The Reflective Teacher as Reflective Learner


The teacher has a place of honour in human history; there is an inherent nobility in teaching that persists even today when perhaps the teacher’s true worth is not adequately acknowledged by some parts of modern society.

The core purpose of teaching, at least in the Western democracies, should be to produce free and creative citizens capable of balancing the desire for personal independence with a recognition of our social and economic interdependence. That is a tough ask of our education systems today, and the best teachers are all too well aware that they have to approach their responsibilities from a position of continual doubt – perplexity, even – always questioning, and never believing they know all the answers. Doubt is healthy! Teachers grapple not only with the complexities of the task that confront them, but also with the reactionary tendencies of governments whose policies too often put a brake on teachers’ capacity to encourage precisely the creativity and resourcefulness that they know their students need in order to thrive in today’s world (and tomorrow’s). Good teachers know what learners need so much better than any government minister with a fixation on tests and standards and control.

Given the above, the teachers I have trusted least in my half century and more in education (a career that began, I hasten to add, aged five, when I started primary school) have been those who never doubted, who never questioned, whose practice was routine, unvarying (except when change was forced on them by decree), and who plied their classroom trade with no apparent heed to the social, cultural, philosophical or pedagogical rationale underpinning their labours. Such teachers tended to value docility and obedience in their students over creative thought, independence and any sense of learning beyond the superficial recall of the material taught.

As CP Snow once wrote:

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.

The best teachers have always sought to reflect deeply on their own teaching, to think with honesty and rigour about their craft and their skills, and to work in tandem with their colleagues to support each other to improve their mutual effectiveness as teachers. Such teachers know that teaching is about so much more than mere presenting of information, so much more than mere memorization, and so much more than the simple transference of information from a book or the teacher’s brain to a learner’s brain. They also know that any teaching that requires that students accept the unquestioned authority of the teacher is ultimately detrimental to effective learning and, in any case, is ridiculous in today’s world.

Reflecting on Teaching – and on Learning!

I like Stephen Downes’ straightforward definition of teaching as ‘modelling and demonstrating’, since it moves us emphatically away from any of the tired traditional denotations of teaching rehearsed above. He likes to tell people:

…to teach is to be the sort of thing you want your students to be…

Like Downes, I disagree with those who tell us that teaching is dead, or that we do not need teachers any more. I believe that we need teachers more than ever, but we need them to be thoughtful, reflective teachers who admit they don’t know all the answers and who understand that everything they do has to be about learning rather than teaching. My own philosophy of education, expressed as I Am Learner, states provocatively that “I am not taught. I learn.” By that I mean that, ultimately, we as learners determine (consciously and unconsciously) what we learn, whether it be explicitly that which is being ‘taught’ to us, or, more likely, our own interpretation and version of what is being taught. Often that means we learn something radically different from, and even at odds with, what is being taught, because we do the learning!

The truly effective teachers know this and therefore know that they not only have to reflect on their own teaching, on what it means to teach, but also on how that teaching is transformed into learning by their students. That is by no means a simple process. Instead it is messy and ineffable (something that few government ministers could ever acknowledge). So, thoughtful teachers have to reflect both on their teaching and on their own professional development (in other words, on their own learning) as well as, of course, on the learning of their students. And the deepest reflection should be on the ‘how’ of learning rather than the ‘what’ of learning.

Empathetic Teaching

Reflective teachers, since they are modelling and demonstrating, and since they are being what they would like their students to be, have to build and sustain a high degree of empathy for how and what the student is learning, and will always strive to understand how their teaching is being received, absorbed, filtered, appreciated and interpreted by the student. That requires at least some understanding and acknowledgement of the learner’s starting point (in the broadest sense), on what they as students bring to the classroom, not just in terms of prior learning but also in terms of who they are, how they think, what they consider important to them. Good teachers will always want to know their students to the greatest degree possible within the bounds of the teacher-student relationship.

Techniques for Reflection

There are any number of techniques and practices that teachers can use to reflect on teaching and on learning. I would add, at this point, that I am not interested here in any ‘top-down’ model of reviewing the professional development of teachers, except insofar as that has been requested by teachers themselves – the most powerful and effective reflection on teaching will always be carried out by the teachers themselves for their own professional reasons and not by, or at the behest of, any external agency or ‘higher’ authority.

Teachers can and should make use of their peers, sometimes in a relationship of equal and mutual support, sometimes in a mentoring or coaching relationship (in either direction), and sometimes simply as professional colleagues offering advice and suggestions to each other on an ongoing basis in order to do things differently and better.

They can find the means to review their own teaching and their interactions with students, honestly and rigorously. They can simply use recall for this but, of course, today it can mean also using the power of video: recording their teaching so that they can watch and analyze themselves and their classroom interactions, and perhaps share their practice with colleagues and even the wider community of teachers. This involves a logical onward step from the use of peer relationships described above.

Critically, and to repeat myself, it is a process that the teachers themselves should always have complete control over. They should be able to decide when they wish to record themselves, why they want to do so, how they share it and who they share it with. Any measure of compulsion from ‘above’ in this process will diminish its power considerably, so, again, it is not a tool to be used by, say, a headteacher or principal as a means of appraising teachers. That has little or nothing to do with learning and certainly nothing to do with truly reflective teaching. It should be opposed at every juncture.

Involving Learners in the Process

I would also suggest that teachers should have the confidence and the courage to involve their students in this process too, since they are what education, schools and teaching are all about! With due regard to the age of the students involved (which will have a bearing on how and to what extent they can be involved – although even very young children should be brought into this where possible), a teacher’s discussion with learners about the efficacy or otherwise of a lesson or course, or of a particular methodology, or a specific set of resources, can be a very powerful means indeed of improving their practice over time.

Showing a willingness to take this step has a number of positive implications for teachers, not least that it embraces a recognition that it is the learning that is of ultimate importance, and that any improvements in teaching are only improvements insofar as they help students to learn more effectively. It also acts as a fundamental mark of respect from teachers for their students, allowing students to see that their teachers take their needs, and their views, seriously, and that their teachers are also learners. Teachers willing to bring their students into their professional reflections are walking the talk, by modelling good learning practice.

Meeting Scotland’s Improvement Agenda

The reflective teacher is a desideratum of every forward-looking education system in the world. Here in Scotland, much of our broad and multifaceted agenda for educational improvement is now dependent on us embedding the concept of the reflective teacher deep within our culture of teaching and in the culture of our schools. Curriculum for Excellence is itself constructed explicitly around notions of teacher autonomy, teacher professionalism and teacher self-reliance. The reflective teacher is therefore a critical component of Scotland’s drive for educational improvement, and one based on collegiate efficacy rather than on heavy-handed decree from above.

Similarly, the massively important quest for ‘Excellence+Equity’ built into the Scottish Attainment Challenge, in which every single teacher is asked to consider their impact on every pupil on a continual basis, including and especially on those learners who we know have to face the egregious barriers to learning that derive from poverty and deprivation. There is possibly no more vital driver for promoting the necessity for teacher professional reflection than this.

If we combine all of these with the recommendations from Graeme Donaldson’s 2010 report into teacher education in Scotland (“Teaching Scotland’s Future“) that every teacher should look to inquiry-based improvement and reflective practice to help them raise their game continually throughout their career, then there is an unassailable case here in Scotland for every single teacher in the country to pick up this agenda and run with it.

We cannot and must not doubt the transformative power of self-reflection by teachers, especially when it is combined with the potency of coaching and of feedback and, where possible, with bringing students themselves, as fellow learners, into that process.


Putting the Makar in the Maker Movement


The makar has been an exalted component of Scottish literature and culture for more than 600 years. The makars were the makers of poems, the ancient poets and bards of Scotland. It is a term still in use here today.

Skilled poets, we know, do not simply write poetry: they build and shape and rebuild and reshape poems, carefully constructing every syllable, every word, every line, searching out every ounce and layer of meaning, every nuance. The Greek poiētēs means both maker and poet. From the likes of Robert Henryson and William Dunbar, all the way down to the Scots Makars of today appointed by the Scottish Parliament as our country’s poets (the first was Edwin Morgan, succeeded by Liz Lochhead and, most recently, Jackie Kay). Many Scottish cities now appoint their own makars too.

It is interesting to juxtapose this particular meaning given to makar or maker in Scottish culture with the burgeoning Maker Movement that we see happening across education worldwide, and at its most vibrant probably in the USA. The concept of maker in the latter context, with a few brave and notable exceptions (to whom we shall return), tends to focus on making things with the hands and with tools. As such it is a movement that has become largely enmeshed with the push by Governments across the leading economies to promote STEM teaching in our schools: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

This is a pity. STEM is of course a critical part of the curriculum, but in the context of the Maker Movement, it is important to shape and nurture Makerspaces that are not STEM-only enclaves.

Here in Scotland, a country with a rich and proud history of making things – Clyde-built ships, for example, once numbered more than half the steamships plying the world’s lakes, seas and oceans – the makar is also a hewer of ideas, a creator of images in words, a provoker of thoughts and arguments, a producer of meaning and reflection, through the medium of poetry. A typically Scottish contradiction. Or rather, a more complete and rounded view of what making can and ought to be about.

If in our schools we can widen the concept of the makar from the poet to the creator of ideas, to the writer in general, to the artist, to the musician and singer, to the coder and scripter of digital applications, as well as to the accepted meaning of making objects and artefacts with hands and tools – indeed to the full gamut of what it means to make – we should be able to think of the Makerspace as so much more than merely a temple to STEM. Some, again primarily in the USA, have added ‘A’ for Arts to STEM, giving us STEAM. This is fine so far as it goes (the pleasing acronym has helped it along), but of course, to have the Arts as just one minor component nestled amongst Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics is not enough. Making should be, and can be, envisaged as covering the whole of the curriculum.

My own liking for the Maker Movement though brings me back to those few brave souls who are already pushing the boundaries of Makerspaces, not only beyond STEM, but also beyond traditional classroom teaching and classroom instruction. They encourage the teacher and the school to create the conditions for open and free making, and then allow the natural curiosity and creativity of children and young people to flourish in that environment. They promote tinkering, open-ended exploration and creative freedom as an alternative to teacher-led lessons and top-down challenges, and as an insertion point for a freer, more enlightened pedagogy than is still to be found in so many classrooms around the world.

So, the Scottish makars, ancient and modern, are renowned as poets. But the makar of today ought to be able to create in any field using hands, tools, words, imagination, the whole breadth of human creativity. And if the young makar of today can also be set free in Makerspaces, on occasions at least, from the strictures of teacher-led lessons and the reductionist and constant measuring of a narrow concept of attainment, so that they are free to make, to play, to tinker, to try, to fail, to try again – to direct their own learning! – then they truly will be makars in ways that even those old Scottish poets might have appreciated.

Kennys Bookshop: “a world of its own, and a key to worlds unknown”


I love bookshops. I love all kinds of bookshops but I have a special liking for stores that sell secondhand books. I do buy a lot of new books, from both physical and online stores, but for me the market in books that have been owned by others before me is, for some reason I would find hard to explain, the truly authentic one.

Every secondhand bookshop I have ever visited has had its own character. Usually interesting. Occasionally less so. Some take their character from their setting. Some from the range of books they stock. But the best bookstores take their character from the people who own and manage them, and in these stores the books on offer tend to reflect the passions and proclivities of their owners.

(Come to think of it, the worst bookstores I have visited also took their character, or lack of it, from their owners.)

I visited a bookstore yesterday – Kennys Bookshop, in Galway, Ireland – that undoubtedly falls into the best and most characterful category, and one that I have wanted to visit ever since I read about the death of Maureen Kenny on John Naughton’s blog, Memex, in 2008. Maureen and her husband Des founded the original shop in Galway’s High Street back in 1940, and the store has been not just a Galway phenomenon but an Irish, and an international, phenomenon ever since (the quotation in the title, an apt description of any good bookshop (or library), is taken from the linked article in the Irish Times by Tom Kenny).

On my first ever visit to Galway I knew I had to find this special bookstore. I am happy to report that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and, of course, I spent more money than I had intended to when I walked in. I bought a number of books, but the gem is a 4-volume 1892 edition of “The History of Civilization in Scotland” which, when the title was mentioned out loud by Des Kenny (Jr), elicited the cheery and lighthearted comment from a nearby book-browser that “Scotland has never had any civilization”. It was said with a smile and a knowing glance that the Scots and the Irish are able to throw at each other without any offence ever being taken. We give as good as we get – in both directions.

However, on arrival at the till to pay for my chosen titles, the young man serving me noticed that my 4-volume set only had three volumes. As I was browsing the shelves I had been in the habit of resting the books I had already chosen on any available nearby space while I glanced at other titles, and of course, in picking the pile up at some point, I had left the fourth volume resting on a random shelf somewhere. For the next 5 minutes, I and a couple of staff members scoured the shelves until someone spotted the missing volume and completed my set.

Like all good secondhand bookstores, more than 80% of Kennys Bookstore’s trade is now carried out online – but the physical store, for all that it is no longer set in the old medieval streets of Galway City, is still a great space to wander. It is a store that, for good and obvious reason, has always focused heavily on Irish writing, in Irish and English, Irish history and Irish culture generally. I was able to pick up a lovely re-writing by Seumas Heaney of The Testament of Cresseid, by the 15th Century Scots makar, Robert Henryson. Written in Middle Scots by Henryson, I look forward to reading Heaney’s no-doubt-pellucid English translation.

I hope to be back in Galway one day so that I can visit this cultural institution once again.

Education: an ever-swirling vortex of ideas

Education is a debate! It is (as I wrote here in 2013):

…an intense and constant battleground of crossed swords, conflict and contention…

And long may it continue to be so.

Education is not a science. There can be no fixed set of absolutes for every context, culture or classroom with respect to what education is for, what works, and what does not work. It is arguable that most education research that takes a ‘scientific approach’, and most especially research that uses such an approach to prove the rights and wrongs of any specific techniques or approaches to teaching and learning, is a waste of time, money and effort, except in so far as if can add further fuel to the fire of debate within the field.

Education is one of the humanities. It is a field of study and a domain of practice that can, and ought to, involve us in seeking insights from the broadest range of disciplines: philosophy, psychology, pedagogy (of course), sociology, the history of ideas, politics, social anthropology, cultural studies, media studies, and pretty much any other domain from which we can glean some understanding of the nature of what it means to be human. We can even take some lessons from Economics, that other nebulous and inexact sphere that some would pretend is a science: see my recent praise for The Learning Society, by Joseph Stiglitz, ostensibly an economics text but, in my view, a very important recent contribution to the global debate on education. And who knows, we might even one day learn something useful in education from neuroscience, a connection that has been much misused and abused to date, with too many people offering conclusions that hold no more water than would a phrenological take on learning.

The classroom, at any stage in the long process of schooling, from kindergarten through to higher university study, is a domain in which theory and practice come together in a messy imbalance, with the truly thoughtful teachers willing to embrace both to differing extents at different times and in different contexts. Teaching as a craft is just as important as teaching as a theoretical discipline, coming together in a continual dialectic of study, thought, practice and change. This is precisely why every teacher has to be a conscious and constant learner. Those hoping to delve into the underlying reality of learning and teaching need to give thought to the bigger deeper questions that underpin learning, while at the same time seeking to understand the realities of supporting ourselves and others to learn.

(Whether or not teaching is a profession I will leave to others to argue: it is a designation I have used in the past, along with everyone else, but not one I have ever found particularly useful.)

The act of teaching is a mysterious thing. No one really understands how teaching creates learning (or even if it does at all), although many pretend and believe that they do. Indeed, I have previously borrowed Ron Burnett‘s phrase (borrowed by him from others before him) about ‘the radical impossibility of teaching’, which should give every teacher pause to consider the notion that what is taught is rarely if ever what is learned by students. It is a notion that should cause us to think deeply about the nature of pedagogy and to look for innovative approaches to learning that take us ever further away from the age-old dependence on any simplistic form of knowledge-transfer-as- teaching.

I have my own convictions on the nature of education – encapsulated in the short prose-poem I Am Learner. But my particular stance, continually developing and changing around a (to me) coherent core, is no more and no less valid than any other take on education. I of course reserve the right to cross swords in this exciting battleground of ideas with anyone who wishes to argue for their own philosophy and approach. It is precisely because of this ever-swirling vortex of ideas, opinions, ‘facts’ and beliefs about education that makes it, for me, the field in which I am happy to work and think and write and practice.


Mobile Learning: the state of play (part 2)


This is the second piece of a 2-part post. Part 1 can be found here.

In my M-Learning post from August 2014, I wrote that:

…providers of content, courses, and programmes of study, both free and paid-for, will increasingly customise and configure their products for the mobile learning market – many are already doing so, of course, but the volume of this will surge hugely over the next couple of years and beyond. Content and course providers, particularly those trying to monetize their products, will be seeking to grab whatever segments of the market they can, and we can be sure that providers will spring up in every part of the world, some looking to build international markets, others happy to focus on regions, on language-communities, on individual countries and even on specific disciplines that will cut across all such geographical fault lines . The effect will be to extend massively the educational choices available to learners all over the world.

This is a critical step to be taken by content providers in particular, since it would be a mistake to imagine that M-Learning is simply E-Learning on a smartphone. There is, of course, a large area of crossover, but there are crucial differences too, and it is the recognition and validation (or not) of those differences that, I believe, will make or break those who attempt to succeed in the market and who want to be there for the long haul.

In one sense, high quality content is high quality content, whatever the device it is accessed through. That is perfectly true for any self-directed learner in particular who is attempting to push their own educational boundaries, to seek new knowledge, to teach themselves (as we all do, in truth, most of the time, even when we are being ‘taught’). In this context, the best quality content will win through over time, so long as it is accessible, cheap (or free) and available in file sizes and resolutions to suit the smaller screens and the exigencies of mobile wireless networks.

However, for those looking to create and sell ‘packaged learning’ in all its various guises, the design of learning, and in a sense even the basic pedagogy, differs in important aspects from the kinds of E-Learning intended for users of laptops, desktops (and even larger tablets).

Some of these factors might include:

  • M-Learning ‘lessons’ will need to be delivered mostly in short, modularized, bite-sized chunks rather than longer structured segments
  • Using the likes of a smartphone for learning is not likely to happen in any particular setting, but will often be done on the move, and will therefore happen in a much more informal way than will be the case with E-Learning
  • It is unlikely also, that M-Learners will always be content to follow a structured ‘live’ course of learning – they will be more likely to seek their learning on demand, to want to dive into succeeding ‘lessons’ or learning episodes when it suits them to do so, not when decreed by those doing the ‘teaching’
  • Invoking instructional design that recognises the navigational differences between a phone and any larger device – scrolling is the norm on the phone, where navigating between tabs or screens is more normal on, say, a laptop
  • The particular affordances of the smartphone can offer content providers with possibilities of using such techniques as motion sensing, GPS and others, such features as the camera(s) on the device, as well as the success of the smartphone in providing a valid gaming platform
  • In time, using the smartphone for learning might also be able to incorporate the benefits of Big Data, Analytics and the Internet of Things into learning design.

The marriage of Instructional Design and M-Learning is only at the ‘courting’ stage. It is a relationship that needs to grow and develop into something that might look and feel a lot like other kinds of E-Learning, but that will be really quite different too in ways that are, as yet, not a simple matter to predict completely.

Mobile Learning: the state of play (part 1)


This is the first piece of a 2-part post.

Just 18 months or so ago I pondered here on my blog whether M-Learning was about to go mainstream. I wrote:

The combination of trends, factors and affordances is creating the perfect social and technological ecosystem for virtual learning to spread far beyond the larger desk-bound and lap-bound devices that have dominated for two decades to the kinds of devices that fit in a pocket or are so easily carried and used anywhere, any time.

Whether mobile learning can yet be described as mainstream is a moot point; but there can be little doubt that its time is coming. Everything points in that direction, particularly (though not only) in the developing world. Several African countries, for example, now have mobile penetration rates above 100% – South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, The Gambia, Cote D’Ivoire, Congo and others are in this group. Gabon, indeed, has a penetration rate of over 200% according to recent World Bank figures.

As I also wrote in August 2014:

…a combination of relative under-development, an immature market for the large fixed-line telecoms operators, and therefore an as-yet-inadequate wired infrastructure, has propelled a massive expansion in wireless networks.

In other words, there are many part of the world where those seeking to be connected to the rest of the world are dependent on the mobile networks and, increasingly, on the use of the smartphone as the device of choice. While the recent breathless announcement of a $4 smartphone produced in India proved to be a scam,  there can be little doubt that the sheer scale of the developing world market for such devices will push prices down considerably in the next few years.

All of this taken together, points to a still-young, still-developing market for M-Learning, but one that has massive potential for growth over the next decade and beyond. In Part 2 of this post, I will look at some of the detail around the kinds of products that are likely to succeed in the market.

Part 2 is here.


Books That Made Me An Educator: a Forgotten Classic

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



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


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


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.