August 2017

Connectedness changes learning

The gob-smackingly huge failure of schools that I referred to in my last blog is the failure by the majority of schools and the UK education system as a whole, to recognise that the way young people learn has changed.

The digital revolution has made possible a new and better way of learning, which young people have adopted. That the majority of professional educators apparently cannot see this is a failure of understanding in their core purpose - promoting learning. This is why I used the phrase 'gob-smackingly huge'. It is comparable to doctors not adjusting their practice when the nature of disease became understood, and we discovered about infection and bacteria.

I can only conceive of two reasons for this. The first is that the majority of people in education systems are incompetent, but I know this isn't true. We have a lot of very good teachers who care deeply about how their pupils learn. That they are not seeing this change in learning suggests that something is inhibiting their experimentation with the changes the digital revolution has brought and hence the development of their awareness that there is now a better way to promote pupils' learning. The second possible reason is that those in positions of power in our education systems, particularly school leaders and the politicians and bureaucrats who run our education systems, are not primarily concerned with getting the best learning possible but have other priorities that they focus on instead.

In saying that there is a new and better way of learning I am not saying that all past practice was wrong. Far from it, teaching has developed a very great deal in the last 50 years and there will continue to be a place in teaching for the best current practice. The 'new and better way' arises because a new and very powerful factor has become available - connectedness. Our young people, from a very early age, are now connected, to information, to computer based systems and tools, and to other people. This is a hugely radical development for which there is no precedent. The closest I can come to conceiving of a precedent is to imagine that books, literacy and huge libraries all happened in a matter of two decades but that schools continued to teach orally.

There are a few schools that over the last decade have embraced this developing connectedness and have adjusted pedagogy and teaching to capitalise on it. They have shown the way. There is no shortage of video and articles explaining how these schools generate better learning, but the majority of schools still deny children the opportunity to use their personal devices in school. And they take little notice of how pupils' connectedness can change the learning of the children out of school.

So if the children and their families are now connected, and many teachers are connected themselves and quite capable of bringing connectedness into their professional approach to teaching, what is the inhibitor? It can only be something the other group of people in our education systems are doing, the school leaders, politicians and bureaucrats. And as these people are in general not bad people but people acting in good faith, it can only mean that their main priority is not quality of learning but something else.

I put it to you that politically the prime purpose of education systems is to exercise control over young people. Initially this was about reinforcing the power-base of the organisations that provided education, initially the churches and then the independent schools that arose. They presented themselves as the gatekeepers of knowledge that would enable advancement, for those wanting entrance to positions of power in the state, the military and the church. Then as it became necessary to educate more than just an elite, nation states got involved and set up their own education systems.

The fact that developed-world education systems are about control first and learning a poor second is clearly evident in the way these education systems operate. But it is wilfully obscured by maintaining the myth that learning is the prime aim. This had better be the topic of another blog.

35 years pushing uphill

I've spent over 35 years endeavouring to help schools and governments capitalise on the opportunities technology and the digital environment bring to learning. And it is time to reflect on why all the effort myself and others have exerted over this time seems to have had remarkably little effect on the majority of schools. My guess is that only around 10% of schools in the UK have properly normalised the use of the digital environment and digital tools. Though most primary schools are making a reasonable amount of use of technology few are properly linking with the digital environment of the families of pupils. We still regularly get stories of secondary schools banning pupils from using their own mobile devices in school. The students move from an always-on digitally supported life outside school to what is effectively a digital desert in school, only permitted to use the connectedness of the digital environment and the tools it makes available when teachers think it is a good idea.

I have huge praise for all in education who are trying to make their practice reflect the world we now live in. I hope I have done my bit to support them. But the fact that a few schools have shown the way to create an education fit for the connected world we live in but the majority seemingly completely ignore this is frustrating. And it makes me wonder why.

The conclusion I am coming to is that the majority of teachers, school principals and politicians involved with education are just not seeing the change that is happening. Marshall McLuhan prophetically stated that "The medium is the message". Big changes come upon the world not because of what technological innovations can do, but because of how these innovations change the world. Radio and the telephone broke down the isolation of communities and countries and created one world. Cars impacted not because they provided faster transport but because they changed cityscapes and commuting and shopping distances. The digital environment, combined with access to smartphones for all, is changing what we are as people and how social communities operate.

The majority of the schools in the UK, and in many other developed nations, have not realised this. They are reacting to some of the impacts this is having, usually from a fear-based approach rather than an opportunity-based approach. But failing to recognise that the culture into which children have been born, for the last 20 years, is a connected culture quite different to the societal culture that existed before personal mobile phones. Children who had the benefits of SMS messaging throughout their teenage years are now in their 30s and having children. All the children now in school were born into a world connected by the internet.

As Douglas Adams said,
anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that's invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things. All young people consider being connected at all times is a natural part of the way the world works. The majority of schools don't.

That schools and politicians are failing to recognise this major societal change is a gob-smackingly huge failure. Of which I will blog more soon.