Perhaps it’s the bias of the medium, but spend much time online among teachery types and you come across a whole host of slightly hackneyed tropes. There is the “Shift Happens” video, Sir Ken Robinson, the “guide on the side vs sage on the stage” mantra, factory-model schooling is bunk, and long, well-meaning pieces about 21st century learning like this and this. None of it, I think, is particularly wholesome.
That’s not necessarily because it’s wrong. Yes, there is a lot of waffle around 21st century skills Harry Webb has pointed out, but there is also good sense there in places. Some of it I agree with, some not. But all of it I find disheartening and half-baked.
The OECD have a peculiarly dry piece about the shifts taking place in education and learning. Take this snippet, for example.
“Value is less and less created vertically through command and control-as in the classic “teacher instructs student” relationship-but horizontally, by whom you connect and work with, whether online or in person. In other words, we are seeing a shift from a world of stocks, where knowledge is stored up but not exploited, and so depreciates rapidly, to a world of flows, where knowledge is energised and enriched by the power of communication and constant collaboration. This will become the norm. Barriers will continue to fall as skilled people appreciate, and build on, different values, beliefs and cultures.”
Well, hooray for the focus on learning communities, but does anyone else find this sort of thing soulless, almost completely so? It is education as management speak, learning as an economic need.
Today, though, I came across a piece by Cyril Norwood.
The education that has so far been given to the people is at most partial and second best, and has little in common whether in range or in spirit with the universal education that may be. It was but the least possible with which the people would be contented and it was calculated to equip not citizens but servants… But education has to fit us for something … so incomparably precious that it will save a man from being a mere unit, a cipher: it will give him a life of his own, independent of the machine. And therefore at any cost our education must never sink to the level at which it will be merely vocational.“
This has crystallized matters for me and made me realise quite why I think 21st century education is half-baked. In all of its rhetoric, the focus is on the learner; that, I believe, is “a good thing”. 21st century learning focuses, though, on the learner almost solely as an economic unit, as “a cipher” that needs preparing for a job that doesn’t yet exist. In doing so, it ignores the learner as a human, as a person with hopes and aspirations beyond the machine. Education, as Sir Cyril says, should never merely be training.
Ed Catmull might be my new hero.
“Which is more valuable, good ideas or good people?
No matter whether I was talking to retired business executives or students, to high school principals or artists, when I asked for a show of hands, the audiences would be split 50–50. (Statisticians will tell you that when you get a perfect split like this, it doesn’t mean that half know the right answer—it means that they are all guessing, picking at random, as if flipping a coin.) People think so little about this that, in all these years, only one person in an audience has ever pointed out the false dichotomy.
To me, the answer should be obvious: Ideas come from people. Therefore, people are more important than ideas. Why are we confused about this? Because too many of us think of ideas as being singular, as if they float in the ether, fully formed and independent of the people who wrestle with them. Ideas, though, are not singular. They are forged through tens of thousands of decisions, often made by dozens of people.
In any given Pixar film, every line of dialogue, every beam of light or patch of shade, every sound effect is there because it contributes to the greater whole. In the end, if you do it right, people come out of the theater and say, “A movie about talking toys—what a clever idea!” But a movie is not one idea, it’s a multitude of them. And behind these ideas are people. This is true of products in general; the iPhone, for example, is not a singular idea—there is a mindboggling depth to the hardware and software that supports it. Yet too often, we see a single object and think of it as an island that exists apart and unto itself.
To reiterate, it is the focus on people—their work habits, their talents, their values—that is absolutely central to any creative venture. “
I like this story to explain reasonable doubt. (From Sam Leith’s wonderful “You talkin to me?“)
“A man is in the dock, accused of murdering his wife. Although the body was never recovered, all the evidence points to the defendant: his car boot was filled with baling twine, bloodstained hammers, torn items of his wife’s clothing and suchlike. He had abundant motive – as the cashing in of a huge insurance policy taken out on the eve of his wife’s death demonstrates. And no sooner was his wife reported missing than he was holidaying in the Maldives with his pneumatically enhanced twenty-three-year-old mistress, his Facebook page filled with photographs of him in a pair of Speedos and a snorkel, grinning his murderous head off.
Nevertheless, his lawyer at trial pulls off a remarkable coup de théâtre.
‘Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,’ he says. ‘The prosecution has presented you with a mountain of evidence that tends to show that my client is guilty of the crime with which he has been charged. But that evidence means nothing. For not only is my client not guilty of his wife’s murder, but no murder has in fact taken place. My client’s wife is alive and well. And I can prove it. It is now five minutes to midday. At precisely midday, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, those doors over there will open –’ he indicates the main doors into the courtroom with a flourishing sweep of the arm – ‘and my client’s wife will walk through them into the court.’
Gasps, naturally, go all round. For the next five minutes, the eyes of the presiding judge, the jury and every functionary of the court are glued to the main doors. Eventually, the heavy hands of the courtroom clock tick round to midday and a solemn bong is heard. The doors remain tight shut.
‘Well?’ says the judge. ‘Your promised miracle has not materialised.’
‘Indeed not,’ replies the defending barrister. ‘But every single one of you was watching those doors in the expectation that it would. In the absence of a body, that is surely an object demonstration that there remains a reasonable doubt over my client’s responsibility for his wife’s disappearance.’
‘Very good,’ says the judge. ‘However, I ask the jury to note that the only person in the courtroom not watching the doors was your client.’”
This often comes up in class when we’re talking about volume and area and Dr Who fans are always especially keen to know. My effort to explain the dimensions is to try to link it to English as follows:
One dimensional characters are just a line, a name or a signature. You don’t get much sense of the person.
Two dimensional characters are much better. You can get a 2D photo of these and imagine what they’re like. You can see expressions on their faces and decide whether they look mean, happy, funny or kind.
Three dimensional characters are better still. You can pinch them, punch them, first-of-the-month them and see how big their noses are if you walk around them.
All of these characters are still, though, Like Madame Tussaud’s figures, they don’t move. So better than all of these are four-dimensional characters. You can spend time with these characters, have midnight feasts with the,, go on holiday with them and when you throw a stinkbomb at them they will chase after you.
There is simply too much to think about. It is hopeless — too many kinds of special preparation are required. In electronics, in economics, in social analysis, in history, in psychology, in international politics, most of us are, given the oceanic proliferating complexity of things, paralyzed by the very suggestion that we assume responsibility for so much. This is what makes packaged opinion so attractive.
SAUL BELLOW, “There Is Simply Too Much to Think About,”
This letter to the Times, dated 9th September 2013, seemed like a lovely analogy for many children’s experience of school.
In January 1943 the Italian mountaineeer Felice Bernuzzi and two companies escaped from the Allied PoW camp at Nanyski, Kenya, and made a valiant attempt to reach the summit of Mount Kenya, which was visible from the prison grounds. They made crampons and ice axes from steel salvaged from a scrapped car. Their map was a picture from the label from a jar of the Kenyan equivalent of Marmite. Regrettably their attempt failed but on their return they broke back into the prison. Being reticent Italians, they neglected to inform the authorities of their intention to leave the prison or of their return.
“I was always deeply uncertain about my own intellectual capacity; I thought I was unintelligent. And it is true that I was, and still am, rather slow. I need time to seize things because I always need to understand them fully. Even when I was the first to answer the teacher’s questions, I knew it was because they happened to be questions to which I already knew the answer. But if a new question arose, usually students who weren’t as good as I was answered before me. Towards the end of the eleventh grade, I secretly thought of myself as stupid. I worried about this for a long time.
I never talked about this to anyone, but I always felt convinced that my imposture would someday be revealed: the whole world and myself would finally see that what looked like intelligence was really just an illusion. If this ever happened, apparently no one noticed it, and I’m still just as slow. (…)At the end of the eleventh grade, I took the measure of the situation, and came to the conclusion that rapidity doesn’t have a precise relation to intelligence. What is important is to deeply understand things and their relations to each other. This is where intelligence lies. The fact of being quick or slow isn’t really relevant. Naturally, it’s helpful to be quick, like it is to have a good memory. But it’s neither necessary nor sufficient for intellectual success.
Some dog-ears from Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21stC
“No longer were the students expected to enter the kitchen; rather they chose from a menu and expected it to be served up ready-cooked. This is the problem with spoon-feeding: the whole process devalues the making and concentrates on the service.”
Art vs discipline
An art offers an open-ended approach as opposed to a discipline where we are trained to follow one path, which is closed
An aim for education
I want [my daughter] to know about things and how to do things. I wante her to be able to question, both to find out more and also to realize that some things aren’t known, can’t be known, or aren’t fully understood. I wante her to communicate about things she has discovered, surmised, or created in the way of an open hand to the world. Finally, I want all this to have a purpose, which can be summed up by the phrase ‘a good life’.
This is the idea of mastery: discipline, focus, work, beauty even in ugliness, truth, and the pusuit of in-depth knowledge. This is, perhaps, what Plato thought of as “being awake”
Education & Science
Quoting Daniel Whillingham: “For a start, education is not a suitable matter for science. Education is an application. It hink of scientific fields, like cognitive psychology, as being fields that theories of education can draw on. One way in which it is clear that education is different is that education is goal driven. In science you seek to describe the world as it is; in education and other applied fields you want to change the world…
Once you’ve defined the goals science mght be able to help you achieve the goals.”
Quoting Sarah Jones: “In active citizenship, they bring any issue – from the news, from school, from their local communities – and they can consider how they can campaign on that issue. This enables kids to be empowered to make a difference. It gives them the tools to make a difference. That’s the kind of thing that your middle-c;ass kid gets modelled at home all the time. We can kids to understand that they can get involved, that they can physically change their local environment for the better.”
Lovely metaphor for teamwork and difference from Steve Jobs (thanks to Sonja for spotting this)
“When I was a young kid there was a widowed man who lived up the street. He was in his eighties. He’s a little scary looking. And I got to know him a little bit. I think he may have paid me to mow his lawn.
One day he said to me, “come on into my garage I want to show you something.” And he pulled out this dusty old rock tumbler. It was a motor and a coffee can and a little band between them. And he said, “come on with me.” We went out into the back and we got some rocks. Some regular old ugly rocks. And we put them in the can with a little bit of liquid and little bit of grit powder, and we closed the can up and he turned this motor on and he said, “come back tomorrow.” And this can was making a racket as the stones went around.
I came back the next day and we opened the can. And we took out these amazingly beautiful polished rocks. The same common stones that had gone in through rubbing against each other like this (clapping his hands), creating a little bit of friction, creating a little bit of noise, had come out these beautiful polished rocks.
That’s always been in my mind my metaphor for a team working really hard on something they’re passionate about. It’s that through the team, through that group of incredibly talented people bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes, making some noise, and working together they polish each other and they polish the ideas, and what comes out are these beautiful stones.”