Tag Archives: education system

My summer of discontent…


I know I have banged on a lot about education this year. It’s a big deal to me, and, it should be for everyone because the state of education of our children impacts on all of our futures. I suppose I was already germinating seeds of discontent but I went to a conference earlier this year which kind of sparked off a whole range of new thoughts rather unexpectedly.

The conference in question was Thinking Digital 2013, billed as a conference for people who want to understand how our future will be affected by technology and other world changing ideas and more I thought it might give me some inspiration and ideas for work on where technology might be heading in the next 3-5 years.

Although I did come away with some good stuff for work (my boss will be pleased about that!) what I really came away with was affirmation that the education system in the UK, and for that matter most other countries, is failing. Failing our children and failing us as parents, employers and society as a whole.

Thinking Digital 2013 at the inspirational Sage Gateshead

This was an underlying theme of many of the talks to which I avidly listened to, from professors to tech specialists to parents the problem was one and the same; the education system in the UK was designed for a totally different purpose than that which we need today. I see this first hand constantly, we are trying to hire people at work and we just can’t find the skills, young people are not coming out of education well equipped or qualified to work in our high-tech world. Even if they have the results on paper most times they are not able to think and work in a useful way, we have to train them all over again, and most times take a leap of faith in hiring them.

I have nothing against taking a leap of faith, everyone needs a break and frankly if someone hadn’t given me a break 13 years ago I wouldn’t be where I am now. It doesn’t compensate for the failure of the system though.

Victorian classroom picture

Victorian classroom

One of the key things which was re-inforced by the talks I heard was that our education system is a Victorian construct designed to provide workers to make Britain the leader in the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. Massive social change was needed and schools helped to facilitate this. Factories needed workers, this was a big shift, people came in from the country to live in urban areas, they could no longer have their children with them in their work, women as well as men were required to work in factories, people became reliant on wages rather than self-sufficiency. What to do with the children? It was a problem and various people identified that maybe 5 year olds should not be working in cotton mills. But what could they do all day and who could monitor them and somehow do something productive with them.

Schools were set up to provide childcare, and an education. But what was the purpose of that education? The schools were not Eton, let’s face it! The purpose was not to create thinking, questioning people, it was to create order and people who would follow instructions and not question their “superiors”. To a large extent that is still what schools do today. Examinations, testing and assessments all inform the way teaching happens. Even on my BA I was told that undergraduates were not allowed to show original thought, our role was to learn and recite what other, cleverer, more academically qualified people had already said.

How can we expect to end up with children who love learning, question everything and so will be the inventors of the next big thing. We don’t really have factories anymore, and we have robots to do the jobs that thousands of workers did in the industrial revolution so the purpose of schools, the structure of eduction and how (and indeed if) we measure achievement need to change also.

Do we really trust this man with the education of our children?

Michael Gove keeps going on about how our exams are too easy and all this nonsense. Personally I think we should scrap the lot, be done with it, stop trying to incrementally fix something that is totally buggered. Come up with a new model, radically different that allows us to measure real world problem solving, research skills and the ability to sort, filter and critique the billions of pages of information that are now at our fingertips constantly. These are skills that our young people need, not the ability to regurgitate facts learned by rote, Google can tell us the facts, we just need the skills to be able to establish the good facts from the bad.

Sugata Mitra on stage at Thinking Digital

To that end, one of the most inspirational things I have heard about, ever, was a talk by TED Prize 2013 winner Sugata Mitra. Wow! I was blown away, and, totally inspired. Why wasn’t every school like this? Or at least adopting some of these principles. Please do take the time to watch his TED Talks as they are amazing.

Prof. Mitra advocates child driven education with technology. I am a big fan of Montessori, but, when Maria Montessori developed her educational programme computers and the internet had not even been imagined. If she was here today I am pretty sure she would embrace Prof. Mitra’s child driven education.

You should familiarise yourselves with his Hole in the Wall experiment, I was blown away. What I also really liked was that it wasn’t just a wild theory, he proved his point scientifically, it is research based. Too much of what we hear about it one or another persons opinion and is not very valid at all.

Self Organised Learning Environment

The basic principles as I understand it of Prof. Mitra’s Minimally Invasive Education method are using a Self Organized Learning Environment (SOLE) which consists of one internet connected computer for a group of four learners. The basic idea being that if you ask the children a question and step back they will find a way to answer it by teaching themselves. The facilitator (or “teacher”) does not teach them, nor do they answer questions, they help the children to answer questions themselves.

There are many things that this method teaches, collaboration, group work, that individuals have different roles to play. It is also hugely empowering as the children do it themselves, all the need is encouragement, some praise and some thought provoking questioning.

The next talk was by Jo Fothergill & Tara Taylor-Jorgensen who are two amazing teachers from New Zealand who are using Prof. Mitra’s method in their classrooms. Jo & Tara are both ICT teachers from New Zealand and have been busy attempting to put some of Professor Mitra’s work into practice around ‘minimally invasive education’ and ‘self organised learning’.  Jo and Tara are both CORE Education NZ eFellows.

What does this really tell us? You can colour in circles neatly.

They have been given a funded sabbatical by the New Zealand government, who have recognised the value of the method, to research and development new assessment methods that can be used with SOLE. The skills that can be assessed and the way of assessing them are radically different from what is addressed by the current SAT test in use both in New Zealand and the UK.

Finally, some enlightenment and progress. I really encourage you to check out all of these great developments for yourself and make your own assessment of them.

I’ve really been struggling since my daughter started school in September, but, after a long talk with the lovely class teacher and head teacher last week I’ve offered to help out with IT for the reception class. Last night I dreamt about it and I am going to put forward the idea of setting up SOLE’s for the kids rather than them each working in isolation at a computer.

I will report back on where I get with it. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

More on Sugata Mitra: