Tag Archives: technology

Living in an age of ubiquitous connectivity.

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?

“Social media and social conscience” by Molly Pugh age 15

Social media allows us to connect in ways we never had before. We have the potential to make links with people you would never normally encounter – of different social standing, race and even living on the other side of the world. However, there is a danger that social media can shut people off from the wider world, instead of helping them embrace it. By using websites like Facebook and Twitter, people surround themselves with their friends, their family and their social circles. Even on Twitter people follow people they have common interests with such as a celebrities. This can lead to young people in the West being surrounded by their predominantly privileged culture.

Young people, without rare proactive interest, don’t see the huge breaches of human rights and the grotesque amounts of suffering going on around the world today. This combined with what I feel is the growing perception that being an activist of any kind has become unfashionable in the west’s middle classes, certainly In Britain, has created a distressing reality that world suffering is becoming increasingly ignored. Whilst it should not go unmentioned that there are of course socially aware young people in our society, I feel strongly that there are not enough. In my school, which has a strong sense of social responsibility, the Prom Committee in year 10 was the most popular committee by far, whilst Amnesty was the least. This is illustrative of a challenge which faces our society. If young people aren’t taught to be socially and globally conscious then surely, in the enclosed world of social media, they are ill prepared for when they reach adulthood. This is further proven by the astounding fact that in 2005 more 18-34 year olds voted in the Big Brother Contest than in the general election.

Social media whilst having huge possibilities, with 552 million daily users on Facebook alone, often lets itself down by surrounding people with their cultures and comfort zones, and not forcing them to see the massive and more important issues that the world is facing. The main issue is how can we use social media to enhance people’s social conscience, instead of hindering it?

Fact about the Big Brother Voting from http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4586995.stm.
Fact about the Facebook usage from http://visual.ly/100-social-networking-statistics-facts-2012

Leipzig, BMW and Learning.

I had the joy of listening to choral music by the great Tudor composers Thomas Tallis and William Byrd this weekend. What made this experience of the Elizabethan Renaissance so special was the location. The performance was in a church in Leipzig, Germany.

The cultural vitality of Leipzig is a hallmark of its greatness. Not even the post-war German Democrat Republic, toppled by popular revolution in 1989, could muzzle the creative life of this historic city.

Yet, whilst revelling in the history of Leipzig, it is the future beckoning the inhabitants of the city and its environs which I found most compelling. A tour of the award winning “state of the art” BMW plant built outside of Leipzig is an education in future thinking. The principles under-pinning the production line of Henry Ford’s Model T are recalibrated to create a very modern working environment. The car remains the star – however, configuring each car for the individual is the guiding principle of the BMW approach. Form and function are harnessed in a very twenty first century way. This holistic approach to manufacturing represents to me creative thinking of the highest order. The process I witnessed in this inspiring building – to call it a factory is too twentieth century – demanded design which transcended convention.

Why does this matter? It matters because this manufacturing plant outside Leipzig is arguably a beacon for future learning. BMW, like other global corporations, understands that to succeed tomorrow it must push the boundaries of invention today. The reason I am so struck by this is because the education debate in this country is stuck in a past paradigm where discourse has become mired in arguably an old fashioned factory model with emphasis on process. In my view this is a very limited vision of what the future may hold for young people. So how does this compare with Germany?

Given I was enjoying the hospitality of an old university friend and her family whilst in Leipzig, I took the opportunity to find out more about her personal experience of the German education system. First I learnt that Germany, the great economic powerhouse of Europe, is also obsessed with its position in the PISA table. However, because of the decentralisation of education to the states, this particular hobby horse cannot be wielded by central government to effect change in schools (even if they so wished). Secondly, both academic and vocational education are genuinely valued within schools with university and apprenticeships offering equally valid routes for young people. And thirdly, and apposite in the education of my friend’s children, the importance of curriculum breadth until 18.

Inevitably the Saxon education system is not Nirvana. For example I also heard grumblings about limited digital resources in school. And I am aware that there is more general debate taking place about the German education system and whether it is fit for twenty first century purpose. The all too familiar discussions about the Asian education system and the much hyped success of Finland are part of the German discourse too.

My brief sojourn in Leipzig was interesting on so many levels. On a personal note, I have returned home culturally invigorated. Professionally, I remain convinced we must continue our debate in this country on what matters in education. What is best for young people is too important to become a hostage to political posturing of any persuasion. In our globally connected world, what can matter more?

Mr Michael Gove – provocative and wrong

What do the Blob, Mr Men and Guardian education writers have in common? They all appear somewhere in Michael Gove’s pantheon of disapproval. The Education Secretary’s latest speech about the problems besetting education is classic Gove. It is very engaging, thought provoking and entertaining. His view on raising the bar of aspiration for all young people is absolutely right. Yet his method is so wrong.

As principal of an academic school where aspiration is part of our DNA, I really do get Gove’s passion for excellence. However, what mystifies me is his very personal take on what should matter in the pursuit of excellence. Gove referenced George Elliot’s Middlemarch as illustrative of the kind of book a 17 year old should be reading for pleasure. This struck a chord with me. As a 13 year old back in the last century I was so inspired by a BBC mini series of “War and Peace” starring Anthony Hopkins and Alan Dobie that I read the trilogy. Whilst I cannot claim to have truly appreciated this classic piece of literature, I knew I was reading something very special which helped awaken in me a life long love of history. I am sure Gove would approve of such cultural aspiration from a working class daughter of Irish immigrants. Yet I should never have even considered reading such a vast tome without the stimulus of the TV series.

TolstoyAnd this is the point. Just as the medium of television opened up the world of Tolstoy to me, today television is one of just a multitude of possibilities for engaging the young. Their cultural landscape is hugely varied. What interests them? Well, I think sober study of classic literature and dry narrative history do not register highly. Young people need an approach which connects with them and the values in their world.

As such, Gove’s dismissive attitude to cultural references which are decidedly low brow entirely miss the point. Mr Men? Disney? Why not if they contribute to understanding and learning. It is not about denigrating, it is about creating. Why not a rap in Latin? Blind Date in the court of Henry VIII? iPad puppet pals for any number of learning opportunities? All tried and trusted approaches in one academic school in Cambridge.

Rather than looking to the familiar, everyone involved in education should be thinking differently about learning. The digital world is a game changer. And we must change with it. If Angry Birds, the staple digital game of many youngsters, inspires a young person to learn coding surely that is a desirable outcome? If the Garage Band app provides a creative platform for an aspiring young musician isn’t this to be applauded? Both activities can be deemed distractions – but they need not be.

We are on the nursery slopes of digital learning. The potential for transformation of the conventional educational paradigm is extraordinary. Yet none of this registers in the world of the Secretary of State for Education. It strikes me that Gove’s well meaning attempts to promote excellence for all young people is being enacted in a parallel universe. The Aunt
Sallies highlighted in Mr Gove’s recent speech will be as nothing compared to future digital “distractions” – sorry, learning.

Final thought. A delegation of teachers from an academic school in Singapore visited us recently to learn about our experience of iPads. I thought that the principal and her staff would be focused on the use of iPads to improve academic attainment. After all, Singapore is flying high in Gove’s favourite international league table, PISA. I was surprised and encouraged to learn that this particular school was, like us, concerned with the holistic nature of education and how the digital revolution impacted upon young people.

We felt a real connection with the educators who worked in a school on the other side of the world. Therefore it is disappointing that the educational policy in this country feels like we are living in a foreign country.