Post Literacy Post-Haste

Anxiety sells!

gutenbergpress+ICTSo says The Economist this week in an excellent piece showing just how long we have had to listen to the oft-heard announcements of the terminal decline of written English…..since at least 1387! In that year, Ranulph Higden, a Benedictine monk bemoaned the influx of words from Norman French, Anglo-Saxon and Danish. We know today that it is precisely that receptive porousness of English that has made it such a powerfully expressive language and that, imperialist history aside, has probably contributed much to the explosion of Englishes across the globe today.

Those who continue in this fine tradition of pointless doomsaying have a target to aim at that their predecessors never had: the relentless rise and rise of the Internet has given them a shifting, frightening (to some) communication landscape to really worry about! (These are the kind of people who might also have winced at the perfectly acceptable split infinitive I just used.)

But even today, these emissaries of linguistic Armageddon have no more reason to be alarmist than their six centuries of antecedents. They and their ilk have always simply been scared of change. Language is constantly changing – one that doesn’t change becomes a dead language very quickly. And alongside language, all of the other modes of expression and communication we have available to us are changing too, especially in this digital age. The doomsayers will tell us that the explosion in the use of video, images and other means of communication must be detrimental to the status of language, to the read and written words. The truth of course is that the rise of the visual and the growing articulation of multimedia and transmedia modes of communication do not replace language; instead they add a rich set of non-linguistic vocabularies to our ability to express ideas and to communicate meaning.

As Ron Burnett has written;

Language, verbal and written is at the core of what humans do everyday. But, language has always been very supple, capable of incorporating not only new words, but also new modalities of expression. Music for example became a formalized notational system through the adaptation and incorporation of some of the principles of language. Films use narrative, but then move beyond conventional language structure into a hybrid of voice, speech, sounds and images.

Some have spoken of this as a shift towards postliteracy. Definitions abound, but one I have quoted before comes from Janneke Adema, Research Fellow at Coventry University:

The Web has evolved from a text-based technology to one focused on graphic display and visual layout. Multimedia content largely privileges visual over verbal content.

Doug Johnson offered a similar view on his Blue Skunk blog a few years ago, defining the postliterate as:

…those who can read, but chose to meet their primary information and recreational needs through audio, video, graphics and gaming.

I basically agree with both of these definitions, with one important proviso. The Web has undoubtedly evolved from a text-based medium to one that is highly graphical and visual, but I would question whether the focus has really shifted from one to the other. I would contend that the focus, rather than having shifted, has been extended far beyond the bounds of textual expression to include all those other modes of expression or communication as well.

Text is still critically important on the Web as elsewhere, but we can concede that there are now very many other modes of expression and communication either complementing the text or vying with the text for our comprehension and interpretation. That the graphical and the visual are hugely significant on the Web is merely to state the obvious, but that the Web is also now, I believe, our key source and repository for text-based expression and communication, already beginning to supplant print media, is equally to state the obvious.

Doug Johnson, in the same post cited above also wrote:

…postliteracy may be a return to more natural forms of communication – speaking, storytelling, dialogue, debate, and dramatization.

I like this notion.

So, the doomsayers can be ignored. Language is alive and well, and the written word and the read word are no less critical to human expression than they always have been. But in this postliterate era, we are able to enrich our verbal communication with an ever-growing plethora of visual, graphical, video, aural and a host of other means of articulating meaning.

Let’s celebrate our humanness in as many modes of expression as are available to us!

Learning and Forgetting: The Official Theory .v. the Classic View

franksmithDo you recognise any or all of this?

  • persuading individuals that they won’t learn unless they make a determined effort, and that the fault is theirs if they fail
  • segregating learners at school so they can’t help each other, in the process making life as difficult as possible for teachers
  • coercing learners and teachers into ineffective programs of study designed by distant authorities who have no way of knowing or rectifying the difficulties they create, forcing learners and teachers to waste their time on repetitive exercises and drills that teach only that learning is frustrating and difficult
  • imposing discriminatory and discouraging ‘tests’ that ensure that individuals who most need help and encourageemnt get the least
  • convincing teachers, learners, and parents that the most important thing about education is scores and grades
  • making learning a trial when it should be a pleasure, and making forgetting inevitable when it should be insignificant

Professor of Psycholinguists, Frank Smith, who taught in Canada, the US and South Africa, wrote an engaging and thought-provoking book in 1998 called The Book of Learning and Forgetting. In this he contrasted the classic and official theories of ‘learning and forgetting’ (‘forgetting’ is important, of course, because if we learn then forget what we learned, we have not learned). The above, of course, is a concise description of the official theory of learning.

As Smith pointed out in this wonderful book, we all know, intuitively, that we learn best when we enjoy what we are doing, when we seem to be able to learn with minimum effort because of the pleasure we can derive from whatever it is that we are doing? Why then do our formal systems of education still largely promote a view of education that requires us to work very hard and to concentrate with all our might on the subject in hand in order to learn?

But the official theory has become an unquestioned part of who we all are:

…because it permeates the broad educational culture in which we have grown up.

The kind of words that tend to be used to describe this official view of learning are: occasional, hard work, obvious, limited, intentional, dependent on rewards and punishment, based on effort, individualistic, easily forgotten, assured by testing, an intellectual activity and  memorization.

In contrast the classic theory of learning, as described compellingly by Smith might include: continual, effortless, inconspicuous, boundless, unpremeditated, independent of rewards and punishment, based on self-image, vicarious, never forgotten, inhibited by testing, a social activity and  growth.

I know which theory I prefer.

Books That Made Me An Educator: Illich’s Flawed Classics

illichbooksThis is the second 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. The first in the series can be found here.

In 1971, Ivan Illich published Deschooling Society, and then two years later Tools for Conviviality. I read both books in the mid-1970s, the first as a high school student, the second during my first year at university, where I was studying politics. I read neither book with as yet any hint in my mind that I would later go into teaching and spend fifteen years as a teacher and as a headteacher, and then the rest of my life since involved in so many other ways in education. I do remember reading the two books and thinking as I read them that, while I was one of those people for whom school (including university) was a relatively easy part of my life, in the sense that I was able to negotiate the eccentric and high-handed ways of the educational institutions with relative ease, I never truly enjoyed the process at any point. I found the whole concept of school, and certainly many of the daily rituals of school, to be personally demeaning and humiliating much of the time. Even as a very young child I was aware that I was being pushed and pulled hither and thither, sometimes by people who were relatively kindly in the ways that they did it, sometimes by people who seemed at best benignly indifferent to my interests, and sometimes by people who should never ever have been allowed within 100 yards of any child never mind put in a position of direct responsibility over one.

My whole time as a teacher and as a school leader was coloured, always very consciously, by my own very clear memories of my time as a pupil, by the recollection of all those tiny, seemingly trivial, anxieties that speckled the normal day of a school student. These were the minor vexations, the moments of distress, the petty humiliations, the fleeting fears that meant little in isolation but that accumulated over time to make school days stressful. Equally, in teaching and school management, I always made sure that I could recall, and try to replicate in my dealings with children and young people, the moments of pleasure, the brief surges of pride, the little triumphs, the rare instances of being treated as an equal or at least not being spoken to in the various dreadfully condescending ways that some – thankfully few – teachers I encountered felt the need to deploy in the classroom.

Both of Illich’s books stayed with me, all through university and all through my career in education. I have gone back to both books time and time again. Even from the start, I was aware of what I considered to be deep flaws in his thinking, and each time I went back to them those flaws became clearer and, for a number of reasons, more and more illuminating of both the richness and the deficiencies in Illich’s underlying philosophy. Illich recognised the deep human issues that the concept of compulsory schooling brought with it; however, he offered no real solutions for those problems. His underlying anarchistic, Epimethean philosophy allowed him little scope, I believe, for any real understanding of the socio-economic drivers for mass education, and his analysis suffered in comparison, for example, to that of Paulo Freire.  However, Illich’s core distaste, and rightful distaste, for the effects of compulsory schooling has been the backdrop to much of my own thinking in this area down through the years.

But so too Tools for Conviviality, a book that added to the earlier work by offering an expression of the kind of society, the kind of human interaction, that I have always felt since could be the basis for an open, humane and compassionate form of education, in which people would be given autonomy and respect as individual learners, sometimes learning alone, often learning with others. Illich defined conviviality as:

individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value…

He saw conviviality as completely antithetical to industrial productivity:

I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment.

I realised even then, while still in my teens, that the school as I knew it, with its regimentation, with its unbending hierarchy of teachers and taught, with its arbitrary rules, and with its often absurd and sometimes deliberately cruel methods for excising ignorance and maintaining orderliness, was a tool of the same ideological and socio-economic forces that directed the mines, the factories, the mills, the steelworks and the shipbuilders in the Scotland in which I grew up, the same forces that later wiped out those same industries along with the communities they supported. I knew then that this had always been the case, that the school had always been an instrument, although a highly imprecise and capricious instrument, of those with power and influence in societies through the ages. I also knew then that any such instrument wielded by any elite could not, by definition, operate in the real interests of ordinary people such as me.

My lifelong interest in education, therefore, was triggered four decades ago by two remarkable and flawed books written by an Austrian philosopher-priest, and, alongside Letter to a Teacher, led me spend to five decades as a learner, a teacher and an observer of the school and its deficiencies, as well as its apparent durability. And now, informed by many years of reading, writing and thinking about the essence of learning, about the nature of teaching, about the gradual revolution wrought in educational possibilities by digital technology, I have finally been sparked by the urge to come full circle and write the combined Deschooling Society and Tools for Conviviality for the Knowledge Age.

I am working on that now.

Books that made me an educator: “Letter to a Teacher: the School of Barbiana”

barbiana3This is the first of 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.

Letter to a Teacher, by The School of Barbiana was first published in 1967 in Italian, and then in English translation, in a thin Penguin paperback, in 1969. It is an eloquent, lucid and quite savage indictment of the Italian education system of the time, a system that pushed the children of the middle classes and the professional classes to the maximum while leaving the children of the peasants and the poor people to wither on the educational vine.

It was this book more than any other that got me interested in education and which, eventually, led me to pursue the career that I did. While this little book might seem divorced — by time, by culture, by the nature of social change since that time — from where we are today, it is still utterly relevant on so many levels. Written by eight boys who were teacher-students in this tiny country school started by the local parish priest, a man who knew well that such children would not otherwise be able to gain an education — it is a straightforward comparison of the fortunes of Pierino and Gianni, two generic students representing the privileged and the poor people respectively.

Each is emblematic of his origins and of his educational chances in the Italian system of the time, and therefore of his economic chances beyond school. Pierino is a son of the middle classes. Gianni is a son of peasants. But while the text is firmly rooted in the specifics of place, culture and time, it is also universal. Privilege and money still talk in education today, and the poor still get a raw deal from the equal opportunity that is supposed to exist in our society today.

barbiana2The School of Barbiana had no teachers, “.…no desk, no blackboard, no benches. Just big tables, around which we studied and also ate. There was just one copy of each book. The boys [sic] would pile up around it. It was hard to notice that one of them was older and was teaching.….the oldest of the teachers was sixteen, the youngest was twelve.…”

Its opening paragraph:

You won’t remember me or my name. You have failed so many of us.

On the other hand I have often had thoughts about you, and the other teachers, and about that institution which you call ‘school’ and about the boys that you fail.

You fail us right out into the fields and factories and there you forget us.

That opening should tell you that it makes an uncomfortable read for teachers in places. It is still a remarkable book akmost half a century after it was written by those eight boys, and it is a book that I still go back to occasionally.

I wonder where they all are today?

Why An Education Network is Different (Part 2)


[This is a continuation of the previous post…]

Too many who design network infrastructures for schools or campuses believe that they are creating something akin to a standard enterprise architecture, and that just a few tweaks will turn it magically into a education architecture. It is a completely untenable view. A network for a school or college or campus is a network like no other.

This is the second of a two-part post outlining some of the unique aspects that must be considered by anyone trying to design and build an education network that will truly meet the current and future needs of teachers and students.

A network architecture for schools should be built on a foundation that enables the following:

  • High Availability – maximum resilience and redundancy balanced against cost considerations;
  • Single Infrastructure / Multi-Service – 21st Century schools require different services to share the same physical network, with each service potentially requiring its own logical network;
  • Quality of Service / Differentiated Services – an understanding of which types of network usage in a school place the greatest demands on the network, and which need to be given priority over others;
  • Mobility – pupils are less and less desk-bound in the modern school and will often be using laptops as well as handheld devices such a tablets, netbooks (including chromebooks), e-readers and even smartphones, almost always on a wireless network;
  • Roaming Capability – given a network covering a number of schools, and with potentially frequent movement of students and teachers around the town, the ability for every user to log on to the network anywhere will be critical;
  • Bandwidth – a school cannot have too much bandwidth for both wired and wireless network capacity as well as for external connections to the Internet;
  • Future-proofing – consideration of future uses of BYOD, the Cloud (private, public and hybrid), software-defined networking, virtualization of the desktop, Internet of Things and meshing with 3G/4G/(5G) networks;
  • Data convergence – unifying multi-point communications across text, audio and video will place an increasing burden on networks and on Internet connections;
  • Network structure – a single physical network for all the Dumfries schools, or individual networks? Who will manage the network: the schools or D&GC?
  • Smart buildings – will the network be used for energy management, security, etc?

Educational Considerations

Whether serving a single school or a group of schools, a school network should be designed on the basis of a clear understanding of the reasons for its implementation. A school network is not simply a re-branded enterprise network – it has to serve a variety of uses and a diversity of users that are simply not required by a standard enterprise environment, including most large corporate networks. A complete description of this multiplicity of uses and users will be created for the full ICT Strategy. For the purposes of this outline, the following considerations will give a flavour of what makes a school network different:

  • Learning anywhere, any time, and on any device – minimising or removing barriers to online and network access is becoming increasingly important;
  • The expectations of students (and of teachers) with respect to technology are changing, and 24/7 access to the network is increasingly essential, since there is growing recognition of the importance of learning  outwith the formal timetable;
  • Teacher professional development, both formal and informal, is moving inexorably online (and that includes the quest to improve the quality of teachin in higher education), and teaching (and other) staff increasingly require online access as well as access to school or university or external-authority hosted resources at all times and from locations beyond the school;
  • The walls of the classroom are progressively more virtual, and the classroom now resides as much on the network and on the Web as within the physical walls of the school;
  • Sophisticated learning environments offering digital content, tools for collaboration, online assessment, web applications of all kinds, and access to rich media (audio, video, transmedia, etc) will continue to develop;
  • Moving gradually from a ‘teacher-centric’ to ‘learner-centric’ education in which pupils today are no longer merely consumers of information – they are increasingly creators and producers of content, most of which is stored in the Cloud and produced or manipulated using online and Web-based tools;
  • Students today are creating and sharing video, photos, code and music, and they are increasingly using Web 2.0 tools such as blogs (and vlogs), wikis, podcasting and instant messaging, as well as a range of social media;
  • The Web is now the platform for learning, and schools are growing users of social networks and other online platforms for teaching and learning;
  • Learning communities, formal and informal, extend far beyond the walls of the school, and they are expanding greatly throughout all sectors of education – activities utilising interactive video, voice, on-demand video, Web collaboration, across the full range of connected devices, are accelerating;
  • An education network, unlike an enterprise network, has to be capable of hosting and coping with many hundreds, possibly even thousands, of applications;
  • The changing definition and purpose of the library – still at the heart of the school, but in the age of digital text, less to do with paper books, and more to do with educational exploitation of digital media and the promotion of new forms of formal and informal learning (such as Makerspaces, digital badging, search tools, digital research, etc)

User Considerations 

The education network has to cope with a unique mix of users, very different from a standard enterprise network:

  • Potentially, large numbers of concurrent network users, with high levels of variability in usage, access requirements;
  • A unique set of security requirements – network access (in many school districts, for example) by children and young people from 5 years to 18 years, teachers, school managers, technical staff, other staff, guests;
  • 1-1 computing – possibly through a buying/leasing policy, but more likely through a combination of BYOD and device lending;
  • Possible external access to resources on the network, for example where schools wish to allow parental access to their children’s data;
  • Frequent movement of users around the buildings and between buildings, and who want to remain connected as they move.


Anyone who believes they can simply take the usual parameters of an enterprise network, give it a few tweaks and call it an education network is kidding themselves. And worse, they will not serve the real and ongoing educational interests of those to whom the network will matter most, the learners and teachers in the schools, colleges or universities.

Why An Education Network is Different (Part 1)

schhol-network-cartoonToo many who design network infrastructures for schools or campuses believe that they are creating something akin to a standard enterprise architecture, and that just a few tweaks will turn it magically into a education architecture. It is a completely untenable view. A network for a school or college or campus is a network like no other.

This is the first of a two-part post outlining some of the unique aspects that must be considered by anyone trying to design and build an education network that will truly meet the current and future needs of teachers and students.

Thanks to technology, today’s educators are beginning to transform education so that the full potential of every student and every teacher in schools, colleges and universities can be realized. Intelligently-applied technology is a critical component of educational transformation, and it enables every school, college or campus of any size to make dramatic changes to their educational environments to be as fit-for-purpose as possible in the 21st Century.

Digital and networking technologies enable an education institution to offer a flexible and future-proofed environment that ensures the potential for real change in education, enables real enhancements in administrative efficiency, and achieves real improvements in academic, creative and vocational excellence. Every aspect of the built environment should contribute positively to these aims, and the physical networking and ICT environment within and across the schools is a major part of that.

Core Rationale

The core rationale in designing and implementing a digital infrastructure for education is to ensure:

  • IP Everywhere: the network must reach every space and every potential device across the institution, including voice and video communications, smart building technologies, physical security facilities and all teaching and learning equipment and facilities;
  • Every student has the same access to all the available resources;
  • Schools, colleges and campuses have the tools they need to provide a true ‘classroom without walls’;
  • The technology environments provided within the institution reflect as far as possible those in the outside world, especially in the world of work, so that students do not have to step back in time when they enter the classroom or lecture hall;
  • Information flow and processes can be streamlined and automated so that data can be provided effectively and efficiently for decision making;
  • Effective communication is enabled within the building, between buildings, between the school or campus and any external authority (such as a school district or local authority), between the institution and the home, between the institution and the wider community, and across the connected world;
  • The infrastructure is sufficiently flexible to allow for future developments in ICT to be readily incorporated into educational practice;
  • Finding the optimum balance between initial network functionality, scope for further development in the future, and costs, both capital and ongoing.


The education environment offers a number of distinctive challenges that require to be taken into account when designing and implementing the physical networking infrastructure:

  • Potentially very large numbers of concurrent users of the local area network, especially on wifi, and multiple simultaneous external connections to the WAN and/or to the Internet;
  • Frequent ‘spikes’ in network use, especially in a high school environment, where students are logging on and off at the start and end of timetabled classes throughout the day;
  • Reliable access required across a mix of devices simultaneously;
  • Universal dense access to wifi throughout the school or college or campus – not just in classrooms! – and possibly beyond the walls of the institution;
  • Real-time optimization of the network to cope with changing RF and client conditions to maximise reliability;
  • Prioritization of learning-critical applications and QoS-sensitive traffic such as voice, video conferencing and streaming video;
  • Multi-layered user-based or role-based security to cope with differentiation of users – students of various ages, teachers, administrative staff, guest users (including potentially users of a BYOD facility)

[Part 2 continues here….]

Fixing Education’s Historical Fixation

teachingThe limitless network of networks that we now inhabit, with its boundless stores of data and information, is quickly democratizing access to knowledge for everyone who has that essential connection to the Internet. This fact alone is already causing the pivotal relationship that has persisted at the heart of formal education since the dawn of history to shift in ways that complicate considerably the long-accepted notion of the school. The relationship in question is the one between the teacher and the learner. In the context of the historical model of the school laid out here, the relationship should be more accurately described perhaps as that between the one who teaches and those who are taught. The distinction is an important one on two counts: first, the status of the teacher as the fount of all wisdom, in the sense that has been the basis of schooling for so long, is now being radically undermined by the technologically-driven process of information democratization; secondly, the new reality is drawing attention, more clearly every day, to the abiding fallacy that has existed at the heart of education for too long, namely the simplistic belief that what is taught is what is learned.

When we accept the notion of the teacher as the fount of knowledge, as so many have done for so long, we ordain a particular relationship between teacher and student, between the teacher and the taught. It is a relationship in which the process of education is primarily one of somehow transplanting information from the head of the teacher, or from books and other media with the assistance of the teacher, into the head of the student. It is a relationship that, despite the centuries of thought and decades of research on learning theory, has always somewhat incongruously put teaching in the foreground rather than learning. Within the parameters of this relationship even the notion of improving learning has more often than not come down to questions of how teaching could be done better to enable students to learn more effectively. By placing teaching above learning, despite the fundamental truth that it is the learning, ultimately, that ought to be the whole point of education, we simultaneously establish a hierarchy in education and signify that the student can learn effectively only through the intervention of the teacher. By its very nature, then, it is a relationship that has tended over the centuries to elevate the idea of performance in teaching, to the extent that few teachers even today seem able – or willing – to see themselves in anything other than the traditional role of leading instruction and therefore at the centre of attention in the classroom. It is a relationship that has permitted the unquestioned acceptance of the unfairness, indeed the absurdity, of a teacher and a school taking credit for, and basking in the glory of, student success whilst simultaneously blaming student failure on the intellectual shortcomings, whether inborn or nurtured, of the students themselves.

The historical fixation on the centrality of the role of the teacher, as traditionally defined, within the school has, in addition, given succour to the erroneous and reductive assumption that what the teacher teaches is what the student learns. It is an assumption that has endured for so long in so much of the writing, thinking, discussion and practice pertaining to schooling through the ages that it is rarely if ever questioned. We go to school to learn that which is taught to us. That is what school is for, after all. But of course it is wrong. It is the central delusion of schooling, a myth that needs to be questioned and crushed if we are to move on from the model of education that has been with us for so long.

Schools around the world, and by logical association the education systems to which they belong, have rested on this 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, as I noted previously, 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.

However, to assume from this 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, a teacher, this 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. But for that to be true, there has to be a complete inversion in our understanding of what the act of teaching means. 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. And now the learner’s ubiquitous access to information changes the core relationship, but 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 the two issues raised above – first, the relationship between teacher and learner that 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.


The Learning Society: social and economic progress through education

learning-societyThe printing press sowed the seeds of social and economic progress, heralding a time when ‘change itself [became] the archetypal norm of social life’ (McLuhan). It then took another three centuries and more before the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment were able to reframe the concept of progress as no longer merely change-as-happenstance but rather as a conscious effort to transform society for the better. Change was no longer merely possible but desirable. Along with the notion of progress as positive transformation, the Scottish philosophers also propounded the notions of meritocracy and of our right to question authority. Out of these Enlightenment values came the possibility of imagining and creating a learning society, a society that recognised not simply the importance of learning what is and has been, but of what could be and what might be desirable. A learning society is a society that wants to learn how to learn, that respects science and that recognizes the need to question authority, and according to Joseph Stiglitz and Bruce Greenwald in their new and important book – Creating a Learning Society: A New Approach to Growth, Development, and Social Progress – it is the basis for much of the economic growth that has occurred across the world since the late 18th century.

Stiglitz and Greenwald have produced a book that is primarily about economics. But it is also a book about education – not surprising, given its title. It is a book filled with detailed and specialized economic theory and analysis, but it is also a book that offers much to those whose primary interest is in the nature and importance of learning. As an educationist, I am interested in the possibility that this might well be the first book I have come across in more than three decades in the field that attempts to show how education is the single most important explanatory factor we have to consider in trying to understand the nature of economic growth and social progress globally.

The authors take as their starting point an approach to learning that comes out of microeconomics, one that relates primarily to improvements in a firm’s productivity and efficiency. But they take pains to make clear that they relate the kind of learning that goes on in the firm directly to the learning needs of the wider society too. Of particular interest to me, however, is that Stiglitz and Greenwald don’t talk about learning in the abstract, as if we all agree what learning is, and just leave it that. Instead, they promote a form of learning – one they believe is most fruitful for growth and prosperity in  a country – that is not the rote learning of the past, or even the dry academic learning that might happen in some elite institutions around the world and is being championed once again by some national governments:

Much of traditional economics focuses on education’s role in increasing human capital, the stock of knowledge embodied in individuals. It is typically measured by years of schooling. Our emphasis is quite different. Years spent on rote learning might (or might not) increase the stock of (even relevant) knowledge and, in that sense, increase productivity, at least temporarily, until that knowledge becomes obsolete. But such schooling would not necessarily increase the ability to learn – increasing capacities for lifelong learning – and could actually impede it, especially if, as part of such education, there is an attempt to inculcate ideas that are antithetical to science.

The authors believe that the Enlightenment represented a change in mindsets, to those that were receptive to the creation of a learning society and which, at the same time, offered a basis for scientific enquiry. Alongside this, ideas of human rights and democracy became natural bedfellows. They promote the idea that a more open society:

…generates more ideas, a flow of ‘mutations’ which provides not only excitement but the possibility of dynamic evolution

Stiglitz gave a very clear exposition of his ideas to the RSA in Scotland earlier this year and was happy to point to Scotland as a country that is actively seeking to create a learning society, one in which university education for instance is still free to all its citizens, and one that understands the benefits of striving to minimise inequalities in society while at the same time ensuring that rational thought and scientific enquiry will continue to trump the anti-science rhetoric we are seeing increasingly and worryingly in other, larger, advanced economies.

I sense that this could be an important book, and just as important to educational debate as it will be to economic thinking. The description of learning in the book is broad-brush but it is always thoughtful and always challenging. Its starting point in microeconomics will limit the willingness of some in education to take it seriously – that would be a mistake! I welcome the authors’ focus on a kind of learning that goes beyond rote learning, beyond the kind of learning that I have typified in the past as ‘smokestack schooling’.

For what it is worth, I believe that the kind of learning they (rightly) denigrate is certainly no longer tenable in the Knowledge Economy of today, but it endures obstinately nonetheless, and it was deemed good enough, by the logic of the industrial economy,  for most people for most of the past two centuries and more, through most of the industrial era and into the final decades of the twentieth century. The point now is to take these lessons and to apply them to the advanced economies with renewed vigour, but also to those countries around the world that are still struggling to develop economically. The Asian tiger economies thrived precisely because they were able to pay little heed to the so-called Washington Consensus in the period since the Second World War, and precisely because they focused on education as central to their development strategies. Sub-Saharan Africa, remaining dependent, as it has done, on aid from the West, has not been able to focus on learning to the same extent.

If this book can tilt the balance towards changing that focus in the developing world, and if it can more generally emphasise the critical importance not only of learning, but of the right kind of learning, to social and economic progress across the world, then this book on economics really could become one of the most important books on education in recent years!

Take the TWEE out of Tweeting: teaching, learning & technology

During a recent online debate, one of those undemanding messages that so many Twitter-inhabiting educators seem to love popped up on my TweetDeck and then popped up again and then again and again as more and more people retweeted it, until finally I was forced to mute the originator of the platitude just to make it go away.

It read:

Technology does NOT teach.


It is of course true that, just as bakers bake and dancers dance, teachers teach. Hard to disagree with, but hardly insightful. It is also true that teachers often don’t teach, and that can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on the context and on the reasons for not teaching. Equally, some teachers teach badly – all teachers do at some points in their careers, surely – at which times it is not particularly helpful to beat the drum for their teaching.

So why, apart from its banality, did this particular example of the twee in tweeting annoy me?

It takes only a modicum of thought to realise that sometimes technology CAN teach, and often rather effectively. It is arguable that, where people learn from their interaction with technology with minimal or no human intervention, the technology might be said to be teaching them.

There are good examples and bad examples, just as there are good and bad teachers. Think of game-playing: much learning can be gleaned from computer games and online games. It would be churlish to try to argue that games do not teach. Think of programmed learning and the notorious teaching machines of old (and their software descendants in computer-based learning): they arose out of the reductionist swamp of behavioural psychology, but whether they managed it well or badly, they did teach. There are just so many examples where technology does indeed teach, sometimes in isolation, often as a helpful prosthetic to human teachers.

Of course, there’s no harm in admitting that, mostly, technology doesn’t teach. And sometimes, even like the best of teachers, when technology does teach it does so badly. The point is, none of this really gets us anywhere in terms of our educational thinking, does it? If the act of teaching by a teacher is the key, what happens when a teacher ‘teaches’ to an empty room? Not much other than the the teacher taking some pleasure form hearing his or her own voice uninterrupted. But put a purposeful learner in an empty room with a book or a connected device and some learning is a more than likely result.

It reminds me once again of Ron Burnett‘s paper, Learning to Learn in a Virtual World, in which he taught me the memorable phrase, the radical impossbility of teaching, a phrase and an argument that set me on the road to I Am Learner. Ron asks questions such as (to paraphrase heavily):

When teachers teach and learners learn, what is the nature of the causal link between the two, if any?

How does teaching produce learning?

Does teaching produce learning?

Is learning merely an accidental consequence of teaching?

The platitude, I’m afraid,  expresses a view of education, of teaching and learning, that is just unhelpful. It focuses on teaching as in some sense the direct cause of learning. It promotes the view, intentionally or otherwise, that the learner cannot learn without the intervention of a teacher. It is a view that, I would contend, is imbued with the centrality of formal education, the hegemony of the school and of the academy. And it is a view that, whether it likes it or not, deprecates any learning that does not come about as a result of teaching.

In today’s world, at this moment of interplay in education, where the role of the teacher is immeasurably more complex than it was in earlier and simpler times, when the teacher needs to bring all of his or her wisdom, experience and skills to bear to help learners to learn rather than simply to ‘teach’ in some simplistic sense of transferring ‘knowledge’ to the unknowing,  we do education no favours by  raising nice-but-vapid platitudes for the thoughtless to copy ad infinitum on Twitter or elsewhere.


The Persistent Fetish: the printed book in the digital age

persistentfetishThe book, as we have known and loved it for half a millennium and more, is an object of veneration for many. I am undeniably a bibliophile, and while it is most often the content of a book, or the promise of the title or author, or perhaps a recommendation or review, that leads me to buy it and read it, I am equally sure that the nature of the object itself plays a huge part in my love of books. The book – printed, bound, tactile, replete with promise – arguably is fetishized like no other object in history.

And rightly so, since it is the book that powered the Enlightenment, that gave us our universities, that enabled mass education and that propelled large parts of our world towards the many and varied attempts at democracy. Equally, of course, it is that same fetishization of the book that has played its part through the ages in sustaining so many variations on irrationality. We see this in the veneration of certain books as, somehow, the word of one or another of the many ‘one true’ gods that mankind has felt the need to invent across time and place. The book allows us to read and ponder the words of Plato or Popper, Krishnamurti or Kipling, Hitchens or Hemingway, Coetzee or Coelho – but it also allows those who would persuade us of their righteousness to pass off the words of mere mortals as sacred or immutable, and indeed the physical book containing those words as itself somehow hallowed. The book has been a component part of our humanity, in other words, since we first started to scratch on stones or slates.

So the book is both a powerful medium for the capture and transfer of knowledge, ideas and sentiments, and yet also a potent artefact in its own right, as an object in some sense distinct from the content within its bindings. From a cultural and educational perspective it is, of course, the content of books that should remain centrally important to us. The expression of ideas, thoughts, experience, human dilemmas and conjecture in the words on the page, the encapsulation of knowledge in text and image: it is these that have contributed, and continue to contribute, in so many different ways to the development of humankind. For all our fetishization of the book as an object, it is the elementary role of the book as a repository of knowledge, concepts and imagination that remains the critical ingredient of the form in its contribution to humanity’s search for enlightenment, validation and pleasure.

However, even in this increasingly digitized age, when we are so easily able to separate the ‘book as knowledge’ from the ‘book as object’, I believe that the printed book can continue to hold a place in our hearts. While the knowledge it encapsulates remains central, we should not in any way diminish the continuing significance of the physical object as something to be enjoyed too. This could be inspired by the aesthetics of the object itself; I hope that more and more writers will wish to see special editions of their books printed so that readers can make that choice between simply accessing the content on an e-book or purchasing a physical version of it that is a beautiful and desirable object in itself. I believe that more and more publishers will see a growing market for beautifully produced printed books that people want to own as much as to read.

In addition, however, I believe that those same digital technologies that seem to be threatening the physical book’s very existence will also begin (are already beginning) to be used increasingly to enhance the pleasure of reading from the printed page. Still in its early days, the potential  of deploying augmented reality technologies to heighten and amplify the experience of reading from the printed page will give us even more reasons to continue to print and purchase physical books. With a book in one hand and a smartphone in the other, the reader will be able to stop at any juncture, point their phone at the page and be taken off to look at the definitions or etymology of words, to see images and movies of places being described in the text, to bring still images to life in video or animation, to hear the author or a critic speak about the section being read, to exchange comments and notes with the community of readers of the same book all across the world, to delve into the original manuscript in the author’s hand (from pre-digital times most likely) in order to see how many attempts it took by the author to carve out that final phrasing, and a million other possibilities besides. And this will be true of any kind of printed objects, whether books, magazines, newspapers, store catalogues, brochures, whatever.

The purist, as is their right, will always want to stick with the final text and nothing else. But for many of us this powerful bringing together of the Gutenberg galaxy and the digital sphere will offer the possibility of ensuring that  the physical printed book can have a new lease of life.

So, between the book as a beautiful object of desire and the digital enhancement of the printed book, our enduring fetish for the book will persist, I am sure.