I am greatly encouraged that Mrs Nicky Morgan, the new kid on the Education block, has conceded that education is about far more than merely the acquisition of qualifications. Indeed, she goes further in putting government money where her mouth is : “The &3.5m grant scheme for character education projects is a milestone in preparing young people more than ever before for life in modern Britain”.
As the leader of a school which values a holistic approach to education, I certainly would applaud this intention to give value to the overall personal development of an individual. What I question is why are we caught in the self-perpetuating matrix of segmenting learning in this way? Is “character” to be something else to be put onto the educational shopping-list of what schools must deliver to be solemnly measured by some arcane Ofsted measurement? I find it somewhat questionable that character development can be promoted through a series of character building “projects”. Mrs Morgan may argue that she is advocating a balanced education but for me this box ticking approach misses the point of what a good education should offer a youngster.
The learning environment valued by a school should be supporting the positive personal development of every learner. Far from box ticking, learners should be encouraged to think outside the comfort of their box – taking risks, learning from mistakes, taking the time to understand the perspectives of others. This can happen within the classroom in the curriculum where young people are encouraged to take intellectual risks and challenge others and not constantly feel that they are a set of data to be weighed. And of course in co-curricular activities where there are a myriad of opportunities for individuals to learn about themselves.
And how does this debate about character sit with the digital revolution which is changing our world in intended and unintended ways? The World Innovation Summit for Education, a Qatar sponsored education charity, recently carried out a survey of educational experts across the world asking their opinion about what schools will be like in 2030. The results are fascinating – if the predictions are right, a student’s interpersonal skills will be their most valued asset, with 75% of respondents ranking it number one compared to 42% for academic knowledge. In this world where online content will be king, it is argued that “old fashioned knowledge” becomes secondary. Collaboration, creativity and communication will be vital skills underpinned by critical thinking.
My view is that the debate is more evenly balanced because knowledge is integral to who we are. It strikes me that an approach to learning which values intellectual as well as personal development – not treating them as a false binary – will offer the best possible educational experience for youngsters in this future of unknowns. After all, studying the works of Shakespeare will give you a deep insight into resilience and grit in an abstract sense whilst an outward bound activity, for example the Duke of Edinburgh Award, places the learner in a personally challenging situation.
Actually Mrs Morgan, on reflection, I think we already have the tools for this task – let educational professionals get on and use them.
I have decided that I live my educational life in silos. The reform of examination qualifications is flexing its muscles in one silo; the debate about promoting character in schools is periodically erupting in another silo; and the relentless progress of digital learning marches on in apparent isolation from qualifications and character in its uniquely twenty first century silo. At what point will we join the dots?
I am a long serving school leader and am acutely conscious that education is part of the flotsam and jetsam of politics. As the head of an independent school, I know that the debate about education is layered. The independent sector has been on the receiving end of the backwash from Tristram Hunt’s announcement about holding independent schools accountable for the tax breaks we receive with his “no more something for nothing” meme. And schools in the maintained and independent sectors are definitely all in it together as we are confronted with the confusing changes to qualifications which are integral to the Goveian revolution of education. Yet surely we are capable of creating a better narrative for our education system which is responsive rather than reactive, which is based on principles underpinning learning rather than blatant ideology and which endeavours to take an holistic approach to teaching and learning with the learner at the heart of what we do?
I had the privilege of attending a National Baccalaureate Summit at Highbury School in London last month where I experienced for the first time an effort to look at educational differently. Tom Sherrington, Head of Highbury School, chaired a day where a range of people from schools, the examination bodies, and the Department for Education explored the possibility of creating a framework for a national baccalaureate. The sense of the meeting was that schools, far from being merely the instruments of government policy, actually can be the instruments of change. There was real belief that change will happen – that we can craft an overarching qualification which captures more about the learner than the narrow attainment evidenced by examinations. For the record, I am completely committed to this endeavour as I absolutely believe in the concept of a Baccalaureate and valuing more than just an examination grade.
But what about digital learning? I am very aware that the importance of digital learning is being led by individual schools and not by the Department for Education. I recently spoke at an Apple event about my school’s digital journey – about educating young people in an age of connectivity and ensuring our students are prepared for life in a world transformed by a digital revolution. The conference was well attended and I spoke to teachers who are absolutely committed to offering young people a learning eco-system which properly prepares them for their future.
Is it therefore the case that in order to ensure education is relevant for our youngsters’ future that schools have to take the lead? Is the Department for Education so politicised that principled decisions about education must be taken at a grass roots level? In my view, we can no longer wait for a lead from the government. Education is too important for this. Let those of us entrusted with the education of young people take a lead – we can be the difference.
Marty Cooper, the inventor of the mobile phone, has observed that we are living in an age of ubiquitous access to people. We are living in an age of connectivity. Connectivity ‘per se’ is of course nothing new. For centuries people have been drawn to spaces where connections can be made: the forum, the market place, the coffee shop. And it is no accident that this is often where ideas originate and from where they spread. However, the power of digital connectivity makes social interaction all pervasive. Any time, any place, any where and any one. Access to connectivity is not hierarchical in the traditional sense but is linked to access to technology. This connectivity will only be enhanced as more sophisticated and clever technology is created as part of the technology arms race.
What does this mean for schools? At the moment, connectivity is about process – installing wireless infrastructures, offering access to PCs or devices and issuing robust policies on digital use all about denying connectivity. All of which is a bolt-on to the core business of the school – learning. Adding fringe benefits but essentially not embracing the potential for a truly connected experience for learners.
Our school is on its own journey. Our fundamental values have not changed. We want to educate young people who enjoy a love of learning for its own sake, are intellectually engaged and who will make a positive difference in the world. Nothing new in this. But our ambition is to set these values in a connected setting. For the last few years we have been exploring what this can mean for the class room. All our students have digital technology in their toolkit either in the class room setting ( 3-11 year olds) or as 1:1 iPad deployment (11-18 year olds). The device is the platform for connection. Its extraordinary power rests in its capacity to connect in a myriad of ways. Our learners have in their hands access to the digital resources created by our teachers whether iTunes U or iBooks; they can connect of course with the Internet which opens a multiplicity of opportunities for learning; they can learn about the power and the darker side of connectivity in a school setting with guidance and support. As we now investigate the possibilities offered by Google Apps for Education, it is becoming clear to me that the learning space can be completely transformed. Seamless interaction between teachers and learners facilitated by a device. A Google Classroom. Essentially digital devices are tearing down physical barriers to learning.
Yet the education of our students, their knowledge and understanding of a wide range of subjects, is essential to their ability to think critically and creatively. The concept of a “Renaissance Man” (or woman) has never been so important. Here the teacher is absolutely vital. Inspiring teaching in the classroom can engage our students in such a way as to enhance their curiosity. Carefully curated connectivity provides pathways for them to explore this curiosity – pathways which are not trammelled by textbooks, work sheets, class rooms or location. Because after all, they enjoy the opportunities to learn in a connected world, in a school with a digital platform, allowing their learning to escape the box of school. What can be more powerful?
“We all know that teachers spend a lot of time preparing lesson plans rather than focusing on how well they deliver those lessons. This is a complete waste of time.” So says Lord Nash, schools’ minister and chair of the Future Academies chain of schools. Well, this is one hell of a statement.
So what are the underlying messages?
1. A one-size-fits-all lesson plan can accommodate all the learners because of course every learner is the same;
2. A teacher is merely a cog in the machine whose sole responsibility is to deliver content;
3. And by the way, there is money to be made. There are serious commercial possibilities for producing off the peg lesson plans.
I sometimes feel my life in education is best illustrated by Munch’s ‘The Scream’. And this is a quintessential Munch moment. How can anyone working with schools possibly believe that teaching can be reduced to a conveyor bank of lessons, laboriously rolled out by teachers with no consideration for the individual needs of the pupils? When did education become just a process?
At an open morning event in our Junior School, I found myself sharing with prospective parents the impact one teacher had on me and my life chances. My History teacher at Sixth Form College made me believe in myself. She went out of her way to help me overcome my shyness and to feel able to contribute to class discussion. She encouraged me to aspire to a future previously closed to me. I am sure others in the class felt the same. This was no accident – the teacher understood that sitting in front of her were a group of individuals. She knew that the lesson had to be nimble enough to address the needs of all the learners. She certainly didn’t just deliver a standardised lesson plan.
Sir Ken Robinson, a global education guru, is on record as commenting that teaching is an art form and not just a delivery mechanism. The implication of this statement is that the teacher has a critical role to play. The lesson plan is the preparation the teacher undertakes to ensure everyone in the class is engaged in the learning. It is crucial that everyone in the lesson accesses the learning. And it is vital that the teacher engages with the youngsters in a way which is meaningful to them.
When we decide that the teacher’s creativity, empathy, and understanding of pupils is secondary to a financial modelling system with standardised lesson plans, then we have arrived at a dystopian understanding of the purpose of education. Our young people are worth more. Shame on those who think otherwise.