Friday, 20 February 2009

tech changes all...?

I wrote this for my Guardian Column in Spring 2006

Sometimes technology brings about changes before those guiding an industry realise. Teachers all over the world have seen how new technology has given children the ability to make powerful short movies themselves. Five years ago they were having fun just playing with the kit, but these days they want a voice and are using video to make that voice heard on bullying, politics and much more besides. In cinema, too, low-budget independent movie-makers have also stopped playing and are seeking a voice, often conveying powerful messages. George Clooney's recent BAFTA nominated anti-McCarthyite "Good Night, And Good Luck", was made cheaply with new technology and filmed in black and white with George directing and writing for a nomimal fee. I was lucky enough to attend the Bafta awards, dinner and glamorous party even though I'm some distance from being a fashion icon. At the Baftas David Puttnam, was receiving lifetime award. David had abandoned film making feeling that there was no longer a way to make powerful films with a message; however, he thanked Clooney for winning that opportunity back for the whole industry. Somehow though, the Bafta members had slightly missed all this, and they settled for a cosy, big studio movie for many of their votes. How could they miss such a substantial and obvious change?

Well, education has missed a few changes too. And this causes real problems when it comes to evaluating the impact of investment like new technology on learning. When we spend money to add computers into the learning equation, what do we measure to convince treasury colleagues that it was all worthwhile? To explore this, I'm engaged in a substantial Microsoft-sponsored project to build a Learning Metric, to help people like UNESCO or the World Bank be clear where educational investment, especially ICT, has been effective. Essentially this will be a big complex computer model showing gains and costs, but what variables should be measured? One might look for literacy improvements in the widest sense, or world-class numeracy, but also hopefully for a bit of joy, engagement, better attendance, motivated teachers, impressed parents, growth in national income and so on. We can measure all this, but we must be sure to include the new gains in learning too. All around the world countries are pouring money into ICT in different ways, but are other countries' investments proving more effective; what transforms literacy? what reverses disengagement? what retains teachers? what works?

ICT has allowed many countries to re-examine their whole education systems and so, inevitably, I'm helping many to plan significant educational change. For example, 18 months ago the Caribbean was hit by hurricane Ivan. Grand Cayman island was flooded to the point where it disappeared from satellite view for some hours. But the Ivan the Terrible started a process of renewal and repair. A new Cayman government, the People's Progressive Movement (PPM), came to power. They promised children that education would be transformed and ICT lies at the heart of this. Even without hurricanes, transforming education in the 21st century is complex. So many things must move forward together, not just ICT alone: professional development, examinations, curriculum, architecture, expectations, parents, and more. The Cayman Isles are moving away from the computer suite to a fully wireless nation, are making the most of one laptop per teacher, using ICT to celbrate children's performance and creativity, asking ICT to transform their data collection to aid policy decisions, and harnessing new communication technologies to link their schools with others worldwide. The PPM got off to a really good start by immediately asking to hear the views of all interested parties, from children to employers, and committing to those views in a published document. To maintain their pace, it will help to have clear metrics showing where ICT, CPD, or new architetcure are working, and where they aren't. Walking round Cayman schools recently, there was an optimism, a glint in the eye of their learners that suggested their new journey of change had begun. Technology changes everything and now, all I've got to do, is work out how to measure, and nourish, that optimism. I think I need another rum punch.

© Professor Stephen Heppell 2006

Sunday, 15 February 2009

first finance then education?

I was asked to write this as a contribution to a useful document on school design, in the broad sense, put together by the excellent Dyer Group who amongst other things are significant architects. I wrote it early in 2009.

The finance industry's collapse was not much of a surprise to many observers, although it shocked those within the industry. It had seemed pretty clear to many of us watching that continuing to offer mortgages to those who could not repay them, was foolish. But within the sector eyes were focussed on the short termism of the next quarter's targets and on the bonus payments that would result. There was a clear view that if it was really foolish, then somehow "they" would intervene to stop the foolishness. In the end, of course, there was no "they".

For a very long time in learning we have been clear about the components of 21st century schools. Paper after paper, report after report, project after project confirmed the effectiveness well tried and tested ingredients of 21st century learning: smaller units of learning organisation - in particular the small "home base" type groupings of around 150; of the effective engagement brought by project based working; of the power of the learners' voice not just in guiding new learning but in generating that meta-level learning reflection that is so infectious; of the wasted expense of corridors in a world where children move so much less around the school; of the need for agile multi-faceted space that can respond rapidly to learners' needs; of the effectiveness of much longer timetable blocks, or even no timetable; of the paucity of current furniture focussing as it mostly does on the individual doing non collaborative tasks; of the effectiveness of some mixed age learning and much, much more. Everyone from the World Bank to President Obama's current advisers generate cogent, rational papers arguing for the effectiveness of learning recipes assembled from these many ingredients. 21st century learning, in all its forms and iterations, works and in many cases can be stellar.

And yet because our metrics of learning success are so blunt, short term and unambitious (for example the number attaining 5 GCSE passes above grade D) it is quite possible to build a school that ignores the certainty of so much research and advice and simply delivers on these unambitious incremental targets, with the inevitable consequence of disengagement and dismay amongst its learners. I have yet to read a report from Ofsted, for example, that chastises a school for continuing to "deliver" factory learning and ignores this solid consensus that we are not now in the 20th century. Somehow our systems seem incapable of realising the foolishness of keeping doing the same thing when the evidence is that it is wrong.

It all sounds alarmingly like the finance industry with a headless chicken dash forwards, just about attaining the incremental targets, but ignoring the damage in terms of disengagement from a love of learning, that accompanies these continued errors. "Don't worry" might be the cry, "if it is all so foolish 'they' will intervene to stop the foolishness". Unfortunately, as with the finance industry, the key insight is that there is no "they". It would only take 15% of students or so to finally walk away from factory learning ( a "run" on the school mirroring a "run" on the bank" as parents queue to withdraw their children) for the whole financial assumptions of state education to collapse.

Hopefully, we are not as foolish, or as greedy, as bankers, but to be convincing in this assertion we - everyone engaged in the wonderful task of transforming our schools - need to raise our heads from the short termism of unambitious and imposed targets and start asking instead just how good might our children really be, if we gave them the chance to show us. That is the most exciting design task any of us will face in our careers.

Prof Stephen Heppell © 2009