Digitally connected families

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.

School budgets - think the unthinkable

Education systems in the western world are very resistant to change. While just about all other sectors of the economy have been transformed through and by the digital revolution, schools carry on pretty much as they did before the advent of the world-wide web. Small things have changed such as administration functions and how they communicate with parents. Access to the web is often expected to enable pupils to do homework, but the fundamentals of how the education budget is spent and how schools operate remain more or less as they have been throughout the 20th century.

If we are going to talk about how schools could change in response to the digital revolution, we had better be clear about what schools are expected to do. They of course are expected to educate children, but they also have another important societal role, that of child-minding so that parents can work. And these days that usually means both parents, and all single parents.

Because of this second role for schools, the existence of school buildings is pretty much non-negotiable until children are of an age to be responsibly left at home without parents being present. In the UK this means children under the age of 12. For children between 12 and 16 it can be debated whether they are mature enough to be home alone, though for the large majority being home alone will be possible. There are also good reasons for society to want teenagers to have a place to go during the day, and for that matter in the evenings. Teenagers are immature and still developing; if not engaged in useful activities they might engage in anti-social activities.

Then we come to the matter of education and here it is far from clear that the current
model of schooling is sensible. As a sector of the economy it provides employment for quite a lot of people but it's productivity can be questioned. Schools are nominally responsible for children in only around 12% of their time. Levels of educational achievement while have risen a little in the past couple of decades are still woefully low for very many children, who emerge from after more than 15 years of schooling poorly equipped to be creative, entrepreneurial, informed and caring members of society. This issue of levels of achievement is considerably a matter of how educational achievement is assessed. Many children are a lot more capable in things they were not taught at school than in things they were taught. But our education systems can only be judged on whether they achieve what they set out to achieve. Though whether this is what they should set out to achieve is a valid question.

The reason that the time is now right to question all this is because most children in the western world are now digitally connected. They live in digitally connected families in media-rich homes. It is possible to learn almost anything factual or practical from the internet. And a substantial part of most people's interactions with others now happen online. If we invented an education system from scratch in our connected world I do not feel we would run schools as we now do. And there are some schools showing us the way. They are taking different approaches because they feel it is right and very often despite many problems put their way by education authorities and despite receiving little official credit for what they are doing - but a lot of credit from their pupils and parents.

When companies change in response to the digital revolution they have to think through how best to use the resources that they have to do their business more effectively. The resources that all organisations have are money and people. How should you spend the money and how should you use the people to achieve what you are measured by - sales for commercial organisations and learning for schools. The priority order of decisions surely goes something like this:

1) Building occupancy. We have to have enough spaces for all children not being looked after by their parents to be safely and productively housed and occupied. The school building estate cannot be changed overnight and we can only change it slowly. So this call on the budget is determined by the numbers of young people and the requirement for parents to work, which is a function of the economic position of families and national employment needs and priorities. But note that we are talking of building occupancy. For pupils over the age of 12 there could be considerably flexibility in the timing of when they might occupy space in schools.

2) Custodial supervision. The numbers of people that it is possible to house safely in buildings depends only on their maturity and the nature of the buildings. At a major sports event or a pop festival the ratio of safety-critical staff to people present will likely be of the order of 200:1 or maybe more. To house 2yr olds in a nursery needs a ratio of 4:1. This illustrates a critical point about how current education budgets are spent. The majority of the budget is spent on staffing and older pupils are funded at a much higher level than nursery and primary pupils. As this is obviously not justified from custodial needs, we must ask whether it is justified in other ways.

3) Educators.