Sunday, 31 January 2010

a new decade in Learning

The Times Educational Supplement asked me to look back on the first decade of this century - and to look froward to the next. What a decade it has been! So here is what I wrote for them, for a january edition of the TES:

A decade passing and the year 2000 already feels a long time ago. Looking back, three clear markers for the future of learning were in place at that time: I remember the Millennium Eve party rather well, considering. It was the opening of the Dome in Greenwich and I'd been involved because our Tesco Schoolnet 2000 (TSN2K) project children were to showcase their work in the Dome om some rather fanciful computer screens fringed by inflatable butterfly wings! At the party, and indeed in the lead up to the millennium, most of the media coverage was looking back - "what a century that was". But the children were, of course, looking forwards to what they might be able to do with the power that ICT had given them: power to contribute, to participate, to collaborate, and to do so without limit. TSN2K became at the time the World's Biggest Internet learning project according to the Guinness Records folk. David Blunkett, an inspired education Minister when it came to ICT, was being interviewed by a little 9 year old reporter who asked if he had a nickname at school. "Yes, I did" he replied, taking her away from the journalists and over to a quiet side of the room, "but I can't tell you in front of all those people". She was doing a web page of course and his secret went viral within hours!

That same year Carole Chapman's remarkable 7 year long Learning in the New Millennium project with Nortel was coming to an end. She'd connected scientists, engineers, primary and secondary children in an on-line social network back in 1993 and had been watching what happened since. BBC Tomorrow's World featured how by the end you could not distinguish the primary children from the adults - their learning leapt forward in a stellar way and Nortel ended up employing many of the youngsters in the project, sponsoring them through university, because Nortel thought were remarkable. Indeed, although chosen as a representative sample they had become quite exceptional. The community became "seamless tapestry of learning" where "children as teachers were as exciting as children as learners" and where applied science and technology for the children leapt ahead, while they in turn tutored Nortel's geeks through the history and languages that they had missed at school.

And the third straw in the wind, back in 2000, was the complex social networking tool we developed with Oracle to be the millennium mail address for all schoolchildren that Prime Minister Blair promised, but later reneged on. With Larry Ellison's genorosity the software went on to became Children simply loved the power of their social network, think of it as Facebook on steroids, and right away started to learn and work with others all around the world.

This is where it gets interesting. The potential learning world of 2010, so clearly presaged by these projects, was probably missed by all the self congratulatory looking-back that characterised celebrations in 2000. A decade ago, learning had already shown that when it escaped from its limits it could indeed be stellar. Peer to peer, mixed age, global, unlimited, shared, stage not age, project based Learning, spurred along by mutuality, exhibition, challenge and a shared ambition, really, really worked. Of course, in 2000 not all ICT at the time was like that. Much of it was still built around the sense that content was king, that kill and drill programs offered productivity gains, and that managed systems with nailed down networks would keep everything under control. Remarkably, today the new schools being built around the UK and indeed worldwide evidence this severe philosophical split too. On the one hand we see the gleaming factory schools with their cells and bells, with rigid and unsubstantiated subject divides, driven by incrementalism and managerialism, inwardly focussed, with children timetabled to the point of despair and beyond the point of disengagement. On the other hand we can see today's learning centric schools, and they are popping up everywhere, absolutely reflecting the promise of those world leading ICT turn-of-the-century projects a decade before. They couldn't be further from factory schools: they are ambitious, are built around community, have the learners' voice at their heart, embrace projects, relish challenge, mix ages, have an open architecture and open curriculum, embrace children as teachers too, are full of engaged effective learners - both staff and students. Above all else have a global perspective at their heart. Talking to a remarkably articulate student in the Kent's Leigh Technology Academy a week or two back I asked him about his work experience and internships. "I've done two so far" he replied, "one in India and one in China". Back in 2000 we knew this could happen.

Knowing where we will be in ten year's time is helpful. We are approaching a time of tight money in teaching and learning. Bankers' greed has robbed education and we are facing the consequences. We can't afford to waste or equivocate as we invest going forwards. ICT in the year 2000 showed us very clearly where education might be going. It showed the choices for the decade ahead - productivity against community, despair against delight. As we leave the Noughties and enter the Impecunious Teens we won't have enough money to equivocate. We will need to get it right first time. Fortunately today's ICT once again gives us a very clear view of where we will be in a further decade's time and this time there aren't any choices. Online learners now have laid down a single set of markers for personalisation, for transparency, for mutuality, for us-ness, for whole new economic models, for quite literally unbounded learning, for a world of helping learners to help each other. The artificial distinction between "formal" and "informal" learning has already vanished online.

We are, as I have often reflected, facing the death of Education, but are very much at the dawn of Learning. 21st century Learning looks pretty exciting and today's leaners, with today's pocketable personal connected ICT, are showing us very, very clearly just how good learning might be. We ignore that at our peril.

© 2009

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