Teaching Dissent


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 too many teachers in too many schools around the world, the ideal student is still 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 still too often measured in their day to day schooling.

How 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

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….

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)

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)

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’

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.

The Tree of Creativity

creative-treeThe world has already moved beyond the point where we need professional mediation to create, for example, a polished piece of video. Anyone today can choose to express themselves in video without intermediation, from shooting, to editing, to final production. They might express themselves well. They might express themselves badly. But then it has always been thus in every sphere of creativity. The digital revolution has put highly sophisticated tools for video, photography, music, illustration, graphic design and other areas of creativity into ‘amateur’ hands, and whether the ‘professionals’ like it or not, that is just how it will stay.

And of course, long before the digital revolution came along, so called amateurs have been singing, making music, drawing, painting, dancing, sculpting and in so many other way choosing to express their individual and group creativity. Terms like amateur and professional still have some meaning in all of these creative domains, including the digital ones, but they are terms that will become less and less meaningful over time. There will always be masters of their art, and there will always be a long tail of those who range from the brilliant to the inept, a tail that gets joyfully longer every day. But even the inept can take pleasure in their art without causing the virtuosi any grief.

There are those who will argue, sometimes vehemently, that language and writing sit right at the top of the creativity ‘tree’, that for instance the most impressive writing is somehow of greater import than, for example, the greatest piece of film. That may or may not be true. The reality is, nonetheless, that there are very many films that are infinitely richer and vastly more insightful than many texts. Examples abound, we all know, where bad writing has been turned into good film or television, and equally where great writing has been painfully abused on the screen, small or large.

It simply isn’t helpful to try to place the various modes of expression within some kind of hierarchy of creative significance. If someone chooses to express themselves in video (or in painting, or in song, or in dance…) who are we to tell them that they have chosen to be creative in a medium that is somehow a lesser form? And, even were that so – even if we agree that language is the essence of human achievement – what does it matter? People will always choose to be creative in infinitely wondrous ways, through myriad media, and the education system should recognize, nurture and indeed, celebrate that diversity.

Music and art are spheres of creativity that, I believe, stretch any notions that language is the fundamental ‘literacy’ that defines us as human beings. Music and art must be at least as old as language, and possibly older. It might be argued that language is the essence of thought, and therefore of philosophy, of human cultural and scientific achievement throughout our history, but I simply cannot imagine what it means to be human without reference to music and art. And by art, I mean not just the fine arts, but also the whole spectrum of artistic creativity, including all of those mentioned already, and more.

An education that does not enable learners to be creative across all the domains they wish to explore is an education bereft of human delight, pleasure and exuberance.

Deschooling YOU: The School & the Sovereignty of Knowledge


For as long as school has existed, the fundamental model of schooling has remained the same: scarcity of information and a paucity of means of access to that information led to the teacher being the chosen conduit of knowledge, with learners sitting passively at the feet of the learned to soak in knowledge. That the expected passivity on the part of learners has not always been forthcoming, and that there have always been courageous and enlightened teachers willing to subvert their ordained role, has often mitigated the worst effects of that model through the centuries but has only rarely overcome it. Today, as we shall see, this flaw in the model is becoming sharply accentuated by a rapid reordering of the means of access to knowledge by those who are not part of the elites, by those not in authority. It is a reordering brought about by the dramatic developments in the digital and networking technologies since the mid-1990s in particular.

Throughout history then, we all went to school to learn not what we ourselves might have wanted to learn or what we might have chosen to believe was important to learn but to be taught whichever truths and certainties, whichever character traits and behaviours, whichever skills, those who controlled our schools determined were right for us to assimilate. That is still the case. But things are changing, and the change is inexorable. The simple fact is that the elites are no longer sovereign over knowledge; they no longer control access to knowledge.

Schools around the world, and by association the education systems to which they belong, have rested on an illusory foundation for much of their existence. That foundation has been based on the assumption that the imparting of knowledge by the teacher somehow equates to, and leads directly to, the acquisition of knowledge by the learner. It is an entirely unprovable assumption. It is only when we begin to acknowledge this misapprehension that we are able to discern the pointlessness of so much of the rhetoric, so many of the structures, and so much of the policy-making and implementation carried out by those who lead schools today, at every level. And by questioning this assumption, we begin to question the concept of the school itself that has persisted for millennia in all its formations through the ages.

Human beings learn through their interaction with others, with ideas, with information, with the world at large. Ultimately we construct our own knowledge; we make our own connections between fields, ideas, concepts and information sources; we discern patterns; we generate metaphors that allow us to apply our learning in other spheres; we create and shape our own learning, all within the context of what we already know, however defective or incomplete that knowledge might be.

To conclude from this, however, that the role of the teacher in the school is superfluous would also be completely wrong. In fact, the opposite is true. Rather than compromise the role of, and need for, the teacher, a recognition of the underlying realities of the school will actually serve to transform and enhance the role of the teacher far beyond that which has been the basis of most formal education systems to date. For that to be true, however, there has to occur a wholesale inversion in our understanding of the act of teaching. The intervention of the teacher in the process can be critically important and valuable, but only if the teacher either consciously or intuitively understands the true nature of the relationship with the learner, namely that, at no point in the interaction of teacher and student does the learner in any simple sense ‘learn’ what the teacher ‘teaches’.  The best teachers have always instinctively known this. It certainly makes the role of the teacher a considerably more complex one than has been universally recognized since schools were founded. So while the learner’s increasingly ubiquitous access to information changes the core relationship with the teacher, it will never change the basic need of the learner to be helped on their way by someone who can bring knowledge and experience and wisdom to the learner by asking the apposite question,  by helping the learner to discriminate between useful and useless information, between partial and impartial information, or by guiding the learner into areas of knowledge previously unknown to them.

If we combine two issues – first, the fact that the central relationship that underpins the school, that between teacher and learner,  is now changing radically because of the learner’s equality of access to knowledge today, and secondly, the appreciation of the lack of a causal link between what is taught and what is learned and the inherent complexity of the process of learning – then we can look afresh at how these elements should cause us to re-think what role the teacher can play to greatest effect in the classroom and beyond the classroom.  When we place learning in the foreground rather than teaching, we begin to focus on the real and fundamental rationale for school and we begin to move away from the fetishized assumptions that have been accepted since those first schools were founded millennia ago. For one thing, we are able to  come to an understanding of school, historically, as an institution in which the learning that has occurred has been far less contingent on any teaching that took place within the school’s walls and more on the fact that, as human beings, we naturally  and ultimately learn for and by ourselves, though in interaction with others, with ideas and with existing knowledge. And for another, we can see that each of us needs to be aware of the historical, ideological and pedagogical reality underpinning school so that we can begin to reflect on how we might cast off the centuries of ‘false consciousness’ that schooling has inflicted on us.

My Book

I am working on a book that will attempt to unravel all of the issues and questions raised by this train of thought: to focus on the true nature of learning, to try to understand how we can become autonomous, self-directed learners, to recognize the far-reaching and expanding implications of the irrevocable shift in the relationship between teacher and learner, to seek an understanding of the implications of all of this for the changing shape of the school itself (which includes, by association, the college and the university), and to confront the complex superstructures of curricula, assessment, accreditation, teacher education and professional development, a distorting hall of mirrors that has been raised to support teacher-led education systems around the world. The book aims to offer guidance to every learner, every student, young or old, in how to extricate themselves from this gratuitous morass and begin to take control over their own learning. Learners need to realise, basically, that they have always had that control over their learning – they just weren’t given much if any scope by the accepted model of schooling to find it out. This book advocates a shift in the true locus of control from the teacher, and therefore from whichever elite or authority runs the schools, to the learner; at the same time, that shift will liberate the teacher from the fetishized and fallacious role that has been expected of them since the earliest schools were established.

Today, those teachers able see the way the wind is blowing can do so much to help their students, the learners, to grasp the need to take control of their own learning. Teaching is a noble calling when the teacher knows the truth that underpins the teacher-learner relationship and does not resort to a narrow practice that raises the teaching of a curriculum fabricated by those in power above the learning that students want and determine ultimately for themselves. The true teacher knows there has to be a framework in which the learner is able to take more and more responsibility for their own learning as they mature. The true teacher needs to know how to work with students in an open, collaborative way, in which the teaching and learning that occurs is the result of a continual process of open negotiation, and in which that process of negotiation enables the learner to grow and mature and, gradually, come to understand that they need not always be dependent on an education that is spoon-fed to them. The best teachers will help learners take control of their own learning, in other words. Teachers need to be freed to do what they do best: to bring wisdom and experience to bear, to call upon their subject matter expertise to guide the learner to ask the right questions and to introduce the learner to new areas of knowledge, to work with the learner to help them get the best out of their own efforts, to advise, to counsel, to cajole, to persuade, to direct when necessary, and, yes, occasionally to impart information (to instruct) where required and where it is wanted.

There is little nobility in those who have chosen through the centuries to collude with the elite, those who have been, and are, happy to take on the honoured status of ‘teacher’ but who demean that proud title by choosing to serve the narrow interests of a self-serving establishment, wherever that is and in whatever form it takes. Those who believe that the interests of a dominant authority, or of any external authority for that matter, whether earth-bound or metaphysical, coincide with the interests of the people, and who instruct in schools, colleges and universities on that basis, do nothing to deserve the respected title of teacher. Teachers should promote learning, not indoctrination.

Today, the greatest respect that teachers can pay their students is to say: we are all learners now, let’s learn together. My book will give all learners, and all true teachers, that respect.

Teaching for Creativity and Innovation: an educational conundrum

Probably my favourite method of relaxation is to pick up my guitar in the privacy of my own home and pick away at a few chords. I occasionally even produce the odd self-penned song. I have a reasonable collection of pieces completed over the years, but I also have dozens of ‘bits’ of songs, many with just a couple of verses, the odd chorus, an occasional middle-8, and not much more. Some have been left unfinished for decades, even though I go back to them time and time again!

Given this interest, I often watch and listen to those who do the same as I do but who do it for a living and who are immeasurably better at it than I am or ever will be. One such is Ralph McTell. A song of his I listened to years ago and then taught to myself is a lovely little piece in waltz-time called ‘Let Me Down Easy’. Way back, I listened and tried to replicate his chords as best I could. I ended up with a version that pleased me at least.

Recently, however, I looked up the chords of the song online (on a ‘good’ website, not one of those innumerable ‘chords & tabs’ websites that take ‘amateur’ uploads of the chords of tens of thousands of songs, too many of them decoded by people with cloth ears – they get many of them wrong and their mistakes are then replicated like a virus across all similar sites). I discovered that my version was only an approximation to the original set of chords strung together by McTell (precisely why all those sites need to be treated so carefully). But I also noticed that McTell’s chords were, in places, a little weird. Not a very technical term, I agree, but his chords certainly play fast and loose with the underlying key that the song is in. But! It all hangs together beautifully.

This interested me even more when I came across the snippet above in a telegraph.co.uk interview with the songwriter and found out why that was the case. McTell has never been able to read music. Now that isn’t an unusual situation – many great musicians don’t read music. Like most beginner guitarists, I have no doubt that McTell learned or was taught a few basic chords. He would also have learned roughly how chords could be grouped into keys. But given his innate skill with the instrument (his name is actually Ralph May but someone gave him the nickname McTell early in his career because his incredible fingerpicking skills recalled those of the great Blind Willie McTell), he simply ‘invented’ chords (most of them in the ‘first four frets’, he says, very few at the ‘dusty end’ of the fretboard), then built structures with a mix of known chords and ‘invented’ chords, and developed his melodies and wrote his songs around those structures.

Now, imagine that a young Ralph ‘McTell’ May, instead of finding his own way with the guitar, had been placed in the hands of a ‘real’ musician, a guitar teacher, who taught him keys and chords and scales. Would he ever have created these wonderful ‘invented’ chords, and would he ever have strung chords together that an early formal education in music might have persuaded him was just plain wrong?

Possibly. Perhaps it is domain dependent. That level of creativity, that innovative feel, in any sphere, seems to be able to come only with either complete formal mastery or with no teaching at all. Only someone with a complete command of music, or someone with none at all, I believe, is able to play with the formal structures in the way that Ralph McTell is able to with his guitar chords and melodies.

It’s an interesting educational conundrum.

Reviving the Composition: for social media, multimedia, transmedia…even makerspace!

tablet-compositionWay way back in the dark ages, in the pre-history of the Web – around 1991, to be more precise – I wrote a paper for what was then the Scottish Council for Educational Technology, or SCET, long since swallowed up by Learning & Teaching Scotland, and itself now merged with Scotland’s schools inspectorate to become Education Scotland. The paper was entitled Interactive Learning and the Multimedia CompositionBerners-Lee and Cailliau were still tinkering with their little-known online hypertext system, tentatively called the World Wide Web, but yet to be thrust into the mainstream with the coming of Mosaic, the first browser, in 1993.

Hypertext – later hypermedia – was the focus for lots of experimentation at that time. Even I was playing around with it when I led a joint Heriot-Watt University/Lothian Region Education Department project called Learning in Lothian, using a souped-up version of Apple’s Hypercard (I had added – clunkily! – the use of images to Hypercard’s native text-based functionality) with a bunch of schools in Leith to create a multimedia history of the old port of Edinburgh. The outcome of the project was a collection of essays, stories, photographs, old maps and bits of audio that were stored on a new technology called CD-ROM, with its magical and massive 600+ MB of storage.

In the SCET paper, I looked at the as-yet-inchoate concept of multimedia and noted that, where it was being used, it was used more or less exclusively for ‘presentational’ purposes. That was certainly the case in  education at the time (although of course few in education then even knew the term never mind used multimedia in the classroom). In the classroom and lecture hall it was seen as a tool that helped teachers to ‘deliver’ more exciting curricular content to their students.

Noting this, I wrote:

For learners to derive real power from the technologies available they must take control of them. If learners are given the opportunity to interact meaningfully with the mass of materials, to handle the technology, to master the media, they will take control of a tool which could change the nature of a significant proportion of their learning. The point is to place the learner at the start of the multimedia process and not at the end. Learners becomes the active begetter of knowledge for themselves and not simply the recipient of information from others.

The product is less important than the process. It is in the laminated layers of interaction – between learner and information, between learner and media, learner and learner (in a collaborative activity), learner and teacher, learner and expert – that the real educative value is derived. Their creative efforts in pursuit of a learning-task will involve them in building upon their own knowledge and experience, in questioning assumptions, in debating issues, in synthetising – all the elements of multimedia composition. In relation to current ideas of computer-based learning there is a shift in metaphor here from conversation through exploration to construction, away from the perception of learners as the passive ‘receptor’ of knowledge to one in which learners are the active creators of their own knowledge. To know the world one must construct it.

Two points from this stand out for me today, almost quarter of  century since it was written. The first is how hard we still have to push, and how far we still have to go, to move schools away from the ‘information delivery’ model that focuses on teacher-led instruction, to something much more learner-focused, much more participative and constructivist.

The second point – and the one I want to zero in on here – is my use of the word composition. In my own days as a school pupil, we wrote ‘compositions’. I never really grasped the difference between a composition and an essay – they seemed to be used more or less interchangeably. But it is a term I have always liked because it describes in a single word what it is the writer is doing: he or she is ‘composing’ a piece of writing, pulling together the elements, the ideas, the vocabulary, the purpose of the writing, and arranging them on the page to meet whatever purpose the writer has in mind.

Following on from my previous post on postliteracy, it might be useful to revive this now little-used term – composition – for what learners are now able to do when they are creating and combining in text, sound, music, image, video, animation, games, social media….and perhaps even in three dimensions in makerspaces. The notion of composition as a single simple memorable term used to describe a single coherent act of creation, in whatever medium or media the creator wishes to use, is, I think, compelling.

Let’s revive and restore – and upgrade – the composition for the age of postliteracy, for the age of transmedia, makerspaces, digital badges and – still! – the written word.