Books That Made Me An Educator: a Forgotten Classic

October 6th, 2015 § permalink

krishnamurtibookThis is the third in an occasional series of posts highlighting some of the books that led me into education or that have greatly influenced me as an educator over the years. Previous posts can be found here and here.

For those of a progressive bent in education, the ‘golden age’ of radical educational thought is usually considered to be the period in the 1960s and ’70s when the likes of Ivan Illich, AS Neill, John Holt, Everett Reimer, Paulo Freire and a number of others came to prominence. The appearance of cheap paperback versions of their books sparked a worldwide debate about the explicit and implicit purposes of formal education, about the nature of teaching and learning (and the relationship between teaching and learning), and about the possibilities of transforming educational systems and institutions to meet the needs of all people and not just the demands of the wealthy or the élites (groups that of course tend to coincide in most countries). Their books sparked a surge in subversive educational practice and activism the world over. In Scotland, the likes of RF Mackenzie carried the torch for educational transformation, and all over the world other teachers and thinkers and writers pursued their own progressive tenets.

However, a remarkable book appeared in the early 1950s that presaged this radical upsurge by more than decade. That book was Education and the Significance of Life (the link is to a free version of the book in PDF format), by an Indian thinker and philosopher, Jidda Krishnamurti. I came to this book after the books of the writers mentioned above, and it caused me to rethink some of the issues that they had raised in my mind.

Krishnamurti, on a cursory reading, might seem to be have been a harbinger of that stream of thinking from which the radical educators were later to emerge (although of course even the later burst of radicalism was not uniform or homogeneous by any means) – and certainly there are many strands that coincide – but he offered a number of ideas and took some positions that were in fact radically different to those of the likes of Illich, Freire and others.

At the heart of this book is the statement from which it’s title is taken:

Education is not merely acquiring knowledge, gathering and correcting facts; it is to see the significance of life as a whole.

Few would disagree with this. However, Krishnamurti had a particular take on how this could be achieved. He believed that in order to educate fully we must understand the meaning of life as a whole, a not inconsiderable requirement, and he felt that in order to gain this understanding:

…we have to be able to think, not consistently, but directly and truly. A consistent thinker is a thoughtless person, because he conforms to a pattern; he repeats phrases and thinks in a groove…..To understand life is to understand ourselves and that is both the beginning and the end of education.

He felt that education should help each one of us to:

…discover lasting values so that we do not merely cling to formulas or repeat slogans; it should help us to break down our national and social barriers, instead of emphasizing them, for they breed antagonism between man and man. Unfortunately, the present system of education is making us subservient, mechanical and deeply thoughtless; though it wakens us intellectually, inwardly it leaves us incomplete, stultified and uncreative.

How interesting to think that, some sixty or more years later, we are still having to make the same arguments.

But perhaps the most radical idea that Krishnamurti put forward – and this is where he would certainly differ fundamentally from the likes of Paulo Freire (to give but one example) – was to challenge those who approach education from any one ideological position. He wrote, for example:

Ideals have no place in education for they prevent the comprehension of the present.

He continued:

The right kind of education is not concerned with any ideology, however much it may promise a future Utopia: it is not based on any system, however carefully thought out; nor is it a means of conditioning the individual in some special manner. Education in the true sense is helping the individual to be mature and free, to flower greatly in love and goodness. That is what we should be interested in, and not in shaping the child according to some idealistic pattern.

In his view, human being are simply not to be shaped according to any definite pattern, but left free to decide for themselves how they wish to grow and learn and develop. Philosophically that is a difficult concept to argue, and politically it is, of course, anathema to most radical educationists, since most of them, if not all of them, present their vision for education from one standpoint or another, sometimes worked out explicitly, but often largely unstated.

I do feel, incidentally, that Krishnamurti’s starting point does strongly support my own educational philosophy, distilled into the prose-poem I Am Learner.

For anyone seeking to transform education so that it better serves the needs of people rather than the needs of states or corporations or any other external interest, this is a book that is at least worth reading and pondering. It will make you think. And it will force you, perhaps, to justify to yourself why you hold any one particular position over any other.

Never a bad thing.


Fiction, Non-Fiction and Facts

August 28th, 2015 § permalink



BBC Radio Four offers a number of fine programmes about books, writing and reading. I regularly enjoy A Good Read in which the host and two guests each specify a book that all three have to read and then comment on. It is a great antidote to anyone who doubts that literary taste is entirely subjective.

Open Book, hosted by Mariella Frostrup, is equally interesting, focusing mainly on interviews with authors, but ranging widely over the domain of books generally. A recent programme was entitled “Why We Read” and brought together four people for a discussion on the question: John Mullan (professor of English at UCL), Naomi Alderman (novelist and games designer), Damian Barr (writer, columnist and playwright), and Joe Devlin (neuroscientist).

I read a lot. However, I returned only recently to reading fiction after many years in which I devoured non-fiction almost exclusively across a broad swathe of subjects – education, technology, culture, politics, philosophy, literature, science, economics, and much more besides. My return to fiction is allowing me to enjoy again a number of books that I read many years ago, along with some recent fiction that is entirely new to me. But I still, and will continue to, read non-fiction, because of the pleasure it gives me and the learning it allows me.

So I was a little nonplussed by a few throwaway remarks by the otherwise erudite panel that equated non-fiction books with ‘facts’. You can listen to this particular part of the conversation in the 3 minute extract above.

In the discussion, Marcella Frostrup said:

It seems to be a common thing amongst more mature people…that you must amass facts, and eschew fiction…

Apart from the equation of facts and non-fiction, I wonder whether the comment about ‘mature people’ is even arguable? In my experience, young children devour ‘fact books’ more than any other age group.

Joe Devlin, as an incentive for readers of non-fiction to try fiction, offered the notion that:

…lots of fiction has interesting facts in it…

He said that he had read Wolf Hall and learned much about the Tudors, but had enjoyed it primarily for a narrative throughout which Hilary Mantel had cleverly woven many facts about that period in English history.

John Mullan offered the suggestion that fiction:

…lets you into consciouses like no other kind of book…

I can say categorically that I have almost never, at least not since I had to learn so-called facts for utterly pointless examinations at school and at university, read a piece of non-fiction in order to ‘amass facts’. Indeed I have a philosophical difficulty with the very notion of a ‘fact’. You show me a fact beyond the merely trivial and I will show you a piece of information that can be pulled apart and debated ad infinitum.

The preponderance of the non-fiction titles I buy and read engage me with argument, discourse, categorical statements to be debated, opinion and ideology. Indeed, many of them also offer a narrative, with an argument often built around the narrative or a number of intertwined narratives. It may not be quite the kind of narrative that I will find in a work of fiction; nonetheless, writers of non-fiction do often pull their readers in by presenting their thoughts through a story that weaves a series of connected people, events and ideas together.

As for access to ‘consciouses’, I could pick out dozens of non-fiction books from my shelf that lay bare the thought processes, the backgrounds, the prejudices, the hopes and fear and desires of the writers who penned them, and often of those who might be referenced in the work. Fiction, I know, manages this in ways that most non-fiction cannot, but it would be wrong to argue that only fiction is able to do this.

I will continue to buy and read non-fiction. I will continue to expand my re-kindled pleasure in fiction (literally, since I read much of my fiction on a Kindle). But I will very rarely if ever read anything merely to amass facts.

Shifting the Old Order of Things in Education

July 20th, 2015 § permalink


Despite the seeming diversity of social, cultural and political influences on educational policies and practices across the globe, the received wisdom around what constitutes a sound education system is, I would suggest, pretty similar from one country to another.

That is a pity.

While the external superstructure of schooling can vary considerably from place to place, few if any national or regional systems, and certainly very few independent or private-sector schools, deviate very far from those models of schooling that seek to transfer a centrally-defined canon of knowledge from one generation to the next. Schooling, according to this model, is about an externally derived curriculum, often content-heavy, sometimes skills-based, that teachers teach and students are somehow supposed to learn. The detail of any particular canon may change from time to time, and certainly differ from country to country, but the aim remains the same: to decide nationally or regionally what people need to know if they are to serve society and the economy, to devise the necessary curriculum along with appropriate content, and then to train teachers to pass on that knowledge in as efficient a manner as can be achieved.

It would be simplistic to typify any one pedagogy as mainstream since any good teacher and any good school tends to deploy a range of pedagogies to suit different circumstances for varying groups of students and across different subject matters. However, the educational mainstream certainly does still see the role of the teacher primarily as that of the expert whose task it is to take the pre-determined curriculum as a given, and then to select the best means they can at any one moment to ensure the necessary transfer of knowledge. While it would be pointlessly churlish to deny that teachers working within the paradigm of mainstream education can genuinely engage learners actively in their own learning, it is by no means churlish to point out that the role of the student in that paradigm is still, largely, passive in the particular matters of what, when and how they have to learn.

Looking to the Countercultural

This ages-old, teacher-led, top-down model is undoubtedly still the mainstream around the world, but there is a lively discourse surging and swirling around various learner-focused models that might be seen as countercultural alternatives to the mainstream.  Turning our focus from the teaching to the learning, with all the implications that this entails, does seem to be enjoying the benefit of a strong technological and cultural tail wind driving it onward at the present time in many parts of the world.

Many contributors to the discourse, lifted and carried by that same tail wind, speak and write about the inevitability – one day soon, eventually, in the long run, in due course – of the mainstreaming of learner-focused education. Such optimism can be heartening, for sure, and it can be cheering to listen to those who propose an ineluctable logic to the eventual shift away from teacher-led instruction.

However, I am much less certain than the optimists amongst us about the willingness of those who, wittingly or unwittingly, maintain the status quo in schooling around the world to shift ground in any dramatic way any time soon. The school as we know it, with only relatively minor adjustments in time and place, has been a persistent concept for a long time the world over, one resistant to fundamental change.

There is, I would agree, a logic to the rightness of the broad principles and aspirations of learner-directed learning, with the concomitant changes in practice that teachers would have to accept to make it work effectively. Unlike some who sound the charge on this, I believe that a shift away from teacher-led instruction will actually demand more from teachers in terms of their interactions with learners, and not less! Only good thoughtful adaptable teachers who are respectful of their students’ autonomy, and who therefore understand their role is to impart wisdom and experience in helping students to learn rather then ‘teach’ them in the too-long-accept sense of that word, will be able to thrive in such an environment. Those who believe that being a teacher endows them automatically with authority, whether in terms of subject expertise or social control, will struggle.

As so many of us have written and said before, and will continue to espouse, we know the world is changed, and we know that the still prevalent smokestack schooling model was designed for a different era, serving the needs of the industrial age efficiently and effectively. With ubiquitous access to information, with the emergence of social-productive technologies, and with the decisive shift to the globalised knowledge-based economy, the context within which education systems need to work is changed. But we also know there is a dogged tenacity to the old familiar ways in education, and few if any large-scale education systems around the world show many signs yet of succumbing to the charms of a different paradigm any time soon. The key sets of stakeholders, the world over – governments, parents, business, the teaching profession, universities – remain obdurately tied to an industrial-age education that struggles to meet the demands of the Internet age, and few show signs of shifting ground any time soon. Indeed, in some parts of the world, there are definite signs of retrenchment in mainstream education systems.

So, if the shift from the current prevailing model is to happen, how will it be brought about? As long ago as 2000,  Chris Locke was able to write in the Cluetrain Manifesto (PDF):

Before any Old Order of Things can be given the final heave-ho coup de grâce, it’s necessary to create a parallel infrastructure controlled by people acting in cooperation for their own benefit and mutual support.

He also wrote:

Just because you’re not seeing a revolution – or what Hollywood has told you a revolution ought to look like – doesn’t mean there isn’t one going down.

The global conversation that is already happening, a conversation of educators and other interested people, is creating the transformation needed bit by bit, day by day, classroom by classroom, learner by learner, teacher by teacher. I don’t believe that we are anywhere close, as yet, to Chris Locke’s ‘parallel infrastructure’ – but gradually, in some places more quickly than others, some signs of the new, co-existant learning paradigm are beginning to take place.

If the likes of Metcalfe’s Law (or Reed’s Law, which I feel is more accurate) has any credibility, each new person that joins the conversation, each new node on the network of those who seek change, expands the universe of the new education exponentially. This process will continue, and every individual that joins, every education authority that sees the light, every civil servant, politician and education leader that recognises the truth in the new paradigm, pulls us that little bit closer to the coup de grâce of the Old Order of Things in Education.

Finally, in any counterculture, there are always some people who, while shouting revolution from the rooftops, do very well, thank you very much, from the continued deferment of said revolution. While they are able to portray themselves as the avant-garde, as the trailblazing insurgents leading us all to our inevitable destiny, they actually prefer the counterculture to remain a counterculture. They quite like being part of the elite vanguard and while they might shout the right slogans, their practice, and even their thinking, doesn’t really cut it.

Our aim has to be to mainstream the counterculture by building that parallel infrastructure and to bypass not only those who maintain and reproduce the Old Order of Things, but also those who enjoy their ‘countercultural’ credentials just a little too much.

Education and the Great Big Disruption Machine

July 19th, 2015 § permalink


The Internet is all things to all people. Well, almost. It hasn’t quite got there yet in Education, for instance. But it will. It must.

I want to look – lightheartedly, but with earnest intent – at why we in Education need to take this Internet Age a whole lot more seriously than we have done so far.

Our world is increasingly connected, and for large swathes of humanity, the global mesh of interconnected networks, digital devices and online services is now the platform upon which much of our collective social, economic and political activity takes place. We are connected to each other by this vast and ever-expanding matrix that teems and throbs with transactions, interactions, communications, determinations and altercations that connect us, help us, serve us, govern us, watch us, inform us, cajole us, entertain us, protect us, endanger us, deceive us, and expose us.

Above all else, the Internet is the greatest disruptor in the history of human society. It is the ultimate Disruption Machine. So many important areas of human activity have already been shaken to their cores in myriad ways, and the disruptive effects are reaching into more and more areas of our lives. That many have dubbed this a revolution is understandable (and certainly arguable) and there can be no doubt that the level of disruption in some spheres of activity has already caused colossal and lasting shifts in the way we do so many things.

In some spheres, disruption takes the form of disintermediation. We can see this already in the music industry, in publishing, in travel and tourism, across many retail sectors, in real estate, in the computing and software industries, and elsewhere. In other spheres, the technological developments themselves (including but not restricted to Internet-related developments) cause disruption when new affordances – the ability to do things using technology that were not previously possible or feasible – introduce, by definition, completely new ways of doing things. We can see this in the antithetical spheres of curing people and killing people: technology is changing healthcare irrevocably, especially in the developed world, but conversely also in the way that war can now be waged.

Disrupting Education

There are some who would argue that disintermediation will inevitably affect education. I am less sure of this than some. Most of the spheres of activity mentioned above that are already affected by a process of disintermediation involve transactional exchanges of one kind or another, transactions that in the past were managed – mediated – by middlemen. Whether the teacher can be seen in that light is a moot point. As I have argued before, when education is viewed merely as the process of transferring information from the teacher, or from media controlled by the teacher, to the heads of students, then it is easy to see why some believe that disintermediation is an inevitability in education. I see it differently.

The teacher is not – or at least ought not to be! – merely the conduit of information, and therefore not simply the ‘purveyor of learning’. As I wrote in that same previous post:

…the teacher has always been an additive component in learning. Whether the teacher brought expertise, or experience, or greater knowledge and insight, or even wisdom, into the classroom, the apparently simple process of transferring information from teacher to student would always be augmented and intensified, to some degree, by the very nature of the interaction between the two key actors in that process.

In other words, the relationship between teacher and student is far from a simple transactional one. So, while I am sure that some aspects of disintermediation will occur in education, it will not happen in the same way that it has affected so many other spheres of human activity, and especially those more obviously transactional activities.

The Disruptive Machines

In thinking about how the massive technological developments of recently times, and most especially the rapid expansion of the Internet and all its constituent parts, will affect education, I want to extend the metaphor of the Disruption Machine into a number of figurative branches. I see the overarching Disruption Machine comprising (if we stretch our imaginations a little) a series of subordinate disruption machines, each of which is either already shaping and influencing education or will very soon, and all of which will, I feel, have even greater impact over the next few years and beyond. The key next-level machines that I can identify are:

  • The Knowledge Machine
  • The Connection Machine
  • The Collaboration Machine
  • The Pattern-Construction Machine
  • The Reputation Machine
  • The Storytelling Machine

Each of these machines (and I know there are many more that could be identified) has its own distinct effect on the way that people are able to learn, on the nature of what it means to teach, on the central relationships in education, on the continuing relevance of the formal institutions of education, and on so many other aspects of education generally. They are, to use that over-used phrase, game-changers for education.

Each of them also overlaps with some or all of the others. I can discern a hierarchical relationship between some of them. For instance, the Pattern-Constructing Machine might be viewed as a sub-component of the Knowledge Machine – but I will leave such considerations aside for the moment.

The critical point for Education is that it has to begin to take these massively disruptive aspects of the digital and networking technologies very seriously indeed if it is truly to serve the needs of our children and young people into the future. Taking these Disruption Machines seriously might also avoid the formal systems and institutions of education slipping into eventual irrelevance (although I reserve judgment on whether that would necessarily be a bad thing were it to occur).

Knowledge-Machine3Whether traditional educators (those who believe that students need to be taught in order to learn effectively) like it or not, the Internet has already changed teaching and learning forever. The instant availability of information from the vast repositories, from search engines and from the deep swirling eddies of data that criss-cross the ether, has shifted the fundamental nature of the relationship between the teacher and the learner, a relationship that stayed much the same for thousands of years but which has now changed irrevocably, even if few are as yet willing to recognize the change.

In an age when information was scarce, the teacher held the key to the kingdom of knowledge for students, giving the teacher an almost unassailable position of authority over the learner. That key has slipped from the fingers of the teacher. It has been replicated ad infinitum and is now in the hands of everyone with the necessary connection to the Internet, teacher and learner alike. Today, the greatest respect a teacher can pay a student is to say, we are all learners now, let’s learn together.

Any teachers, or any schools or school systems, that refuse to make use of the Knowledge Machine that is the Internet are quite simply no longer serving the needs and interests of their students. Equally, however, making use of the power of the Web, or social media, and of so many other Internet components without also recognizing the fundamental shift that has taken place in the teacher-learner relationship is to fly in the face of today’s reality.

Connection-Machine2People, data, processes and things are increasingly being connected in ‘intelligent’ ways across the Internet. The so-called Internet of Things is rapidly adding a new and dynamic layer of capability that is in the early stages of exploitation across a broad sweep of areas of human activity. Few if any have yet worked out what its effect will be in education, although I have commented on this lack of insight in an earlier post and offered my own views.

One thing is clear, as all of these new connections are made, and as the network extends beyond just the people, the stores and flows of data, and the interactions that make up most of the Internet at the moment, many new possibilities will begin to become apparent, some of them exciting, some of them worrying. This is the world that our young people will spend their lives in, and it would be both perverse and irresponsible of any education system, any educator indeed, to ignore in their teaching these realities of life for their students (and for themselves, of course – we all live in the same world, even if some prefer to try to pretend otherwise).

The Internet of Things is fundamentally a development of digital and networking technologies that will (as I wrote before, in the post already mentioned above):

…permit us as human beings to yield or surrender some aspects of our attention, the need for our attentiveness, to the smart machines and the smart network in (we hope) a controlled way, and in a way that benefits us and doesn’t harm us.

We can only yield our attention to the machine in an intelligent way if we are able, at some level, to understand the potential consequences of doing so. In this hyper-connected world, a world that is not just coming but is in some ways already here (just not evenly distributed as someone once noted) our young people need their schools and colleges and universities to accept at least some responsibility in ensuring they are able to gain that understanding (each of us as individuals also have to take responsibility for this ourselves – the schools cannot do it all, by any means). This is a tall order for a system populated by professionals who do not themselves have that understanding, or even a wish to understand, in the main.

Collaboration-Machine2The sheer range of digital applications and services now available across the Web and the wider Internet to enable collaborative working is mind-boggling. The innumerable possibilities for individuals, teams, companies, social groups – any formal or informal grouping of people in fact – to engage in almost any kind of joint creativity means that the very notion of a school, for instance, that is wholly constrained by its physical walls is now just laughable. And yet so many schools across the world continue blissfully and obdurately trying to deliver (the word most of them would use) an education to their students while pretending that the enormously connected, massively collaborative world can be kept at bay.

It cannot.

Our ‘classroom’ is now the whole world, and the global network is now the platform for pretty much every possible human activity, whether social or political or economic, and that includes the educational, the pedagogical. Even those schools (or school systems) that recognize the power of collaboration, but that choose to restrict their students to collaboration within the school or within the district or within the region or even within their own country are failing to offer learners the powerful learnings that can occur across borders, across cultures and across ideologies.

Let your students truly collaborate. Let them talk to the world. Let them work and learn and create with their peers all over the globe. The walls of the school are now an illusion and need to be demolished in the minds and the practices of educators everywhere.

Pattern-machine4Whether as an educator you lean towards a constructivist model or a connectivist model for pedagogical justification (or bits of both, as I do), you will understand the importance of understanding data (all data, whether digital or experienced directly by the senses from our physical and social environment) as a primary step towards creating or acquiring knowledge. For the constructivist, learning is an internal process of sensing, and of making sense of, the world around us, and of constructing our own knowledge from all that we perceive and experience. For the connectivist, learning is a process of making connections between entities in the world around us, discerning and recognizing emergent patterns in the network of perceptible connections and interactions that we inhabit or touch.

The Internet offers us not only Big Data – massive banks and flows of information – but also an ever-expanding set of tools to help us try to make sense of the world in which we live, and to enable us to draw out patterns and therefore give us the means to learn. We all need to acquire the skills and the intellectual tools to enable us to determine, from the deluge of data going past us, what is good information and what is not, what makes sense and what does not, what is relevant and what is irrelevant. The so-called Google Generation are no better at this than any previous generation – we all need guidance and wisdom in the process of building these tools in our minds.

The Internet, as we have seen, is the ultimate repository of information, and everybody today needs to appreciate and understand the increasing complexity of the world in which we live, and to learn how to make those connections and discern the patterns, or to construct knowledge from the waterfalls of data crashing over us.

reputation-machine2As we have already seen, the network – the global network of networks – is the locus of more and more of the social, political and economic activity that we undertake on a day to day basis. In the pre-digital world, managing our privacy and our exposure to the world, and therefore our reputation in the widest sense of the word, was a much simpler task than it is today. If we add to that the apparent generational gap (although one that it is dangerous to generalise about) that is purported to be widening between the older generations who continue to feel the need to retain a certain level of privacy against the younger generations who seem to eschew much of that need for privacy and who choose to live their lives in the open, transparently, then it is clear that we are walking on shifting sands in this area.

In particular, the developing use of social media is rapidly and appreciably changing the dynamics of reputation management, and no amount of doomsaying or warnings of future troubles that could be caused by incautious self-exposure is likely to slow this process down. This brave new world of openness is here to stay, for good or ill, and our education system should be doing what it is supposedly designed to do: educate our young people to actively manage their online presence.

In the social sphere, as well as in the spheres of learning and work, the Internet is throwing up tools that go very far beyond the staples of Facebook and Twitter. An education system that is managed and delivered by people who do not themselves fully understand (or want) this environment of candour and frankness is unlikely to be able to serve the needs of those it is supposed to educate. As with so many aspects of the networked world, educators today, I feel, have responsibility to take at least an interest, and preferably a dispassionate interest, in the Reputation Machine if they are to serve the needs of their students effectively.

Storytelling-machine2Human beings have an ingrained fondness for stories, and storytelling has been a powerful tool for learning since the dawn of history. From before the invention of writing and of the alphabet, stories (and songs) were the primary means by which knowledge was passed from one generation to the next. Written language added to the richness of the stories we could tell, and the invention of the printing press using movable type enabled the stories we told to be broadcast at speed far and wide, and relatively cheaply. It should be plain that the definition of story here is a very wide one indeed.

The Internet has brought a whole different dimension yet again to the power of the story, and not just in the telling but also in the creation of stories. Storytelling has long been a social activity, from those heard around the campfire to those broadcast on radio, television and the movies. But until the Internet, story-making , tended (though with some notable exceptions) to be the preserve of the individual author. Making stories today can still be what it has always been, but now, with the maturing of the concept of transmedia, the story can be created collaboratively and across multiple media (and by no means exclusively digital media).

While transmedia arose in the world of entertainment, it is Education that has put it to truly effective use, and it is fast becoming a potent tool for teaching and learning. In a world of rapidly converging media, many of the age-old techniques of storytelling, alongside some very new ones, are being used to immerse learners in stories across multiple platforms. The transmedia story need no longer be linear in its telling, and indeed there can be multiple starting points to a story, with the ‘listener’ deciding the starting point for themselves from the variety on offer.

Critically, however, and most powerful in the context of education, the techniques of transmedia storytelling can be put in the hands of learners themselves, as individuals or as groups, including distributed groups of learners, to create their own transmedia narratives. By bringing together the exciting capabilities offered by the Internet and by all manner of media, digital and otherwise, with our true-to-life experiences, teachers and students around the world are already immersing themselves in multi-platform worlds of the imagination. The learners using transmedia techniques are able to personalize their learning by taking control and directing their own learning, and not being subject to teacher-constructed ‘personalization’.

As with each of the other ‘disruption machines’ the Storytelling Machine is an aspect of the digital world that is able to include non-digital elements, and is yet another machine that educators today should have in their armouries.

internet6So, by using the less-than-serious metaphors of the Disruption Machines, I want to demonstrate that Education today is very far behind many other critical areas of human activity in realizing and enabling the incredible power of the Internet and all its constituent parts in the interests of those that it serves: in this case, learners. Students worldwide, of all ages and stages, simply live in this world every day as a matter of course. They are native to the digital world. That however does not imbue them with preternatural knowledge of that world, no matter what those who prattle about digital natives might have us believe. The fact is that young people have only ever known the digital world and therefore they have little or no conception of a world without the computer or the network or the phone or the tablet or social media, or whatever.

The formal systems and institutions of education, and the educators that toil within them, risk eventual irrelevancy if they do not recognise this and take responsibility for the notion that there is still, and should always be, a place in the world for the experience, the wisdom, and the pedagogical knowledge of the committed educator. Young people, despite their native status in the digital world, can always benefit from the teacher who knows that what they teach is not necessarily (or even very much at all) what is learned by the student. So in today’s world of the Great Big Disruption Machine and all its component parts, the good teacher need to provide more than simply the age-old didactic pedagogy (as all good teachers have always known anyway). Educators need to offer wisdom and experience, to ask the pointed question at the right point,  to work with young people to help them get the best out of their own efforts, to guide without chivvying, to advise, to counsel, to cajole, to persuade, and, yes, to impart knowledge in the traditional manner where required (though much less often than is the case still).

But to be able to do this effectively in the digital age, every educator needs to come to know for themselves the world that their students now inhabit, because without that knowledge, without that dispassionate understanding of the realities of life with the Internet and all that it entails, they can do little to truly serve the interests of their students.


Teaching Dissent

July 11th, 2015 § permalink


thanks to Jennifer Murawski for the photo

When you look at the long history of man, you see that more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have been committed in the name of rebellion.

CP Snow

For many teachers in many schools around the world, perhaps even most teachers in most schools, the ideal student is someone who is quiet, who speaks only when given leave to speak, who works hard at their studies, and who obeys the rules and does what teacher tells them. This universal notion of the obedient child is the norm against which the behaviour of our children and young people is measured in their day to day schooling.

Few schools are willing, except in very controlled and permitted ways, to encourage their students to offer dissent, to argue their corner, to disagree, to demand that teachers or others in authority explain decisions and to justify their utterances. Such dissent that is allowed might be corralled into a debating society or similar, but the notion of a classroom full of argumentative, disputatious and vociferous students would fill many teachers with horror.

It is good therefore to see an attempt to take one, admittedly very small, step away from this constant expectation of obedience and lack of dissent, by introducing primary school students to philosophy. A number of schools across the UK are trialling materials based on the Philosophy for Children (P4C) ideas established by Matthew Lipman in the 1970s, and involving 3000 nine and ten year olds in:

…hour-long sessions aimed at raising their ability to question, reason and form arguments.

In P4C, children typically choose a question, from a range on offer. This sparks discussion that involves them in:

…questioning assumptions, developing opinions with supporting reasons, analysing significant concepts and generally applying the best reasoning and judgement they are capable of to the question they have chosen…

This is all good, of course – anything that gives children opportunities to engage in critical and collaborative thinking of this nature is, by definition, a good thing (true collaborative thinking does not mean searching for a cosy consensus – it can also involve, as it does in real life so often, respectful collective disputation and debate, and resulting more often in an agreement to disagree than in any sense of unanimity of thoughts and ideas).

It does not, however, go far enough. Adding philosophy to the overt curriculum without also looking very closely at the hidden curriculum of a school – that aspect of schooling that establishes the underlying expectations imposed on students (and on teachers) – serves little ultimate purpose. Bart McGettrick, Dean of Education at Liverpool Hope University and Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of Glasgow, once defined the hidden curriculum thus:

All schools have a hidden curriculum…..The way the school is organised, the way the teacher talks to the pupil, the way we as educators listen to those whom we serve in schools, all affect the values which are transmitted, and affect the self-worth and self-concept of the pupil. These are some of the most important influences on how pupils feel and how they think and act….The strength of this should never be underestimated in the lasting impact of education on the lives of people.

If in the overt curriculum students are being taught how to think and argue logically while the hidden curriculum continually transmits the message that dissent is frowned upon, then  teaching philosophy will never be enough.

Dissent, protest, defiance, disputation – all of these are necessary and core components of a free society. If the school as an institution does not establish a milieu that gives our children the right, as well as the intellectual tools, to disagree and to voice their disagreement in a mature and honest way, and if teachers choose to cloak themselves in a mask of authority that brooks no dissension from their students, then we are simply not giving children and young people the means to express their own opinions in the face of every other ‘authority’ they will come up against in their lives.

Let’s think on what CP Snow says in the quote above and teach our young people to know that it is perfectly acceptable to disagree. Let’s help them by permitting them to develop the intellectual tools and the strength of character they will need throughout life to be able to determine their own opinions, to decide their own standards of right and wrong, and to be able to play an active role in a free society rather than the passive obedient role that they too often are expected to play in the micro-society of the school.

Bertrand Russell stated it well when he wrote:

Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

Hyperbole and Bad Faith

July 7th, 2015 § permalink

internet_good&badEach new week brings with it the publication of yet another book telling us how technological developments will damage, or are already damaging, humankind. We are becoming more stupid and less sociable; we are abandoning literature and we are eroding our attention span; we are sabotaging our privacy and we are relinquishing our right to democratic politics; we are ceding our lives to the corporate imperative and we are wreaking havoc on the hallowed ground that is the university; we are corrupting our children and young people with unlimited access to pornography and we are surrendering those same children and young people to the abuse of paedophiles and people-traffickers; basically, we are all going to hell in a handcart; the list grows unabated.

But each new week also brings with it the publication of yet another book telling us how technological developments will serve up a marvelous future of unmitigated joy and unconstrained blessings for humanity. We will revolutionize and personalize education and we will offer that education to the whole of humankind; we will unchain workers from their desks and we will rejuvenate family life; we will expand massively the store of human knowledge and we will give the whole world access to that knowledge; we will shift power inexorably from the state to the individual and we will connect everyone to everyone else in ways that will enhance our lives, our loves and our prosperity; basically, our future is bathed in a warm, golden sunlight; the list grows unabated.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere between the two extremes,  and it is therefore important that we steer a rational and dispassionate path through the jungle of competing viewpoints so that we can sift the reasonable from the hyperbolic, whether pessimistic or optimistic. While there is always some point in trying to work out the advantages and the drawbacks of the Internet Age, it is almost always a matter for subjective judgement to determine which side any particular feature falls on.

Unfortunately, there are too many commentators who have realised that there is an audience for hyperbole, on both sides of the argument, and the result is a glut of books that are, I believe, just drenched in bad faith. Whether they argue that technology will deliver mankind or destroy mankind, their outpourings are compromised by their need to play forcefully to one audience or another. Such books are therefore useful only to the extent that we can replay and test arguments from either side as we tread a reasoned path between the extremes.

The only things we can say with any certainty about the developments in digital and networking technologies are, first, that they are undoubtedly disrupting how we do things across a broad range of activities, whether social, political or economic, and secondly, that the changes are inexorable. Given these minimal certainties, the best we can do for most of the changes happening around us is to celebrate and encourage the good and do our best to ameliorate and neutralise the bad. To help us do this, we need rational and thoughtful debate about the nature of the changes, not hyperbole and bad faith.

And, of course, ultimately, that distinction between changes that are good and changes that are bad is one for each of us to make on the basis of our own critical thinking and our own prejudice. The more thoughtful contributors to the various debates will help the former; those of bad faith currently enjoying their moments in the publishing sun are undoubtedly feeding the latter.

Interestingly, however, around the world, our systems and institutions of formal education have arguably been amongst the most resistant of all the major areas of human activity to digital disruption. Sure, most schools in most parts of the world are using digital devices and networks in various interesting ways. But real changes in educational practice as a result of technology can be seen only in tiny pockets here and there. Wholesale change is not yet the order of the day in the world’s schools, colleges and universities.

But this will change, and I am working on a post that will offer some thoughts around where and how those changes are most likely to happen.

Coming soon….

Pedagogy before Technology?
Don’t think so….

July 3rd, 2015 § permalink

pedagogyThere are those who would prefer to pretend otherwise, but developments in the digital and networking technologies over recent decades, developments that are growing faster and deeper with every day that passes, have profound implications for education. The shifting technologies are, I believe, asking hard questions of educationists in relation to their use of basic categories such as pedagogy, curriculum, teaching, learning and so on. At one level we can play the game of perceiving all such categories as universals, as fixed terms that have universal application in all times and in all circumstances. To play this game, however, leads us to make the mistake that many have made when they offer flawed mantras such as:

“Education First, Technology Second.”


“Pedagogy must lead the technology.”

This is just plain wrong, and is a result of complacent teacher-ly thinking.

If we dissect this mindset we find a couple of contentious assertions:

  • first, that the very essense of learning, and the various components that make up teaching and learning, are more or less unchanging – such categories can be seen as, in some sense, fixed theoretical and practical entities across time, culture and context;
  • secondly, that technology is somehow subservient to pedagogy.

The reality, I believe, is that, throughout human history, this very essence we speak of has shifted and metamorphised considerably, and often, in response to changing economic and technological possibilities. It is an absolute truth that the technological basis of the society we inhabit will have a profound effect on the nature and form of education that can take place in that society. Indeed, new technologies can change what we mean by education because they change what it means to be educated. It is no more useful, in this context, to place ‘education before technology’ than it is to put ‘technology before education’.

The very nature of what it means to be literate, to be educated, is shifting around us. The deeply social nature of the technologies and digital platforms available today, an ever-expanding set of tools that continue to offer new possibilities for self-expression and for collective expression almost on a daily basis, already puts in question many of the long-held assumptions that have been part and parcel of schooling for so long. The nature of what it means to know, the role of the teacher in the learning process, the relationship between teacher and learner, the diminishing importance of prescribed content within curricula, the inadequacy (some might argue, irrelevance) of the school building as a self-contained place within which learning is supposed to happen, the questionable efficacy of arbitrary ’standards’ to be tested over and over again during a young person’s school career – all of these and many other issues mean that teachers today are faced with a stark choice between an outmoded reality that, if sustained, will render school increasingly irrelevant to most children most of the time, and the new reality, one that recognises the major shifts brought about by the developments in digital technologies in recent years.

The Internet of Education Things (part 2)

June 10th, 2015 § permalink

Education_IoT_invertedThis is Part 2 of a 2-part post. See Part 1 here.

So, what ought the more sensible and, I would hope, somewhat more progressive, amongst us in education be looking to the Internet of Things (IoT) for in relation to learning and teaching?

I do not have all the answers, but I do think I can at least raise some apposite issues and questions in relation to this burgeoning technology and its place in education. We can look at it from the perspective of the institution and the teacher, and then from the perspective of the learner (a different perspective in many respects since the learner is no longer bound to the imperatives of whatever institution they happen to attend in the way that students traditionally have been).

First, instead of looking to IoT as a means of turning the educational institution into some kind of overactive, all-seeing all-tracking environment, watching and listening and sensing and measuring and feeding back and determining actions, we should be looking to the Internet of Things primarily as a tool to be used in the curriculum itself, and in pedagogy. We have to look at IoT from the teacher’s and the learner’s POV first before we even begin to contemplate it from the over-eager and overweening administrator’s viewpoint. How, then, can IoT be introduced into the classroom as a teaching tool, as part of the overall learning environment, as a component of blended learning perhaps, and as an aid to pedagogy? These should be the starting point of every teacher looking at the Internet of Things for the first time, and should therefore also be the starting point for every enlightened administrator who knows his or her job is preeminently about the learning and not about mere management or control.

Secondly, and related to the first point, every teacher and lecturer and professor (and educational researcher) coming to IoT should be thinking about the learning outcomes they want to achieve, and then shaping IoT to help them achieve those outcomes (at least to begin with, since the new affordances of IoT will become clear in time and the use of the technology then becomes an ongoing dialectic, a constant interplay, between pedagogy and technology). With that mindset, it should be less easy for those who seek to take the reductive approach outlined in Part 1 of the post to implement it without any forethought as to the eventual learning outcomes. If we fail in this and we succumb to the excitement of a new technology, implementing it carelessly and without careful planning, we will spend the next decade (or two) trying to undo the poor decisions we make over the next few years.

Lastly, we also need to look at this from the learner’s perspective. It might appear that the previous two points ARE from the learner’s perspective, but such is the dominance of the concept of the school and teacher-led instruction in our lives we too often forget that learning is essentially a personal human effort undertaken by each individual learner, often, though by no means necessarily, in the company of, and in collaboration with, other learners. How should we all, as individual self-directed learners, look at IoT?

Each learner should take the opportunity (or for the youngest learners, be given the opportunity) to learn about IoT, to come to know its capabilities over time, to understand its limitations and its dangers, and to be able to use it in a self-directed way to enhance their own studies and to personalize their own learning. From this perspective, it is important, for instance, that the possibilities offered by the Internet of Things becomes, at some level, something that students either learn about in school and/or are able to learn about from other sources (the Web, of course, being the main path to such learning). There will be no clear right or wrong way to do this (nor should there be), just as there have been strong arguments over the past three decades about the rights and wrongs of teaching programming to kids. But schools, districts, local government of education and national governments should give serious consideration to the resources that will be needed over time, as IoT itself matures and develops, to offer up the fruits of this new technology (new technologies, plural, really) to learners of all ages and at all stages, including the informal learner at home or in the workplace.

In this scenario, the Internet of Things becomes something that learners do for themselves and to themselves, and not have done to them, as in the dreadful top-down drivel outlined in the Deloitte piece mentioned in Part 1. It also, as a happy consequence, gives learners as citizens the information they need in their lives to recognise when the Internet of Things might be a threat to their privacy or personal well-being.

The Market Perspective….

Given all of these considerations, those businesses looking to become serious players in the Internet of Things, from the giant corporates to the hopeful startups, need to take a little time to consider the education market as something completely different in kind from whatever other enterprise or public sector markets they choose to play in. Just as an education network is not simply an enterprise network by another name, so the Internet of Things in education will be a very different beast from IoT in other spheres of activity.

If you want your business to serve the real interests of education, ask yourself the questions below. I will leave it to those reading this piece to work out the most appropriate answers to each, but be sure that your answers will determine whether your incursion into the Education-IoT market is likely to be to education’s long term benefit or merely for revenue and profit, and hang the consequences.

  • To what extent will your product or service benefit the self-identified needs of the student or the teacher as opposed to the institutional or administrative needs of those in authority?
  • To what extent is your product or service primarily deploying IoT as a means to increase the monitoring, measuring or control of students?
  • IoT is a built around the notion that we as human beings are willing to surrender some aspects of our attention to the intelligence of the machines or the network. How sure are we that the aspects of human attention in the teaching and learning processes that our product or service is  replacing or augmenting are actually desired by the students and teachers affected?
  • To what extent does our product or service retain or give up control over the IoT deployment? In other words, do those affected by our IoT product or service have any control over how it operates and therefore how it affects them?

Finally, one more question, separate from those above because it is a question that needs to be answered by any entity looking to operate effectively long term in the IoT space, and not just in education. The question is this:

  • Have you fully considered the data that will be produced by your IoT deployment? Where will it reside, who can access it, how can it be used, how should it NOT be able to be used, how will it be retained for future use, and are there limits to how much data your system can cope with?

If you don’t know the answer to this final question, or your answers to the questions above are not fully formed, then you have a problem.

Just keep at the forefront of your plans that education is different!

The Internet of Education Things (part 1)

June 10th, 2015 § permalink

Education_IoTThis is the 1st part of a 2-part post.

According to the Horizon Report for 2015 (Higher Education edition) the Internet of Things (IoT) has a 4-to-5-years adoption horizon in university education. Of course, we will only know the accuracy of that prediction in 2019/20 (although, as has been noted many times before, while we do tend to underestimate how long important new technologies take to come fully to fruition, equally we also tend to underestimate the overall impact that they ultimately have).

If we distil the Internet of Things down to its essential purpose, it is the use of technology to permit us as human beings to yield or surrender some aspects of our attention, the need for our attentiveness, to the smart machines and the smart network in (we hope) a controlled way, and in a way that benefits us and doesn’t harm us.

With this as a starting point, I have my own thoughts on IoT across education.

IoT and Education….

I have no doubt whatsoever that the Internet of Things (or the Internet of Everything, as my good friends at Cisco like to call it, drawing people, processes and data as well as ‘things’ into the concept) will eventually have a massive impact on our world. The smart object is already a reality. Add that to the IPv6-enabled Internet and the scene is set for all of those objects (along with the people and processes and data that so many of those objects will interact with or be bound to) to talk to each other, to talk to networks, to pass data of all kinds to intelligent machines and to spark myriad interesting and valuable events around us every day that will, we hope, make our world smarter, more efficient, safer, just a better place to be. Such is the dream.

Some of that will come true, I am sure. Mistakes will also be made, however, and uses will be found for IoT that might also make the world less humane, more controlling (more ‘Maoist’?), more dangerous, and in many other ways not such a good place to live. Such is the nature of technology.

One thing we can be sure of: the global market for IoT will be big. VERY BIG! We can take that as read. From the largest multinational corporations down to the smallest tech startups we can already feel a strong breeze blowing, one that will quickly become a gale and then eventually a hurricane of innovation, competitive frenzy, market-destruction, market-creation and marketing hype, all generating economic value in the trillions of dollars over time.

A Disturbing Future….

Pretty much every attempt to anticipate the potential of IoT in education that I have seen so far has been either so empty of ideas that it offers us an emperor without clothes, or so draped in the language and mindset of top-down control that it foretells of a frankly disturbing future for school, college and campus. A recent piece from a Deloitte consultant, Max Meyers, painted a picture that managed to range from the oppressive to the neurologically and pedagogically naive. He foresees the automatic logging of students as they enter the classroom, automatically pushing an exercise to them the moment they sit at their desks, skin-attached ‘neurosensors’  providing “…insight into students’ cognitive activity using EEG technology…”, and even haptic warnings (such as a vibration to their wearable or tablet) being sent silently to a student whose attention is ‘wandering’. And then this:

Imagine how pattern recognition software or data analytics might add to the teacher’s contextual understanding by then mapping the record of behavioral incidents against a student’s cognitive activity, heart rate, or the classroom temperature. Senior educators with years of classroom experience often develop an intuitive understanding of such complex learning dynamics, but a connected classroom could provide such insights even to the teacher just starting out.

He does at least have the sense to write: “…this added value does not come without concerns.”

More than a few concerns really. As the ever-smart Sylvia Martinez said of this drivel:

This is such a weird view of learning it’s hard to even explain all the things that are wrong with it.

What disturbed me most about this piece was the fact that it was re-published by EdSurge, a supposedly thoughtful and respected ed-tech blog! I think the tech trumped the ed on this occasion. The problem with this kind of thinking is that it takes as its starting point some notions of what IoT’s capabilities are and then hunts for possible ‘problems’ to which IoT might provide the solutions. It also, unwittingly or otherwise, takes a very particular corporate agenda as its starting point, an agenda that seeks to create markets in education whether they are intended to improve and enhance education or not.  So long as they generate revenue, to hell with the educational consequences. In my experience it is a minority of companies operating in education who take this indifferent approach to their market.

The big corporates are, as we know, always searching for new markets or new market adjacencies. To the less thoughtful amongst them, Education will simply be another market for the introduction of the monitoring + surveillance + sensing + measuring aspects of IoT in every interstice of the school or campus, and never mind the effect (good or bad, but mostly bad) it might have on the quality of any learning that takes place there. If we in education accept and allow this reductive starting point to be taken seriously, we will find our educational institutions being led up a tangled knot of garden paths to places where we as educators, and certainly all of us as learners, should not want our schools and colleges and universities to go. The more thoughtful corporates – and whatever the knee-jerk reactions of those who stupidly equate the private sector with all that is bad, they do exist (just as bad as equating the public sector automatically with all that is good) – will prefer to try to look at the real needs of education and then attempt to shape IoT to meet those needs. There will always be differences of opinion on what those real needs are – that is simply the nature of education – but at least the more reflective and considerate companies seeking to play with IoT in education will be trying to do the right thing.

Of course, in all of this, we have to be aware that a new technology brings with it new affordances – in other words, IoT will almost certainly allow us to do things that haven’t previously been possible in teaching and learning. This is the point that those who rail against any form of technological determinism in education forget about. Sometimes the technology does undoubtedly lead the pedagogy, whatever the purists might wish for. In IoT’s case, my guess is we have to wait and see what its capabilities are. In the meantime, we lead with the pedagogy and try to fit IoT to our needs, not the other way around as our friend from Deloitte and so many others are trying to do.

Go to Part 2 of this 2-part post.


Technology is not ‘just a tool’

June 10th, 2015 § permalink

techEducation and technology share a number of interesting characteristics. We can agree, for instance, that education should be about affirmative transformation, about extending human horizons, and about realizing personal and social potential. The reality is however, that education has too often been used to maintain the status quo, to assert social station and to protect and reinforce the prevailing economic condition without reference to the interests of the individual at all levels of society.

We can agree that technology, too, should be about affirmative transformation. We have used tools since the dawn of humanity to make our world a better place in which to live. Equally, we know that we have used technology to kill, to control, to damage our world and to render passive those at its  (often literal) sharp end.

So, if neither education nor technology is a neutral instrument, we need to be very sure, when we bring them together, about our purpose in doing so. We have to know what we want to achieve from education, and we have to know how we believe technology can be exploited to the benefit of those being educated. To bring them together without a clear understanding of our reasons for doing so runs the risk of, at best, a set of arbitrary and unforeseen outcomes, or, at worst, a situation in which the technology itself defines how, and what, learning might take place.

This is the underlying truth beneath that naive mantra that we hear spouted so often in education, namely that “technology is just a tool”. As I noted in an earlier post:

…technology is only technology when it is being put to use. Otherwise, it is merely passive artefact. At the level of the instrument (such as the pen), technology can be used for good or ill. But that is not a condition unique to technology; it can be posited for virtually every product of the human hand or mind. Richard Feynman put it succinctly when he quoted a buddhist proverb:

“To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven. The same key opens the gates of hell.”

A ‘technology’ that is not being used is not technology. It is merely an object, an inactive thing. The moment that we use it we use it for a purpose, and that purpose can be affirmative or destructive. The technologies we deploy in education are no different.