Tuesday, 14 November 2006

So this is Christmas...

I wrote this for my Guardian Column for Christmas 2006

I was visiting a prison in the Caribbean earlier this week, to chat to prisoners about using ICT to improve their learning opportunities. It was an unexpectedly optimistic place; prisoners almost universally had a sense of their own unfulfilled promise but even the oldest prisoner that I spoke to felt it wasn't too late. It does seem foolish that all around the world we spent tens of thousands on each prisoner annually, have them in our care 24/7, and yet still they leave prison unable in many cases to read or write. That's our failure not theirs. Technology should have made a difference long ago; we know exactly what is needed but, just as with some schools, so much learning technology there - like the Internet - seems to be just banned thoughtlessly rather than provided appropriately. Prison is no place to aspire to, but one prisoner reluctantly concluded that his rapid progress through a correspondence based law qualification course was helped by the lack of distractions inside! Don't tell the minister Alan Johnson; his alarmingly backward decisions on coursework have already sentenced children to more solitary time in classrooms, disconnected from Google, under formal supervision, safely away from the danger of working with their parents or each other. Turning the key on the classroom door could be his next logical step!

I spoke to one Caribbean lad about how he had ended up out of school and into trouble. He reflected back on what had been a pretty torrid school career. Constant trouble with his interpretation of uniform quickly deteriorated into a permanent run-in with teachers that finally escalated to exclusion and the rest, as they say, is history. As chair of trustees of The Inclusion Trust, with its flagship project Notschool.net, this is familiar territory. I'm clear that 21st century learning should not want uniform kids, we should value ingenuity above mindless acquiescence surely?. One of the biggest impacts of ICT in our learning lives has been the excuse it has given us to think again about much that we once just assumed should be the components of our learning organisations, like uniforms, year groups or corridors. ICT in the workplace has meant that employers are newly looking for collaborative, reflective, ingenious, team learners who can research, critique and communicate. Those same attributes make good parents and citizens too, and clearly some of the old vocabulary of learning needs to be re-examined to reflect the 21st century. In Notschool vocabulary matters enormously - every child there is known as a "researcher" because that is what they are, helping as they do to define their project. But the word also builds their self esteem and thus I've become something of a vocabulary fundamentalist!. For example, I am anxious that we don't confuse "standards" with "standardisation"; I don't want simply "flexible" spaces for learning (which usually means a folding room divider), instead I want the sophistication of "agile" space design; ICT has embraced "personalisation" really well. It is an easy concept to fulfil through technology, yet too often I hear a confusion between the sterile old concept of "individualised learning" and the sophistication of "personalisation". Personalised learning of course takes proper account of learning styles, of the varied roles needed for collaboration to be effective, of different intelligences and emotions. But it doesn't have to mean working alone.

Vocabulary really matters in getting the details right. In the Cayman Isles we are now talking about the whole country as a Campus Cayman. The words clearly signal a commitment to putting learning at the heart of policy and the economy, from tourism and finance through to culture and citizenship. Words matter, getting the right words can make a big difference; the Caribbean prisoners knew it, the Notschool researchers knew it. Now all we need to do is think of a new word for coursework that the UK's foolish education minister Alan Johnson won't ban. How about "research?"

© Prof Stephen Heppell - November 2006