Moonshot: The power of collaboration

One of my favourite classroom ‘simulations’was called Moonshot. The class were given a list of 15 things that they had with them on the moon and asked to rank these in order of value. So Oxygen was handy, a compass may be not etc. Their responses were collected in and then they had to repeat the same task in groups. We then compared the scores individual v group and as you might expect, the group scores were always better than the individual.

The web offers us a unique opportunity to collaborate with problem solving. We can turn the planet into a giant brain if the people with the ideas are prepared to do so. And do we need to. Some of the challenges that we face need all the brains we can muster. Stephen Hawking has just suggested that he thinks it unlikely that we can survive on the planet for much longer.

The implications for education? Begin with the premise that everyone can make a contribution. The process of design, from ideas to manufacture, involves a host of skills that many of us possess to some extent. Some schools teach Philosophy for Children (P4C) which can give children of any age the opportunity to get to the core of an issue. Facilitate co-operative learning through web based problem solving from an early age. Embrace the full range of problems and challenges from energy, recycling, health, house building, agriculture, transport, care etc. Encourage a local community based micro model to begin with and then expand. It is the process of education that we can change most rapidly and most easily (and where teacher autonomy can be protected).
The next generation will have to deal with all the challenges, perhaps we should have the good grace to step aside and let them make a start.

A new school curriculum for the digital age

If we are to compete with the world and find some growth in the teeth of the economic gale , we will need to encourage innovation. In effect, we need to equip young people to exploit the digital age. This will mean that digital devices will need to become the medium for learning. We shall need to have a curriculum that teaches enough about coding and applications to support the sort of creative thinking that we can, as a country, be so good at. The one glimmer of light in this age of unemployment and a rapidly ageing population is the availability and ease of access to the web. 

A couple of hurdles, which can be overcome. The practical, digital expertise in schools often resides with the pupils – we need to support the ‘flipping’ of the curriculum so that teachers can support and learn with the students in school. A second problem is the rigidity of the national curriculum  and the conservative, lethargic processes that hinder change – we need to quickly cut schools some slack.

David Miliband has recently argued for the concept of Community Leadership. The reform of the curriculum I am suggesting,  could be closely linked to the community, as many of the innovatory applications of new technologies will need to relate to energy, the environment, the elderly, health and social care. Miliband also argues for a counter balancing cohort of comprehensive school headteachers who will challenge the elitist notions that accompany the free school and academy chain models. This group of heads would be the best advocates of an inclusive and enabling new curriculum for the rising generation, a generation who will need to rescue the rest of us.

Education, Growth and Cottage Industries

It is clear that this country faces an enormous challenge. The current policies seem to involve tinkering with some infrastructure projects and waiting for the private sector to pull us all through. There are big problems with this kind of ‘traditional thinking’.  For many, there is no confidence in the future and they may avoid expansion. 

Other, successful countries, appear to have far more ‘pro-active’ strategies – they make long term investment commmitments to the new industries such as the scientific, the green, the creative, the new media and knowledge industries. The positive aspect here is that we have very good resources in all of these.

A good plan would be to target the young. On line programmes that encourage innovation, creativity and business skills could be freely available at schools and colleges. Each local centre would need access to resources and coaching as well as help from mentors from the local community. What could help are cottage industries that keep us actively engaged in enterprises that will save the country money (i.e. by avoiding imports and the consumption of expensive and unsustainable goods and services) and make money by selling products and services abroad. We need to develop our co-operative projects and explore ideas about  the sharing and making better use of resources. Greater working from home could reduce transport costs and can free up office space for conversion to housing.

We have some of the best universities in the world, a strong international reputation for education and a command of one of the world’s  main lingua franca. If we cannot entertain huge numbers of foreign students here then we need to get serious about on line delivery systems.

It is to be hoped that traditional political, social and economic prejudices do not prevent this assembly of  the kind of people who can develop a radical and prophetic vision and who could set these things in motion. Our country needs them.

Teachers and Learning

Teachers are expected to demonstrate that  their pupils are learning. This can be a challenge at the best of times and we need to exercise professional judgement when deciding if this is happening. We also need to pay heed to the strongest sources of classroom research, such as the meta analysis by Professor Geoff Hattie http://www.learningandteaching.info/teaching/what_works.htm , which concludes that the way a teacher interacts with an individual pupil is by far and away the most potent ingredient in learning. Enabling this type of activity in a classroom is a challenge for planning and for classroom management. If this type of informed , instructive and affirming feedback happens in a lesson, then we can be confident that learning will occur. The ‘harvest’ of such interventions may need to be pursued through subsequent  individual questioning.

A more radical set of ideas about learning are linked to the concept of ‘flipping’ whereby the pupils learn independently from tailored web based programmes and computer games and the teacher diagnoses, facilitates and  coaches. http://21k12blog.net/2011/02/13/the-flipped-classroom-advances-developments-in-reverse-learning-and-instruction/

A little flipping certainly supports the feedback activities described above and has the potential to relieve the teacher of the punishing ‘all singing and dancing’ pedagogy, which is often implied by the perceived need to strive to be ‘outstanding’. Few teachers, in my experience, are capable of being consistently ‘outstanding’ in this way and expecting such ‘performance teaching’ for 5 lessons a day surely encourages burn out or career change.

Blended Learning

It is somewhat surprising, given the resources available, that Blended Learning approaches have not made the inroads one might expect. This may in part be due to a misconception, that any addition of on line learning would exclude the face to face. It may also in part be due to the gatekeepers lagging in confidence and expertise, compared to the skills of the rising generations. Perhaps it is linked to the problems of individualising school teaching and learning formats.

The pressures are surely building in relation to shortening  the school day or the breaking up of the term blocks  to allow space for students, trainees and teachers to access those aspects of their training and education which are best done on line. The software exists to facilitate meetings, discussions  and seminars without the need to travel. The gaming software also clearly exists to allow for the design of the most amazing, stimulating, challenging and exciting virtual learning environments. The hardware exists to allow unlimited and unfettered access. What, one wonders, are we all waiting for?

 I am currently a member of a team who are working with Hibernia University, Dublin to develop, in this country, a blended learning approach to Teacher Training. There appears to be a greater use of Blended Learning in Ireland and a growing appetite in developing countries.  Perhaps when more teachers in this country train and learn within blended learning formats, then things will change. If not, we may be in danger of inertia arrested development.

Waggon and SWOT

Some things survive from the relentless days of the 90’s when management speak crept onto the agenda for Training Days. SWOT is perhaps one, as it introduced the idea to schools that it was a useful exercise to identify Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats as the need and opportunity to see oneself as others might, became more pertinent.  I guess it was the beginning of a process of commercialisation, which, like it or not, has become an increasingly significant part of the landscape. In the current climate, with the enforced retreat of Local Authorities and the advance of the powers of competition, the majority of schools are likley to feel more vulnerable. A good place to start is to identify strenghts as this can provide a platform for confidence and for negotiating positions. It is not easy to make a clear judgement about either strengths or weaknesses – we are often too close to see these things and of course these things are relative and we may be way off beam. If we include opportunities and threats, we are looking at an exercise that is probably best completed with local partners and is a useful first step in trust for exploring collaborative ideas. If the waggons are to be drawn up we need to decide what needs to be outermost, what needs to be protected and nourished, what are the dangers and for whom do we need to leave a gap, physical or digital, so that we may be  reinforced and supported.

Technology, Technology, Technology

Well the politicking is getting underway and, following on the theme from my last blog, schools are under pressure again. The usual sticks are being waved; the performance data isn’t good enough, behaviour needs improvement, teachers need better degrees etc. So the remedies are coming thick and fast. However, several elephants in the room are being ignored. We have the continued school ‘apartheid’ caused by the fee paying, the grammar and the ‘popular comprehensive lock out’ sectors. We have substantial cuts in budgets and we have Technology. What we don’t have much of is a recognition that all young people need to see the worth and feel a part of their education (especially for those whose parents are unable to engineer school choice for their children). Young people need to have both a voice as well as a choice. Technology is capable of providing both. There are already established forms of  on line supported learning. It is possible for the young (and the rest of us) to learn on line and to motivate ourselves through having options, as well as having learning programmes tailored to our needs. Coincidentally, this method of learning can be also be considerably more resource efficient  as well as enhancing opportunity. Perhaps the advantages that technology can provide will encourage politicians to locate the current debate in the future rather than in the past.