Saturday, 26 May 2007

written for my Guardian column in 07

I was coming back from a vibrant e-assessment conference in Malaysia. At the airport, I stepped onto one of those strange moving pavements and started to stroll along it. In front were a couple - and they had stopped walking. In their minds they were moving forwards quickly enough - the wall posters were passing by. But because they were standing still, they were delaying the urgent family behind me who were clearly late. It was a nice metaphor for ICT. The pace of change is such that many feel just keeping abreast with on-line banking, booking, browsing or buying is enough; it feels like progress. But the generation of children rushing down the moving pathway that ICT offers, want policy to get out of the way of their learning. Education is blocking them.

But just exactly who is it that makes the judgement about what is appropriate progress? A colleague at DfES reminded me this week of the day I dropped a (colossal!) digital mobile phone onto a desk there and declared "that's a big bit of education's future - right there". Incredibly, next year we will be at the 20th anniversary of that moment and whilst children have been early and inspired adopters and users of SMS and other phone based technologies, it is fair to say that education policy, like the couple on the moving walkway, has stood in the way of children's progress with this important communication tool. Twenty years is a long wait. However, lately I have seen a lot of schools doing inspired things with phones, whatever national policy might be. And that is a very clear hint for us about how we might organise education in the future. If we could only share and assure that progress.

Well, now we can: next month, with support from Microsoft, I am beginning to bring together 6 nations in a brave project. Each nation, from China to Spain, will identify schools. The hypothesis is that these schools CAN improve; their scholarship will be to look for tested and effective ideas from other schools, worldwide; their action research is to take these ideas, fit them to a local context and improve their schools. At that point they exhibit their research success and it is rewarded with a Prof D. for the whole cohort of staff involved at the school - teachers become doctors. This is only possible because ICT gives us such great tools to share, communicate and exchange with, but make no mistake this is the beginning of a revolution in educational policy making.

This week I have been amazed visiting a vibrant and wired special school in Scotland (wheelchair country dancing!) and have also been delighted by an ambitious cluster of schools using ICT to unify science and maths vocabulary at the primary secondary divide. Each week I see more great ideas, carefully trialled and measured. These schools do NOT need anyone to tell them what to do, or to cap their ambition; they have a vision and they are getting on with attaining it. What they need most is for their research and reflections to be shared, exchanged, critiqued, valued and tested. Hence the project.

I can't think of anyone better placed to do this than themselves, with their electrifyingly ingenious NQTs, their confident, inquisitive young learners and their nearly-retired wise old teachers. As I've often said before: in the 20th century we built big things that did things for people, in the 21st century we help people to help each other and surely that includes schools. Luckily ICT, with its viral, peer-to-peer world of rich global communication, is rather good at all that.

© Professor Stephen Heppell, 2007