. Their tools are to “teach” the principles of Grit to children and then “Test” to see what impact that has on students’ achievements. To me, this is just awful science, little to do with education and also deliberately distorts the intentions behind the original ideas. For example, if Grit gets built in to the values and principles in a school and that results in a pupil sticking through tough times in a job or a marriage 25 years later  – how can you have tested for that? How do you put a value on that? Also, what exactly are you testing for? Whether children produce higher/ better academic outcomes because this particular material was taught? I’m really not sure that was ever the idea.

Something is not only valid because you can do it, then test for it and prove some outcome in the traditional tests that have always been a part of the academic system. I would really want to see a far more optimistic, open and positive attitude towards change and new ideas.

In these circumstances, it’s easy to see how all real change can get closed down by narrow blinkered testing for ‘proof of impact.’ Then, that tempts people to focus only on the little incremental changes, the little tweaks.

I want to see us being far more bold, challenging and questioning big issues. In the coming weeks i have a whole bunch of these where I want to raise the questions. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but hope that I can stimulate debates and discussions that will shift the needle. I would also love to hear from readers with your ideas for the big things in education and schooling that we can and should challenge or question. Let’s bring forward the debates on these issues.


Talking ‘Bout A Revolution

I’m fast coming to the conclusion that i’m part of a generation in which the majority of people, on hearing the word ‘future’ have the first reaction of, “don’t let it come during my working life, because I’m not ready for it.” Now, my generation, a little portlier than in the past, grayer at the temples and longer in the tooth can maybe be forgiven for this reluctance to face the full implications of the future. However, what scares me far more is the proportion of much younger people sharing that same viewpoint, and maybe worse the numbers of educators who hope they can finish out their working lives in the teaching profession before real change has to happen.

I can’t be that way. Those young people prepared best for a rapidly changing world, those who can adapt and deliver the kinds of creativity that others will value will be the winners. Others may find that they are increasingly marginalised as the world is willing to pay less and less for what they can do (or worse, will conclude that new technology does the same but far more reliably, with a lot less fuss and at ridiculously low costs)

Here’s an article and a short video from a conference that took place in Denver, USA a few months ago, under the banner of the International Society for Technology in Education. The keynote address was delivered by Michio Kaku, a renowned theoretical physicist and futurist.

Edtech Magazine – Michio Kaku Says Education Needs a Revolution

He clarifies some of his thoughts through this short video interview:

Edtech Magazine – Michio Kaku On The Value Of Technology In Education

His message is very clear – the changes in the world, the changes that are being brought about by technology, globalisation and the pressing need to address issues of inequality are coming and fast and require significant change in education now. Failure to address these needs will see the education systems of the world further and further removed from relevance in young people’s lives – we will be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

One of his biggest points is clearly that with access to facts and knowledge becoming more and more ubiquitous, the need is to emphasise learning time on the skills to learn, collaboration and creativity skills through mastering principles and concepts.

His ideas require far more from us than merely sage nodding. We have to be ready to challenge and question those aspects of what we do that fail to meet these needs.

5 Changes for 5 Years

here’s an article from Fast Company that explores five ways that education is likely to change in the next 5 years.

Fast Company – 5 Big Ways Education Will Change By 2020

To me, the big takeaway (no real surprise), is that education isn’t yet fully changing in response to technological changes and advances – but isn’t going to be able to resist for ever. If the education delivered is to be relevant and effectively prepare young people for the world of today, then the impact and change from technology is going to be far greater than we’ve seen so far.

And the other one that struck a chord – student voice will be listened to! Well, plenty have talked about that for a long time. It would be great to see, but I’m still not holding my breath about that one!!

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