Monday, 6 November 2017

My Christmas IT wish: let children build a better education system for tomorrow

I wrote this for the UK's Financial Times back in December 2014. At the time it caused a lot of discussion and some enthusiastic widespread support... 

Globally, education is rather broken. Around the world we have some 2.2bn children. For a very large number of them the education they need to move forward economically, or to become parents and citizens, is elusive. At least 55m of them, probably a lot more, have no schooling at all.

Additionally, 114 out of 208 countries have a “significant” shortage of teachers. With 2.6m of the existing ones retiring (it is an exhausting, “always full-on” job everywhere, it seems), the world needs many more today, some estimates say 11m or more.

In many parts of the world the mere act of attending a school is dangerous; in some countries, education is seen as too “western” and threatening, or not for girls. The recent bombing and kidnappings in northern Nigeria and last week’s horrific shootings in Pakistan are indicative of this, and they are not about to stop any time soon.

Other children are absent from school in order to meet more urgent economic needs. This isn’t new, the long summer break in countries such as the US and the UK is often said to have been created by the need to allow children to swell the ranks of agricultural workers at harvest time.

Meanwhile, despite the billions spent on provision of education around the world, the equality gap between the wealthiest and the poorest has barely closed in the past 30 years, not even in countries such as the UK and US.

It is time we rethought education properly. Technology ought to have brought an entirely fresh way to make learning better. It has transformed our daily lives in incalculable ways: once-popular high street shops have closed as online selling has boomed; chains of identical restaurants and coffee shops, with free WiFi connections, are full of identically suited reps in micro-meetings; personal health data are collected on smartwatches; armies on the ground have become drones in the air; and today’s mobile phone outperforms yesterday’s supercomputer.

Almost everywhere we see more being achieved for less cost and less effort as technology makes its mark. So, when the education sector has pioneered so much of our current über-technology — from multimedia to online communities, from BBC micros in every UK classroom to the ARM chips in every pocket — why has so little changed in education?

Simply adding the extraordinary technology of the 21st century to processes developed in the 20th century has not made learning better. Too many of the practices of the past that still exist today are just plain wrong in any case.

For example, for most of us, school is the only time when we are corralled together exclusively with others of the same age. We don’t do this in our families, our orchestras, our sports teams, our offices. A cinema row exclusively for 37-year-olds? Never.

Some 6-year-olds read as well as most 11-year-olds, some 9-year-olds have the mathematical capability of a 14-year-old. But even as technology allows children to accelerate, the existing year and grade structures makes them wait, encouraging student disengagement. Stage, not age, should matter most.

And have you ever watched children reading? They read curled up, on beds, on sofas, on the floor, on sunbeds. No child would choose to read on a hard, upright chair. Yet schools are packed — expensively — with chairs that look pretty much like the perfect prototype for an anti-reading device. Of course, we have a reading problem in the UK, particularly among children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Simply adding smart tablets to those hard chairs alone won’t transform disengagement.

We are blessed with a host of school types in Britain — from studio schools (which work closely with employers to bridge skills gaps) and University technology colleges to the more familiar academies and free schools, freer from local authority control than in the past and more able to select their own curriculums.

This variety means we have the vehicles to innovate. But at many schools (although by no means for all, and not just in the UK) the technology is often stopped at the gates or bent to the old practices. Phones have to be turned off, networks and YouTube restricted. The teachers’ smartboard might now be interactive — but too often it’s still the teachers’ board, not the pupils’.

What is needed is not to fit the technology to the existing practices, but real innovation. Let’s start with what might be possible and what might be needed — the pedagogic equivalent of the Google Car — and work towards that.

It will need to be a lot cheaper, more engaging, more shared and connected, and hugely more effective. It will need to harness the enthusiasm and reflection of children supporting each other in their learning, far more than the current system allows. As we have seen in countless projects, asking the children themselves to research how learning might be improved produces compelling engagement, provides some really effective ideas and helps them to learn about learning. They have wise, reflective suggestions for how it might be better, and they have a vested interest in making it so. It’s what they do, daily.

We can’t make improvements without them — whether it is evolving protocols for the use of phones in lessons, or organising queueing systems for the Skype bars springing up in schools everywhere.

It’s simply not possible to build better learning for two billion children. But if we start with that goal, using the very best technology we have and sidestep legacy systems and practises, we might create better, and completely different learning with those children. Why shouldn’t we try?

We know what is possible, we have the technology, we have a lot of children. It’s time to do something astonishing with both.

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