The Dynamo and the Social

Thought this was an interesting piece at Slate based on Paul David’s paper. There are some obvious parallels with personal or mobile computing and education and the difficulties we have with using it well.

“Electric light bulbs were available by 1879, and there were generating stations in New York and London by 1881. Yet a thoughtful observer in 1900 would have found little evidence that the “electricity revolution” was making business more efficient.

Steam-powered manufacturing had linked an entire production line to a single huge steam engine. As a result, factories were stacked on many floors around the central engine, with drive belts all running at the same speed. The flow of work around the factory was governed by the need to put certain machines close to the steam engine, rather than the logic of moving the product from one machine to the next. When electric dynamos were first introduced, the steam engine would be ripped out and the dynamo would replace it. Productivity barely improved.

Eventually, businesses figured out that factories could be completely redesigned on a single floor. Production lines were arranged to enable the smooth flow of materials around the factory. Most importantly, each worker could have his or her own little electric motor, starting it or stopping it at will. The improvements weren’t just architectural but social: Once the technology allowed workers to make more decisions, they needed more training and different contracts to encourage them to take responsibility.

Last year’s OECD report was one of many to suggest that it might, just might, be a little more complicated than putting more computers in classrooms. I do wonder whether, at some level, the school as an organisation will have to undergo a similar redesign to make the most of our new dynamos.

Why 21st Century Education is half-baked

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… [hl]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.[/hl]”

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.

Notes from Martin Robinson’s 21st C Trivium

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.”

Active Citizenship

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.”

Character Building 2.0

Character building in the UK, I think, needs a little bit of an upgrade. Part of that means having a clearer idea of what we’re trying to build.

Character building 1.0 & The Welsh 3000s

Currently, character building is a euphemism for any experience that is uniformly dreadful and unrewarding. One example, from my childhood, was a challenge called the Welsh 3000s.

“It’s very rocky, and both uphill and downhill sections are demanding. Navigation can also be problematic without previous knowledge of this area of Snowdonia. For some, the walk involves camping/bivvying at the top of Snowdon the night before, adding to the weight of kit for the initial section. Additionally, one mountain, Crib Goch, is very exposed – several people have died on it.

This challenge is commonly underestimated – you need to be very fit to walk it in 24 hours.”

And no, it was not rewarding, nor enjoyable, nor could I see the point. Still, these challenges abound and are perhaps especially prevalent in the independent sector. Even the wide-eyed Wellington progressive Anthony Seldon says that “Hikes and gruelling expeditions should not be the domain just of the posh”.

Character Building 2.0

The difficulty with this is not that the hikes shouldn’t happen. Simply that they need to be given a context. Saying that they are simply good things for their own sake is not, I think, good enough. I like this from KIPP, Duckworth, Seligman et al.

Actively participates
Shows enthusiasm
Invigorates others

Comes to class prepared
Pays attention and resists distractions
Remembers and follows directions
Gets to work right away rather than procrastinating

Remains calm even when criticized or otherwise provoked
Allows others to speak without interruption
Is polite to adults and peers
Keeps temper in check

Recognizes and shows appreciation for others
Recognizes and shows appreciation for his/her opportunities

Is eager to explore new things
Asks and answers questions to deepen understanding
Actively listens to others

Gets over frustrations and setbacks quickly
Believes that effort will improve his or her future

Finishes whatever he or she begins
Tries very hard even after experiencing failure
Works independently with focus

Able to find solutions during conflicts with others
Demonstrates respect for feelings of others
Knows when and how to include others

With it, you can begin to give children a) some meaningful targets and b) some meaningful reasons. At least, then, at the end of a nightmarish hike across the Welsh mountains, one might feel a sense of achievement, not pointlessness.

Google makes broad-based knowledge more important

Mind you, mastering “crap detection 101,” as digital guru Howard Rheingold dubs it, isn’t easy. One prerequisite is that you already know a lot about the world. For instance, Harris found that students had difficulty distinguishing a left-wing parody of the World Trade Organization’s website from the real WTO site. Why? Because you need to understand why someone would want to parody it in the first place—knowledge the average eighth grader does not yet possess.

In other words, Google makes broad-based knowledge more important, not less. A good education is the true key to effective search. But until our kids have that, let’s make sure they don’t always take PageRank at its word.

link: Clive Thompson on Why Kids Can’t Search | Magazine

Breadth is valuable

Reflecting on Cardinal Newman’s ideas on the role of the university, my predecessor as vice-chancellor, Professor Dame Alison Richard, observed: “The dichotomy between ‘useful’ and ‘not useful’ is itself increasingly ‘not useful’.” With an anthropologist’s view of the benefits of biodiversity, she made a powerful case for its academic equivalent: “The case for breadth centres on the proposition that the greatest challenges facing the world today are of huge complexity and global scope, best tackled by people whose education enables them to integrate different fields of knowledge and work across conventional academic boundaries.”

link: Universities need Pepys as much as Newton – Telegraph

To do what needs doing

Michael Ellsberg has a book out called The Education of Millionaires, which outlines the 7 key skills you need to know to become a millionaire like college drop-outs Zuckerberg or Gates. The argument, loosely, is:

  1. yes college can teach you many wonderful things
  2. but those things do not transfer easily to the real world.
  3. various millionaires have done really well without a university degree
  4. so at worst, higher education may actually get in the way
  5. at best it obscures the key skills money-making college drop-outs like Dell and Gates have learned.

Vartan Gregorian has an excellent review.Along with the standard defence of liberal arts as a preparation for the ups and downs of life, one point in particular struck a chord.

What is also left out of the debate about higher education is that its purpose is not just to provide a pathway paved with gold for the nation’s elites. If we frame the discussion that way, we may unintentionally serve to disparage the people who are in charge of the daily management, maintenance and smooth operation of our civilization — the men and women who deliver our mail, comprise our police force, serve in our military, work in our libraries, teach our elementary school children, and devote themselves to a thousand other jobs that, if not performed with responsibility, commitment and creativity, would undermine the basic structures of our society. Though these individuals may not be reaching for the kind of stars that Michael Ellsberg and others would have them aspire to grasp, most are doing something even more important: they are engaging in the useful tasks of good citizens and contributing to the common welfare, including providing for their families. And perhaps they are even carrying out what Marcus Aurelius called “one of our assignments in life … to do what needs doing.”

Spot on, in my book. Any mass educational system will have a hard time dealing with those at either end of a bell-curve. But surely the failures of these systems to cope with exceptional cases does not invalidate them? Rather than eulogising these exceptional cases – Jobs, Gates, Zuckerberg – as icons in the fight against an impractical education, they should be celebrated, I think, for having the self-awareness to decide that college was not for them. No less, no more.