Tag Archives: creativity

Is reading being crowded out in our digital age?

I am proud that my school is at the forefront of deploying digital technology in the classroom.  Technology has become embedded in our learning environment and really is just another tool in the teachers’ and learners’ toolkit.  In a valedictory letter sent to me recently by parents, who were initially sceptical about the 1:1 deployment of iPads, I was delighted to read that they were now convinced that this had had a hugely positive impact on their daughter’s education observing that for her using digital technology is completely natural.

And yet, with the many upsides of our approach, we cannot ignore a broader trend being fuelled by the omnipresence of technology.  The very real concern of our teachers, particularly teachers of English, is the growing sense that reading as an activity is being crowded out by all the distractions offered by the digital age.  There is just so much instant gratification out there.  This emerging view is coloured by the exponential changes in the world around us which we all experience day-to-day.  It is of course always difficult to calibrate change when you are in the middle of it – there are no longitudinal studies to help us.  But we do have the professional experience of staff.  Our Curriculum Leader in English is of the view that over the last 5-6 years she and her colleagues have observed a real difference in the attitude of our students in reading for pleasure.  Indeed, such is her concern, that she and her colleagues are seriously considering introducing reading lessons in our senior school next year.

But the unintended consequences of the digital revolution go beyond merely the activity of reading.  There is also a growing awareness that what is being read does not necessarily fall within the classical canon of literature famously advocated by the previous Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove.  For many of our teenagers the lure of Dickens and Austen is cast into sharp relief by authors who take advantage of the free platforms to publish on the Internet.  The positive here is that at least this is evidence of reading but the real concern is about the quality of the literature being read.

So was Gove right, in his previous role, to insist that the classics of English Literature should be included in the National Curriculum and the reformed GCSE?  Certainly inclusion in the curriculum marks the importance of the English canon of literature.  Yet my concern is that force-feeding reading of the classics is not necessarily going to energise our young learners to want to explore the classics beyond Dickens and Austen.  The danger is that the classical canon of literature will be seen as the stuff for qualifications and irrelevant for reading for enjoyment.  

Do I have the answer to this very digital conundrum? I don’t think I do.  But I do know that by acknowledging this reality around reading at least we have made the first step in addressing it.  What was previously backgrounded in learning is now foregrounded.  How the English canon is passed down to future generations is the challenge and this is beyond merely the process of reading – it is about our cultural identity.

A Goveian Dog’s Dinner – the reform of ‘A’ Levels

What a Goveian dog’s dinner! David Blunkett’s assessment of the reforms to the examination qualifications’ framework at the recent HMC conference – with a nod to his dog Cosby – sums up perfectly the landscape which presents itself to schools across the country. Whether in the maintained or independent sector, we really are all in it together. The phased changes to ‘A’ Levels from 2015-19 are far from desirable and will result in a host of unintended consequences.

Having sat in a packed room of Heads at the conference all eagerly seeking enlightenment, I learnt that a number of colleagues were proposing to offer three of the new linear ‘A’ Levels as their sixth form curriculum offering. I completely understood the thinking behind this, however, I came away with a sense that the proposed reforms were moving us back to the ‘A’ Levels of my youth when studying an ‘A’ Level really was all about preparing for university. The fact that the boards back then were under the umbrella of Oxford, Cambridge and London signalled this clearly and the narrow offering at sixth form was designed to funnel the student to their chosen specialist subject. And of course a relatively small number of students actually studied ‘A’ Levels as university was about a scholarly elite.

Fast forward to 2014 and the world around us has fundamentally changed. This is an age of globalisation, technological revolution and exponential change. An age when, more than ever, citizens need to be capable of interrogating innovation and discovery, of having the capacity to think critically and of being scientifically literate. And an age where large numbers of young people go onto university. How on earth does narrowing the focus of learning at 16 prepare young people for the lives they will live? With universities in this country like UCL offering inter-disciplinary degrees, and with well established Liberal Arts courses here and abroad, the examination reforms fly in the face of the world our young people will live in. Gone are the days when thinking in specialist silos was the desired educational outcome. In tomorrow’s world our young learners have to be able to join the dots in their thinking, linking ideas and thinking creatively. Of course there are specialist areas but how many of our young people will be slavishly following a career defined by a specialist degree?

What we should be advocating is an examination system which supports breadth and values more than the outcome of a test. Sadly, the direction of travel in our educational world, set by Michael Gove, is such that the challenge of educating our young people for tomorrow’s world has become even harder. We shall of course ensure that our students in our sixth form are prepared for our national qualification framework. We shall investigate how we can ensure our students have as broad an education as can be offered within the Goveian straight-jacket of qualifications. Yet the broader imperative will and shall remain learning. As Alvin Toffler said:

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. ”

Learning is for life and not just for university.

Mr Michael Gove – let me introduce Sir Ken Robinson.

Tin hats on. Michael Gove has stirred up another hornet’s nest, this time about school holidays (too long) and the school day (too short). Gove attracted the epithet “Gove the Holiday Snatcher” in one of the red tops – a topical reference to Lady Thatcher who, as the Education Secretary, assumed the role of pantomime villain when she was dubbed the ‘Milk Snatcher’ for ending school milk for children.

It is difficult to know how to interpret Gove’s most recent pronouncement. He did not so much open a debate as unleash a cacophony of noise. Gove’s now trade mark tendency of making grandiloquent statements with little reference to an evidence base underpinned his declaration on school holidays. Twitter, where embedded teachers engage in virtual guerrilla warfare against Gove, was on red alert as outraged educators hissed and booed Gove’s latest hobby horse. An inconvenient truth quickly emerged. A document, collated by the European Commission listing term dates in every country in Europe, went viral. It placed this country near the top of Gove’s new league table of countries with the shortest holidays. So if the UK had to think again about school holidays because of the perceived educational advantage of students in Asia then so too had our European neighbours – who, to the best of my knowledge, are not beating this particular drum.

As someone who would value debate about the best configuration of school terms for learning, I find Gove’s intervention really unhelpful. A political approach elicits a political response. And without a doubt, the simplicity of Gove’s panacea in response to a complex set of educational issues can only be explained as the thinking of a politician.

Anyone actively involved in education knows that the physical corralling of students in a classroom does not necessarily equate to learning. Learning is not a mechanical process to be packaged and measured by length of service in schools. Indeed with the digital revolution transforming our lives, it can be argued that the Pandora’s Box is open and learning has escaped its physical footprint. If this is indeed the case, discussions about length of school terms become, at best, about child care and, at worst, a very twentieth century preoccupation.

Yet again it seems to me that Gove is posing the wrong question. And he is hugely underestimating the importance of time outside of formal schooling in the development of a young person. Children do not stop learning just because of location. With the right mindset, learning is everywhere.

Yet herein lies the rub. The curriculum proposals favoured by Michael Gove are characterised by weight of knowledge to the detriment of developing the attributes of a successful learner. The generation of school children entering schools in the second decade of the twenty first century should be engaging in an educational journey which takes them beyond the constraints of a very English curriculum. Our global inter connectedness is an important feature of our lives and will be integral to theirs.

Thankfully there are other voices contributing to the educational debate. Sir Ken Robinson (@SirKenRobinson) enjoys an international reputation for his work on the importance of creativity in education. For him creativity is important for the economy, culture and personal growth particularly in our inter connected world. Indeed his efforts to persuade the previous incumbents of the Department of Education of the importance of creativity in learning were politely rebuffed. Yet his views have become a meme of our age, his talks on the highly regarded TED Talks watched by millions across the world. At the very least there should be some engagement with this thinking in our own national debate. Rather than – dare I say – a very uncreative discussion about length of school terms.

watch here: Sir Ken Robinson on creativity

Responding to Michael Gove in the Daily Mail and The Blob

Snow in late March is as unexpected as Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, embracing the world we live in today.

Michael Gove, The Blob

Michael Gove

Unlike the weather, Gove does not disappoint. True to form Gove uses his media platform of choice, Mail Online, to articulate clearly his contempt for those who oppose his reforms, castigating them as Marxists. Indeed, he paints a picture of conspiracy at the heart of education saying:

“School reformers in the past often complained about what was called The Blob – the network of educational gurus in and around our universities who praised each other’s research, sat on committees that drafted politically correct curricula, drew gifted young teachers away from their vocation and instead directed them towards ideologically driven theory.”

Golly – The Blob has a great deal to answer for if this is indeed the case. Gove’s academy and free school agenda is designed to destroy this cabal, as is his determination to move responsibility for teacher training from the ideologues in universities into schools.

As someone who has worked in schools for nearly 30 years I am struggling to reconcile Gove’s world view with my experience. As Principal of an independent school, I can hardly be described as a Marxist or indeed a card carrying member of The Blob. Yet I share the concern of fellow educators about the direction Gove is determined to take us. His talk about standards and rigour is all sound and fury. Standards and rigour are not antithetical to an education which values higher order thinking.

The trigger for Gove’s diatribe would appear to be a letter published in the Independent, signed by 100 eminent academics and teachers, which is acutely critical of the proposed educational reforms. Referring to a recent CBI report (not known as a hotbed of Marxism), it notes the “need to end the culture of micro-management” in schools and (citing the Cambridge Primary Review) the propensity to value memorisation and recall over understanding and inquiry. The driver for Gove appears to be the PISA international tests where the UK is slipping in performance. Setting aside the debate about the true validity of this particular league table, the 100 academics make for me an unanswerable argument:

“Schools in high-achieving Finland, Massachusetts and Alberta emphasise cognitive development, critical understanding and creativity, not rote learning.”

In the internet age, this particular trivium is absolutely essential. Of course knowledge matters but to focus on this without any reference to the learning challenges of the digital revolution is not just shocking but irresponsible. At the touch of a finger on a myriad of devices young people can access so much information. How are they to understand this world unless they learn in ways appropriate for this century and not the last?

It strikes me that Gove is living in a world of certainties which looks in upon itself with wonder – he will slay The Blob and all its works and the Holy Grail of standards will be achieved. Actually, Mr Gove, the future is uncertain and the rigidity of thinking evidenced in the Mail Online article is deeply concerning.

Living in Cambridge cheek by jowl with Silicon Fen, we enjoy an insight into the future. It is extremely odd that whilst other ministers in the government fete this city for its innovation and excellence, the Secretary of State for Education does not appear to understand how our future success depends on an educational system which values “cognitive development, critical understanding and creativity.” Our young people deserve better from the true “enemy of promise”, Mr Michael Gove.

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