A journey to the Googleplex – a new way of thinking?

Should we bring the mammoth back from extinction? Can we enable a colour-blind person to hear colours? Did Charles Darwin blunder his way to his seminal “Origin of Species”? Fascinating questions which represent but a snapshot of the discussion, debate, hypotheses which filled a weekend at Science Foo Camp 2014. Sci Foo, as it is affectionately known, is now a well-established annual event hosted at Google HQ in Palo Alto, California. The hub of innovation and enterprise on the Bay offered a uniquely twenty first century backdrop to a very twenty first century gathering.

An invited audience of 250 individuals from primarily science and technology assembled to create a weekend where the audience determined the content of the event. Session after session (failed to make Science and Beyoncé but looked intriguing!) were offered spontaneously by individuals across a range of specialisms at the cutting edge of their area of expertise. The fast-fire five minute lightning talks gave the flavour of the day to come. There was more than a hint of a Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney musical – the guests at Sci Foo put on a show but a show where everyone had a speaking role.

Arriving at the Googleplex, I was acutely conscious that I was not a scientist, had not made some mind-shattering discovery nor was likely to do so. Yet I knew my presence at Sci Foo was designed for me to learn and to share the experience of teachers who have the responsibility to educate young people to thrive in the world imagined by those around me. Unsurprisingly the participants talked about a reality which had more than a hint of Science Fiction about it. A breakfast conversation about the potential for cyborg technology to change our lives and the ethical dimension of allowing technology to replicate our intellectual capacity touched on the very essence of our humanity.

The contrast between the world of futurists and the world of education is more than stark – it is as if two worlds existed alongside each other yet with little if any regard for the reality in either. It was fascinating that participants from the States felt that the move in their country to introduce more standardised testing was creating a learning environment which was contrary to the free form thinking they displayed. Indeed I joined one session where the debate about the challenges facing schools in both the USA and UK felt depressingly similar. There was a very strong sense that the education system in both countries was failing to educate young people in ways which prepared them for their future. The facility to be resilient, nimble thinking, persistent were deemed as important as examination results. Yet several American colleagues commented on the strong sense of failure which pervaded their school system because of the testing culture.

Sharing a coach journey with a gentleman on the last morning to Sci Foo, I learnt that – in addition to being a retired Professor of Engineering – he advised the US government back in the 1980s about how best to prepare young people for the world of work. Our discussion reminded me of the the debate in this country about how to address the needs of many young people in our country as we moved from our mighty industrial past to a post-manufacturing age. The short-lived Youth Training System (YTS) of the ’80s was an attempt to provide appropriate training yet, as with many such schemes, proved but transitory. The retired Professor is still grappling with this challenge and how best schools can prepare young people for future employment.

Reflecting on Sci Foo and many conversations which often spun off into education, it is manifest to me that we are not without ambition for our young people nor for schools. Where we appear to be failing is in our imagination of how schools can offer a crucible of learning for all. Whilst we continue to view school through the prism of our own experience, whether here or in the US, we shall never be free to think differently about education. Perhaps a healthy dose of Sci Foo thinking would help….

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Gove has gone – what next?

My first inkling that something was afoot at the Department for Education came with the Sky News report early in the morning that Michael Gove had arrived at Downing Street to meet with the Prime Minister. Was he about to be re-shuffled by David Cameron? It hardly seemed possible. Only last week I was in the audience for the Education Summit 2014 where Gove delivered a characteristically ideological key-note speech. No sense then that his personal mission to transform education would be de-railed by a government re-shuffle. And then the news exploded on Twitter. Gove had gone. The bogey-man of so many teachers and more generally the “blob” was out, finessed into the office of Chief Whip. The Education Secretary was rather like the Monty Python parrot in political terms.

So what does this mean? Gove’s departure is momentous in one sense but actually how much will it change the policies so closely associated with him? The Pandora’s Box opened by Gove is his legacy to this country – autonomy for schools, qualification reform and reform of teacher training. I list these changes rather than offer a value judgement because that goes to the heart of Gove’s reform of education. Were these reforms necessary to ensure this country continued to compete with the rest of the world or did they unleash a decade of instability and uncertainty where young people and teachers are the collateral damage?

History will judge. For now the momentum behind the Goveian Reforms means that government will continue on tram lines. The unknown is how linear the reforms will be without the force of Gove’s personality behind them. So in the hope that the new Secretary of State is open to ideas, I should like to take the liberty of sharing some of mine:

1. Let’s embrace the century we live in and, rather than harking back to a golden age of
education, ensure our young people are educated for their tomorrow;
2. Stop using data designed to assess individual pupils to measure schools;
3. Engage with digital learning to ensure we offer the best possible learning experience;
4. Work with teachers – they are the instruments of change.

The new Secretary of State, Ms Nicky Morgan, already has her work cut out because she holds her cabinet position alongside her role as Minister for Women and Inequalities. I would have thought the Education brief was big enough yet I wish Ms Morgan well. Nothing matters more than the education of our young people. I really do hope that Ms Morgan rises to the challenge of her new demanding role – certainly just holding the fort between now and the General Election will be a betrayal of a generation of young people.

Gove may be gone but the debate about the course of education goes on. It is worth reminding ourselves why education is so important and why Ms Morgan’s new role is so important. Nelson Mandela expressed this so well:

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Humanity v. Accountability – Education Reform Summit 2014

Imagine it. You have the power to reform the education system in this country. This has been the power offered to Michael Gove and, judging by his speech at the Education Reform Summit in London, he believes his reforms have unleashed real change which will benefit all young people irrespective of class. Sitting in the audience, as Mr Gove gave the introductory key-note for this event, I was absolutely convinced that the Secretary of State’s conviction that education is the key to righting the wrongs in our society is sincere and acts as a powerful impetus for everything he does. Ministers from countries in Europe and a senior Head teacher from Shanghai appeared to share Mr Gove’s vision of education. They all talked about PISA and improving their country’s performance, raising the bar, giving autonomy to schools and academic rigour.

Yet, as the NUT held a day of action outside, clearly Mr Gove’s view of Nivarna is not shared by at least one national Union representing the teaching profession. High level strategy inevitably results in turbulence on the ground where change is not necessarily seen as beneficial for education. Steven Hodas, an advocate of innovation in education from New York, offered real insight on this dimension of change quoting Seth Godin: “Increase alignment, decrease fear.” Which points to the fundamental fissure in education in this country. Time and again speakers who advocated structural change assumed this was now a battle won whilst this was not necessarily the sense of everyone in the room – or indeed protesting outside.

So it was a revelation to cut through the politics and listen to practitioners – Head Teachers who have walked the walk because their focus and moral mission was focused on the young people in their charge. The individual who truly inspired me was Dame Kathy August. Dame Kathy was Head of Manchester Academy, the school which reinvented the failing Ducie High School. This school was part of a community which shared memories of the riots during the 1980s. A real challenge. However, Dame Kathy is a lady on a mission – a mission possible. For her, the Manchester Academy was where young people, associated with gang culture, left their tribal loyalty at the door and, upon entering school, entered the world of learning. Dame Kathy had no truck with gang language in school. This in her view marginalised them – she was very clear that students in her school would engage with the wider world and use the language of this world. She ensured that a series of mantras imbued with positivity enveloped the school.

I was particularly struck by Dame Kathy’s anecdote about how she had a weekly spot where she addressed the entire school through IWB’s. She shared with me one story where she talked about University Challenge. This was the subject of her weekly address where this quintessentially middle-class show was raised as a point of interest for everyone in the school; before long the school was discussing what their mascot would be if they were involved. Arguably University was demystified and became a realistic option for those for whom it was entirely alien. This illustration shows how the inventive Head worked hard to create an ethos of aspiration.

I enjoyed meeting Dame Kathy enormously. She clearly has been an instrument of change in her school. Other Head Teachers at the summit shared her commitment and determination. And as I left London to return to Cambridge I reflected on the importance of the individual in education. The strong leader with a clear vision; the inspirational teacher who engages students. Neither of which are easily measurable by education research or data. But therein lies the challenge – humanity v. accountability. Surely both should be valued.

My thoughts on textbooks, learning and iPads

Go back to traditional textbooks, says Education Minister Elizabeth Truss, because all that differentiation is a waste of time! In essence this was the message from Miss Truss following the publication of an OECD sponsored report which stated teachers in England spend more time preparing materials for lessons than their colleagues in other countries. And the UK is still languishing (relatively speaking) in Mathematics and English in PISA, that oft-quoted league table of attainment which casts such a long shadow over participating countries.

Textbooks appear to be king in Miss Truss’ argument because they provide core knowledge which every student should have and clearly is not being addressed through current pedagogy. Indeed we should be learning from the pedagogy which pertains in China and Japan where textbook-led lessons are the norm: “The top performers in international tests, like Shanghai and Japan, are adept at building on years of experience, at learning across the system. Schools use textbooks which children can take home to use for homework.,” Miss Truss said. Interestingly the Minister is critical of the practice whereby teachers prepare different lesson plans for groups of children in the same class – in her view the same textbook should ensure that all children achieve the standard required.

Textbooks are an interesting concept. How can one book address the learning needs of children across a range of ability? What Miss Truss alludes to are cultures of instruction where young people sit passively in lessons in large teaching groups working hard to understand the content being delivered to them. In this context a textbook makes sense – you didn’t get it first time? Take the textbook home and work it out for yourself before you return to class. Arguably this is the ultimate in independent learning. It is important therefore to note that governments in China and Japan are themselves reflecting on pedagogical practice. There are real concerns that whilst successfully educating high performing students, these same young people struggle when challenged to be creative in their approach to learning. And there are real concerns about the level of anxiety among young people in China. Back in 2011 these concerns were being publicly voiced:
“In the long run, for us to become a strong country, we need talent and great creativity,” Xiong Bingqi, an education expert at Shanghai Jiao Tong University told the Los Angeles Times in 2011. “And right now, our educational system cannot accomplish this.” In fact reform of the Chinese system of education has already begun.

So the traditional textbook as a silver bullet, although enticing, is not the way forward. Young people may learn for the tests from textbooks but this does not necessarily mean they can think independently. Which takes us back to the English pedagogical approach. And I have a suggestion which is radical but I believe would make a real difference. Just imagine if every young person had an iPad. This device is a platform for access to iTunesU and iBooks – the former offering teacher-curated access to digital resources and the latter a turbo-charged book created by the teacher for their learners. This digitisation of learning answers Miss Truss’ desire for every child to have a textbook as well as the propensity of teachers in this country to ensure every child in their classroom is engaged, inspired and challenged whatever their ability. Certainly in our school we are piloting the use of such enriched resources and already can see that access to a range of resources beyond the capacity of a traditional textbook is making a real difference to the learning environment. This is real independent learning – students engage with the digital material in ways which are meaningful for them.

Expensive solution? Yes. But what price do we place on education? As the late Nelson Mandela said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Surely this should be motivation enough.