Education’s coming revolution

The requirement for education technology rests, not on spurious arguments about “21st century skills”, but on a long-standing need to find a way of teaching traditional skills systematically and at scale. To succeed, education has to go through its own industrial revolution, which will introduce systematic processes, backed by effective quality controls and robust quantitative evidence of effectiveness.

At a recent event in London reported by Merlin John[1], Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment suggested that the British textbooks produced in the 1970s by the School Mathematics Project (SMP) and the Nuffield Science series still represented the best resources around in their respective fields. This is startling claim, coming as it does after 40 years in which we have seen a revolution in information technology and the expense of billions of pounds on technology in schools.

Two of the leading figures in the textbook publishing movement of the 1970s were both Headmasters at my old school, Sevenoaks, a commuter town 25 miles south of London. At the time that I was at the school in the late 1970s, the Headmaster was Alan Tammadge, a principal author of the SMP series for Maths. The previous Headmaster had been Kim (L C) Taylor, who had resigned from Sevenoaks in 1970 to become Director of the Nuffield Resources for Learning project.

Resources for Learning[2] was also the name of a book, written in the following year, in which Taylor provided a justification for the Nuffield programme. He questioned whether the comprehensive education that was being introduced in the UK at the time was realistic. His concern was not about the phasing out of selection: the problem that caught Taylor’s eye was the fact that the new system of secondary education was to be universal. Traditional education had always been provided to a small elite based on a model of the teacher-as-craftsman. So long as we clung to that model, Taylor argued that there would not be enough sufficiently well qualified teachers to go around.

So long as we clung to the model of teacher-as-craftsman, Taylor argued that there would not be enough sufficiently well qualified teachers to deliver a universal education system

The shortage of teachers

I quote selected extracts from the case made by Kim Taylor on pages 30–37.

The present estimate that we are 40,000 teachers short is based on the curious convention that when there are thirty in a secondary school class, the acceptable limit has been reached, but that forty is all right in a primary school…To bring primary classes down to the thirty per class customary in secondary schools would add 70,000 to our bill for teachers.
The demand for education is an appetite that grows with the feeding. The more complex a nation’s economy the greater the demand for a longer period of education or training; the more democratic a society the more anxious its citizens become to give their children a good start in the race…Unless all demands we have examined…are firmly blocked, we shall find the estimated need for 113,000 extra teachers by 1980 conservative indeed.
Lack of confidence in any established curriculum results in more and more optional subjects being offered up and down the school. Consequently there is a proliferation of small groups of students with specialist masters teaching them…No matter how we try to fill the reservoir of teachers we find to our dismay that it remains obstinately empty.
A headmaster who used confidently to advertise for men with ‘good honours degrees’ will now search the mail anxiously for an answer, any answer, to his enticing offers. If there are, say, three candidates remotely fit to teach, he thinks himself fortunate; and these candidates are being pursued by many other headmasters besides himself.
A school develops strange specialities for brief periods. A teacher of French is ardent about Spanish as a second language; he starts a group of boys off on the subject but then leaves, and the subject withers with him. The wind bloweth where the available staff listeth.
Of course there are other occupations in which there are too few people with the right skills, but it matters specially in teaching…A nurse is instructed by a sister who is told what to do by a doctor who is regularly guided by a consultant. There is no similar interlocking hierarchy of experience and skills in a school. The degree to which a headmaster or head of department can actually control the performance of a new teacher is small indeed. Good or bad, each teacher copes as best he can. It is hard to think of any other trade in which such isolation persists.
Schools are like the very earliest factories: simple materials, walls, workers and overseers. The tools of the trade, the machinery and equipment, are rudimentary…there is not much to counterbalance the skill, or lack of skill, of the individual teacher. Teaching is a job almost wholly dependent on manpower, and in the foreseeable future in the secondary schools the craftsmen we need are going to be in scant supply.
It might be supposed that such circumstances would deter us from any change likely to add further strains on attenuated resources. Not a bit of it: we have decided to reorganize all our secondary schools into a comprehensive pattern. However justified on other grounds, in terms of staff utilization it is a jump from the frying pan into the fire.

Kim Taylor was right. Ever since that time, the British education system has been undermined by a shortage of suitably qualified teachers. There are particularly acute shortages in Physics, Chemistry, Maths and Foreign Languages. The recent proposals by the Royal Society to introduce Computer Science into the secondary curriculum have been met by widespread scepticism that—however worthy the aspiration—it will be possible to find the teachers to deliver such an academically rigorous curriculum.

it is hard to think of any other trade in which such isolation persists

In 2001, the Daily Mail reported that:

Almost three out of four local education authorities in England is experiencing a teacher shortage, a survey showed today, and 18 per cent of those polled said the problem had reached crisis levels.

In August 2012, The Daily Telegraph was reporting that not much had changed:

Schools may be forced to increase class sizes or recruit poorly-qualified staff following a sudden dip in the number of students applying to work in the classroom.

The problem has for some time been particularly acute at the level of Head Teacher. In January 2010, the Guardian reported:

Schools cannot fill vacant headteacher posts despite offers of six-figure salaries and perks, a study has revealed. A dire shortage of applicants has made it far harder for state schools to recruit teachers to the top job than it was a quarter of a century ago, analysts at Education Data Surveys have found.
In inner London and the east of England, where it is particularly hard for schools to find heads, more than 40% of all headships were readvertised last year. In primaries, more than a third (35%) of all posts for heads had to be readvertised last year, compared with just under 20% in 1993

In a discussion on the TES website in April 2012, a school discussed its experience of advertising for Maths teachers:

1st advert: 6 applicants, none worth interviewing…3rd advert: 8 applicants, 5 invited for interview, 3 came to interview, 1 short term appointed (unhappily, but the alternative was supply).

When the author of this post was asked how they determined that none of the applicants was worth interviewing, he replied:

Cannot spell school, town or subject names correctly; only previous experience is picking leeks in Nigeria; Australian who clearly only wants a way into the UK; application states “hate children, hate your town, but desperate for work”.

Nor is the problem just in Britain. In October 2011, the Guardian reported:

The world urgently needs to recruit more than 8 million extra teachers, according to UN estimates, warning that a looming shortage of primary school teachers threatens to undermine global efforts to ensure universal access to primary education by 2015.

Various initiatives have been taken to address the problem. On coming into office in 2010, Michael Gove gave significant backing to the Teach First scheme, first established in 2002, in imitation of the US Teach For America scheme, encouraging graduates with good degrees to try teaching for two years. Replying to a letter from NAACE, ITTE and MirandaNet on 14 November 2012, David Laws, the UK Minister for Schools, said:

there has been a long history of recruiting too few chemistry and physics teachers, while those recruited are, on average, of lower quality than in other subjects.

The DfE’s response to this difficulty is to offer £4,000 “golden hellos” to suitably qualified entrants in shortage subjects; but in the absence of more substantial inducements, coping with the shortage inevitably means making compromises on the quality of candidates that you will accept. A previous head of the schools inspectorate, Chris Woodhead, famously said that there were 15,000 incompetent teachers in the UK. This statement was widely criticised on the grounds that this was demoralising for the profession—but no-one seriously contested the truth of the claim. Teaching unions are not much more enamoured with the current Head of Ofsted, Michael Wilshaw, who is credited with saying that “5,000 head teachers lack leadership”. In May 2011, Michael Gove announced plans to make it easier to sack incompetent teachers, having discovered that only 17 teachers had been struck off for incompetence in the previous decade[3].

However bad-temperedly the debate rages about incompetent teachers and whatever draconian new disciplinary procedures are introduced, none of these measures address the root of the problem: the endemic shortage of suitably qualified teachers. As “JHB” commented on an online BBC report of September 2012 into this issue:

If you sack the “incompetent” teachers where is the queue of better educators to replace them? It is not enough to say that something isn’t working, we need to be told exactly what needs to be done to make it better.

Against this background, the conclusion reached by the Economist in an article published on 15 September 2012, Class Acts was uncharacteristically naïve. Arguing on similar lines to this blog (Is Michael Gove a modern Hercules?) the article suggested that the structural reforms being made by the Academies programme were necessary but not sufficient. It then proceeded to suggest its own solution to the more fundamental problem in British education:

The focus should now be on acquiring as many brilliant teachers as possible, as fast as possible.

I wrote an letter to the editor pointing out that this would be easier said than done. Although my letter was not published, the same point was made by two of the online comments.

Robert2012 wrote:

there won’t be enough brilliant teachers to go around

Seb Schmoller, ex Director of the Association for Learning Technology, agreed with this point, adding that brilliant teachers are made and not found (which while undoubtedly true, does not change the fact that the quality of the initial recruit still matters):

Even if the brilliant teachers are out there ready to be “acquired” (which they are not), and even if those recruited tend to stay in the profession after appointment (which they will not), it would take many years for any beneficial effects on learning to be felt…because getting good at teaching (like getting good at journalism, or medicine, or law) takes five or more years of being a teacher

We may want brilliant teachers but brilliance is a scarce commodity. The teaching profession will never be highly paid in comparison with other professions, particularly in subjects that are of key importance to the country’s economic future. Working conditions, particularly in deprived areas, can be stressful. There are not enough brilliant recruits, nor are their sufficient incentives for those that are recruited to stay in the system long enough fully to earn their spurs.

the failings of our education system are due to a predictable and systemic failure to match the supply and demand for suitably qualified teachers

The failings of an education system that aspires to provide universal education are not due to lazy teachers or self-interested unions or bloated bureaucracy (even if all of these things might exist). It is due to a predictable and systemic failure to match the supply and demand for suitably qualified teachers—and without resort to the imaginative use of education technology, there is no plausible solution in sight.

The Nuffield solution

The educationalists of the 1970s proposed an answer to this problem. They argued that we must move away from a model of in which each individual teacher is (to all practical purposes) solely responsible for the education of the students under his or her responsibility, towards a model of team teaching supported by professional management techniques and quality learning resources—away from a model of education as a craft and towards a model of education as an industry.

This represents a fundamental paradigm shift—and one with which many teachers will feel uncomfortable. The doctrine of teacher-as-craftsman is deeply embedded in the profession. In his video, Changing Educational Paradigms (critiqued on this blog) Sir Ken Robinson attacks current schools as being:

pretty much organized along factory lines. Ringing bells, separate facilities, specialized into separate subjects.

The analogy is an emotive one. We have a long tradition of seeing factories as bad things which ruin the environment, grind down the humanity of their workers with long hours of mindless toil, and break the bond of fellowship between worker and boss in the headlong pursuit of profit. We commonly see factories as places for machines and not people—entirely inappropriate to education, where good relationships are so vital to the business in hand.

This negative image may have some truth in it when applied to the smoke-belching factories of the mid-nineteenth century or the modern-day sweatshops of Caracas. When applied to a modern electronics factory or high-tech car plant, it is a picture that owes more to caricature than reality. These are places where skilled workers can be highly productive while enjoying good conditions and pay and enjoying good working relationships with their colleagues. The essence of the factory in this analogy is not the dark satanic mills of the mid-nineteenth century, but the way in which it places the worker (in our case, the teacher) within a well-established system with access to appropriate “tools of the trade” and to interlocking systems of supervision and teamwork.

Improving the classroom environment

Taylor’s argument was not just about increasing efficiency—it was also about enabling personalisation, more effective pedagogies and making life more bearable for teachers.

it is the craftsman teacher that imposes conformity and the machine that promises personalisation

While a factory system is commonly seen as synonymous with the production of rows of identical products, the information revolution allows mechanical systems to manage personalisation much more efficiently than traditional, manual forms of administration. In the context of the classroom it is—perhaps paradoxically—the craftsman teacher that imposes conformity and the machine that promises personalisation.

If boys are in classes and have to be taught, then we simply cannot afford to offer them much individual choice. Thus class teaching obstructs attempts to make sense of the curriculum.[4]
A schoolmaster can teach only at one speed… The Americans call this the ‘lock-step’ of the class[5].

The craftsman analogy not only forces students into a straightjacket with respect to the content of the curriculum and the speed at which it is covered. The teacher-led classroom is also driven, almost inevitably, into inferior pedagogies that force the student into a role of passive obedience.

With the customary ratio of a teacher for thirty learners, we plainly have a sedentary, a passive process in mind. But beyond mere passiveness, classroom teaching requires actual docility. …If boys are to hear what the teacher says, then they must be quiet[6].

Nor will a system that depends on the quality of the individual teacher deliver consistent outcomes, with the resultant lottery being weighted against weaker students.

It matters greatly, of course, whom you are lock-stepped with and by…schools tend to put their better teachers, however defined, into the classes made up of the more willing and capable boys. Often then, a boy shackled to bad company finds his difficulties compounded by having an incompetent overseer[7].

The importance of teachers is confirmed by an assessment of current research presented to the Annual Conference of the Association of Learning Technology (ALT) in 2007 by Dylan Wiliam, Deputy Director at the Institute of Education (IoE) in London:

The variability at teacher level is about four times the variability at school level. If you get one of the best teachers, you will learn in six months what an average teacher will take a year to teach you. If you get one of the worst teachers, that same learning will take you two years[8].

The requirement for the teacher to become the fount of all knowledge in the classroom introduces a degree of inconsistency that would be unacceptable to any modern business—and is as unsatisfactory for the teacher as it is for the students—particularly in an age when children are losing the habit of deference. As Kim Taylor puts it:

Whether we like it or not, children of secondary age are less docile and modest than they used to be. The habit of an active participation in what they do, rather than a passive attention to what they are told, is not likely to be put on and off, like a coat, as they pass through the classroom door[9].

It may be possible for the imaginative teacher to adopt a less didactic, more interactive style of teaching—but Taylor questions whether it is realistic to expect ordinary teachers, wanting to do an ordinary job, to meet the aspirations of the more ambitious educationalists:

The modern teacher, as he emerges in conferences and in articles, is expected to achieve prodigies of co-ordination, busking his restive audience like a one-man band[10].
Often the proliferation of opportunities is merely an embarrassment, an added strain, a further widening of the gap between what imagination conceives and frailty allows. Period after period, the schoolmaster stands exposed and alone on stage, forced to put on too many performances, the only source of an often unpalatable curriculum, concocting what to do next to keep thirty or more adolescents busy[11].

The answer (or at least part of the answer) proposed by the Nuffield programme was for professionally produced learning resources, packaged into systematic programmes of learning, guiding students to work through a more flexible curriculum with appropriate support from a teacher, rather than looking to the teacher as fount of all knowledge, motivation and instruction.

The flipped classroom

Taylor’s model of resource-based learning is the same as lies behind the current theory of the flipped classroom.

Conceptual diagram of the flipped classroom

Taken from

Instead of being the “sage on stage”, the teacher in the flipped classroom becomes the “guide on the side”. Expositive lectures can be provided out of class time, freeing the teacher to use available contact time for more productive (and more rewarding) conversational tutoring. It reduces stress on the teacher, who is not required to create five or six pedagogically-sound, attention-grabbing performances every day, but can take on the more manageable role of supporting a pre-existing programme of study. It encourages students to take more responsibility for their learning.

Nor does the delivery of the course become wholly dependent on the presence of a particular classroom teacher. New approaches to team teaching are enabled, allowing students to benefit from the varied contributions of different teachers. Team teaching gives students an opportunity to see teachers interacting, maybe developing a greater sense of the uncertainty and controversy that is an essential part of any academic process. Team teaching allows for a better division of labour between teachers with different skills, achieving cost savings by supplementing the senior teacher with less highly qualified assistants or peer mentors, allowing weaker teachers to operate under supervision and young teachers to learn more quickly by imitating their more experienced colleagues.

Underpinning a course with a set of professionally-produced resources will help develop more consistency in the instructional process. Achieving better consistency is not only good for final outcomes: it also helps the provider improve their own processes. Little can be done, at a management level to improve or replicate instruction that is wholly dependent on the personality of a particular teacher. A form of instruction that is embedded in a fully resourced programme of study that can be delivered consistently can then also be evaluated and incrementally improved (See Learning analytics for better learning content). Courses that are successful can more easily be replicated across the system.

Resource-centred instruction can combine flexibility and consistency; teacher-centred instruction tends to display the opposite characteristics: inflexibility and inconsistency[12].

Limitations of the flipped classroom

While there is a significant overlap theory between the concept of the flipped classroom and the “resources for learning” movement of the 1970s, the latter places more emphasis on quality of the learning resources themselves, a subject on which the current discourse on the “flipped classroom” is silent. The assumption that lies behind this silence is that the learning resources used to support the flipped classroom will consist mainly of expositive video: this was the case with the courses developed by Jonathan Bergman and Aaron Sams, who invented the concept of the flipped classroom in 2007 by recording their own lectures, through the Khan Academy to the MOOCs of 2012. But as argued in my posts MOOCs and other ed-tech bubbles and What do we mean by “content”?, the exclusive use of expositive media is limiting, failing to capture the essentially interactive and conversational nature of the learning process.

the flipped classroom has so far failed to exploit the potential of digital media to deliver interactive and adaptive learning

The significance of the flipped classroom is that it provides a useful model for combining digital and human instruction: the holy grail of so-called “blended learning”. So far, however, it has tended to rely on teacher-created, expositive resources, failing to exploit the potential of digital media to deliver interactive and adaptive learning.

Arguments for autonomous craftsmen

Many proponents of the teacher-as-craftsman would defend the role of the classroom teacher in authoring their own resources, arguing that this is an essential part of the teachers’ status as autonomous professional. Maybe this was one reason why the thinking of Nuffield and SMP did not become the orthodoxy of the 1980s and ‘90s. Under the active encouragement of the teacher training colleges, school departmental offices became filled with rows of filing cabinets, stuffed with dog-eared, home-produced worksheets, often poorly produced, full of uninspiring activities, and riddled with errors. What has become known as “death by worksheet” has not only been a pedagogic disaster—it has also represented a massively inefficient duplication of effort, as tens of thousands of teachers across the country spend large amounts of their time producing virtually identical, low-grade teaching materials.

The argument that teachers should create their own resources has also made on the grounds that every learner and every classroom is different. Professor Rose Luckin, principal author of the recent, excellent report “Decoding Learning”, argued this point in an interview with Jan Webb of NAACE:

All schools are different…it is something we often forget…One of the problems with the way that the evidence has been presented in the past is that we don’t take enough notice of those differences. Schools need to say “what is our real learning need… what do our teachers and learners in this school need the most…maybe they need to be doing more work to explore their own understanding, for example, maybe we want to put more of an emphasis on assessment in this school…in the formative sense…how that we can be more effective at assessing what our students understand so that we can support them more effectively”.

The consequence of Professor Luckin’s reasoning is that some schools would legitimately choose not to “be more effective at assessing what our students understand so that we can support them more effectively” or would not want to encourage students “to be doing more work to explore their own understanding”.

the examples chosen with the intention of illustrating that “all schools are different” in fact demonstrate the exact opposite

The examples chosen by Professor Luckin with the intention of illustrating that “all schools are different” in fact demonstrate the exact opposite: that all schools are in most important respects the same. Most learners respond to similar sorts of pedagogy, even though these general types of pedagogy may need to be adapted to particular circumstances, just as the principles of bridge-building will always need to be adapted to the circumstances of a particular river crossing. As Dylan Wiliam concludes[13]:

Teaching is interesting because learners are so different, but only possible because they’re so similar.

It is fashionable to argue that all students are different because they have different learning styles: some are said to be verbal learners, some visual, and others kinaesthetic. This is then cited as an argument against introducing a more systematic approach to pedagogy. In practice, the argument about learning styles does not add up, either theoretically or pragmatically. A recent study[14] stated that:

We found virtually no evidence for the interaction pattern mentioned above, which was judged to be a precondition for validating the educational applications of learning styles. Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis

Even if the theory were true, it is unlikely that a school in one town would find that it had to deal almost exclusively with visual learners, while a neighbouring school proved to be attended entirely of kinaesthetic learners—and so the theory would not contradict the thesis that most schools would need to approach the business of teaching in broadly similar ways. Professor Wiliam makes the further point that, even if the theory were true, and even if it were practically possible to match different forms of instruction to different students, such a highly personalised approach on the basis of learning style would still not be useful:

Can I ask you all to fold your arms? Now do it the other way. Learning in your preferred learning style is like folding your arms the way you like doing it: it’s comfortable, it’s natural, it feels easy. Learning outside your preferred learning style is like folding your arms the other way, and it feels really weird. But what’s interesting is you actually then start to have to think about what is involved in folding your arms. And doing it the way that you don’t find comfortable actually gives you more insight into what is involved in folding your arms, than doing it the way you like. What’s really important is kids need a balance between being inside and outside their preferred learning styles. And you don’t need to know which kids are in which stage at which time. You just need as a teacher to vary your teaching style[15].

Teaching as a form of engineering

Instead of trying to improve teaching by an exclusive focus on personalization, what is more important is the ability to identify and implement key design principles, making sure that those implementations allow for customisation. Professor Wiliam and his colleagues at the IoE identify a number of key design principles, none of which are sufficient in themselves, but which in combination provide the basis for a more systematic approach to instruction:

  • the re-enforcement of learning by appropriate repetition;
  • the exploration of abstract principles by varying the concrete context in which they are applied, or the instructional style by which they are taught;
  • the use of quality control systems that check to see what students actually learnt during a learning episode (as opposed to what they were supposed to learn);
  • using this information to guide future instruction (what Wiliam calls the “pedagogy of contingency”, which explains why predetermined scripts do not work);
  • the sequencing of learning activities and learning objectives, so that children master prerequisites in the right order;
  • matching students to challenges that lie within their “proximal zone of development”, ensuring that the student is neither bored by work that is too easy, nor discouraged by work that is too difficult.

The central perception behind this list of design principles is that the creation of environments in which learning can take place effectively amounts to “an engineering process”. This same perception lies behind Diana Laurillard’s more recent Teaching as a Design Science[16]. In an echo of Kim Taylor’s teacher-as-craftsman analogy, Professor Laurillard asks in her first paragraph whether teaching is an art:

Teaching is certainly an art. But in the arts anything goes; the imperative is to create a powerful experience for the audience. That is not true for teaching; it must do more that that. It also has a formally defined goal[17].

While teaching is not wholly “art”, nor can it be described as a science. It is not merely concerned to build abstract theories to explain the natural world. Instead, teaching:

Builds design principles rather than theories, and the heuristics of practice rather than explanations[18].

Because humans learn in similar ways to each other, the “heuristics of practice” can be codified as “design patterns” which, according to Mor and Winters:

Have the explicit aim of externalising knowledge to allow accumulation of generalization of solutions and to allow all members of a community or design group to participate in discussions relating to the design[19].

The implication of this approach is profound. It suggests that good practice can be generalised as pedagogical design patterns, which can be reused, evaluated, and incrementally improved. A design pattern is not a script: courses, teachers, students and schools all vary to some degree and so the implementation of a pattern will inevitably mean customisation. More important still is the need for “contingency” – the need to respond to the unpredictable, individual student. These two requirements (for customisation and contingency) both require that learning resources and programmes of study must be easily adaptable. There will nevertheless be enough similarity between different implementations of the same pattern to ensure consistency and a more systematic approach to instruction.

good practice can be generalised as pedagogical design patterns, which can be reused, evaluated, and incrementally improved

That at least is the theory. In practice, the idea of learning design has been with us for at least a couple of decades and has had little impact on practice in the classroom. Educationalists do not generally write for teachers and, unlike other professions like doctors, teachers do not generally read the research literature. When applied to the generally isolated classroom of the teacher-as-craftsman, an imported design pattern will almost always be trumped by the personal style of the teacher who is asked to interpret and implement it. A great pedagogical design can be delivered by an incompetent teacher—but the student’s final experience will probably be comparable to listening to a Rachmaninov piano concerto played by a beginner pianist through faulty headphones. If teacher and learning design act in series, the merits of the design are likely to be lost in translation.

The real power of the pedagogical pattern will come when they are encapsulated in instructional software, blended with face-to-face tuition through the model of the flipped classroom. With the teacher playing a supportive role, the integrity of the pedagogical design will no longer depend on the teacher’s delivery. Using the analogy of an electrical circuit, human teacher and digital resources now act in parallel and not in series. If the teacher were removed entirely then you would have lost a great deal—but you would not have lost everything: you would not have lost the pedagogical design. The “guide on the side” can be replaced relatively easily with another teacher, or handled by a team of teachers. When the teacher plays the “sage on the stage”, such substitution is much more difficult to handle.

The differences are illustrated in the conceptual diagrams below. The “sage on stage” model puts teacher and resources in series, creating a multiplier effect. This may be welcome when the multiplier is more than one but if the teacher is poor or absent completely, the multiplier effect works against you. The “guide on the side” model allows the teacher to maximise the underlying effect of instruction, free to find synergies between digital resource and human instruction, but not free to subtract from the effectiveness of the initial programme of study: in this sense, the relationship between resources and teacher is additive, rather than primarily by multiplier.

Diagram showing how influences of resources and teacher combine

Nor is the “guide on the side” central to the essential task of managing continuity and progression, enabling a more flexible approach to team teaching. In the case of the “sage on stage” model, the absence of the primary teacher is likely to result in a significant loss of productivity.

Diagram showing management of continuity by teacher and teacher-independent course

Types of digital learning resources

The flipped classroom has much to say about how to blend digital resources with human instruction—but less about the nature of the learning resources themselves. For this, we need to look to the industry that will have a primary role in developing resources encapsulating good learning design. I suggest that the software and digital resources that we need will come in two fundamental flavours:

  • instructional software;
  • learning management software.

Instructional software

Instructional software is likely to be based on well-established software design paradigms such as gaming, simulation, creative tools and social networking. The most successful software will quickly be replicated across the education system, creating positive disruption in what have otherwise proved to be stubbornly conservative institutions.

The scope for digital instruction does not mean that computers will replace the role of the human teacher, any more than the textbook replaced the human teacher in the traditional classroom. Digital activities and conventional human-facilitated activities will represent parallel (and often interdependent) instructional strategies.

Learning management software

The layer of instructional software will work closely with a second layer of learning management software, that will include tracking, learning analytics and adaptive progression management. These are the functions grouped by Professor Wiliam in his 2007 talk, under the name of “classroom aggregation technology”.

Another key concept to be found in the work of Professor Laurillard (a colleague of Professor Wiliam at the London IoE) is that managing a learning process, like managing a business process, involves modelling the transactions involved. The transactions involved in learning are complex. At a mundane level, the business of managing differentiation, taking in student work, marking it, suggesting modifications, reviewing redrafts and tracking the progression of a student’s understanding and intervening to correct misapprehensions, is a formidably complex set of administrative tasks—one that will overwhelm many teachers. A combination of instructional and learning management software, interoperating in an integrated environment, can automate much of that complexity, modelling the transactions involved in formal education in a manner that is efficient, that is transparent to all members of the teaching team, and that can be incrementally optimised as the success of their underlying pedagogic patterns is monitored (see my post Learning analytics for better learning content).


Supporters of education technology have commonly relied on the argument that we need to educate our young people for a substantially different world in the twenty-first century than existed in much of the twentieth. In an article in SecEd, How do you define 21st century skills?, Neil McLean, ex-Executive Director at Becta and now Head of Centre at FutureLab, quotes the definition of 21st century skills given by the ATC21S project run by the University of Melbourne:

  • Ways of thinking: Creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making and learning.
  • Ways of working: Communication and collaboration.
  • Tools for working: ICT and information literacy.
  • Skills for living in the world: Citizenship, life and career, and personal and social responsibility.

Laying aside the ability to use new technologies (a set of skills that is self-evidently new but not necessarily significant), what is remarkable about the other three items in this list is that there is nothing new or uniquely 21st century about any of them. The ability to think, communicate and operate in the world have always encapsulated the fundamental aims of education. An account of 21st century skills intended to demonstrate that the aims of education have changed fundamentally in fact demonstrates the opposite: that the aims of education are much the same as ever they were.

what is remarkable about 21st century skills is that there is nothing new or uniquely 21st century about any of them

We are now seeing a long-overdue re-evaluation of the main purpose of technology in education. The education system is still called on to deliver the same mix of basic aptitudes as ever was the case, focusing on the ability make arguments, solve problems, communicate and collaborate. Traditional education systems managed to deliver these basic aptitudes with some success to a small social elite. Now the breadth of the curriculum has widened, our economy has come to demand an increasingly well-educated workforce, our society has become more democratic and the aspirations and expectations of our fellow countrymen have been raised by the habits of consumerism. All these trends require more education, delivered to higher standards, to more people—but our education systems have not managed to scale successfully in order to meet these demands. Nor is there any realistic prospect that it will do so, so long as it continues to rely on the central role of the individual, often isolated teacher-as-craftsman.

Education technology provides an opportunity to encapsulate pedagogical designs in repeatable and transferable forms. It does not imply the suppression of the individuality of students: on the contrary, good systems will do much more than the traditional classroom teacher to respond to the requirements of individual students to pursue different curricula, to progress at different speeds, and to manage different cognitive challenges. Good pedagogical design will nevertheless prove to be highly replicable because fundamentally we all learn in similar ways.

Education technology will not replace the role of the human teacher. It is a commonplace to say that it will support the human teacher, saving time, helping with routine administration, and informing practice with reliable information. When we say that it will make the job of the teacher easier, we must admit that it represents a type of mechanisation that will also reduce the need for so many teachers. At a time when we do not have enough teachers to meet current demand, this will not mean a massive programme of redundancy but rather a rebalancing of supply and demand. It is also likely to be good news for most front-line teachers. There will still be a job for the competent, working conditions will improve for all and there will be opportunities for increased levels of pay for expert teachers, without requiring them to leave the classroom (actual or virtual).

All of this is necessary and helpful but not transformative. The significant step will come when education technology relieves the human teacher of the role of chief conduit through which knowledge and learning design is delivered. It is hard to over-state the importance of this shift. Course delivery will become more consistent, pedagogy will become more interactive, more participative, and more replicable. Data-driven learning management software will not only support the day-to-day running of schools—they will also collect the detailed evidence of what works, so that learning designs can be incrementally optimised.

While data-driven learning management systems will lead to improvements in the classroom, the data that they capture will bubble up, through appropriate learning analytics systems both to academia and central government administration, addressing flaws in the current evidence base identified in testimony given on 23 January 2013 to the Parliamentary Select Committee for Education by Michael Gove and, in this extract, by the Permanent Secretary at the DfE, Chris Wormald:

The evidence base in education – not just in the department but more generally across the UK – is not as good as it should be. It is not as good as the evidence that is available to my colleagues in the Department for Health, for example,  or in a variety of other government departments – so there are a lot of questions in education where the current evidence base does not provide you with a completely clear answer.

The working conditions of individual teachers will be improved, becoming more collaborative, supporting a more efficient division of labour, providing better opportunities for new teachers to learn from their more experienced colleagues, enabling “interlocking systems of supervision and teamwork”. There will be new opportunities for the best teachers to receive higher levels of pay as technology allows them to break through the 30-students-in-a-class productivity ceiling.

Revolutions (scientific, technical, political or industrial) rarely come out of nowhere: they generally involve the conjunction of many complementary conditions, many of which may have existed for many years. In our case, there are several pieces of the jigsaw now available to us, all waiting to be fitted together:

  • the understanding of the importance of quality learning resources (for which we may need to refer back to the innovative thinkers of the 1970s);
  • the understanding of teaching as a design process, a point of view which has been articulated with some authority by leading academics at London’s Institute of Education over recent years;
  • 1-to-1 computer ratios—a prerequisite for the fulfilment of many scenarios requiring the deployment of digital technology in the classroom;
  • increasing the opportunity for innovation by reducing bureaucratic interference (in the UK, this trend is epitomised by the closure of Becta and the decentralisation of control to Academies—schools acting independently of central authority);
  • the theory of the flipped classroom, which provides a way of blending resource-based instruction with effective classroom practice;
  • the realisation by business of the commercial opportunities that would follow from the ability to provide scalable systems of education (as recently demonstrated by the ability of MOOCs to raise capital on the financial markets).

These are some of the key pieces that need to come together if we are to strike out in a new direction towards a more systematic approach to education. The decision to pursue such a new direction is not a matter of whimsy. On the contrary, it is the only plausible response to the most fundamental problem in our education system: the chronic shortage of qualified teachers. It is not a problem that will be solved by structural reform, golden hellos, or new recruitment campaigns—and it is not a problem that the developed world, under increasing economic threat from the developing economies, can afford to continue to ignore.

Education will not change overnight from a craft into an industry. Productive change will be a long process, in which progress will be measured in countless small innovations, each working cumulatively and synergistically with others, and not in one single grand theory. But by encapsulating pedagogic design in software, ordinary classroom teachers will be enabled to drive demand through market mechanisms, sorting what works in practice from what sounds good on paper. In this respect, Kim Taylor understood the importance of approaching change from the perspective of a feet-on-the-ground teacher, rather than what might sometimes be seen as the head-in-the-clouds educationalist or (still more doubtful) the online evangelist like myself:

The present gap between research and daily application is such that teachers generally turn for help to those in the same boat with them, all awash in a vast sea. Professors who grandly philosophize the aims of education flash over in aircraft; those who evaluate its practices nose beneath in submarines…but our main anxiety is to stay afloat and make some sort of progress, guided, if must be, by ancient stars. We wonder how others in similar straits are getting on. “Have you tried to row facing forwards?” we shout above the racket of the elements; “No”, comes the answer, “but paddling with your feet over the stern helps”…and we suspect that the academics, secure from the daily fret of wind and wave, have forgotten what it is like to feel a little seasick all the time.

Forty years later, the same sense of damaging alienation between practitioners and theorists is evident in the same evidence given by DfE Permanent Secretary, Chris Wormald:

One of the most important reforms that we have is teaching schools, with the idea that we have properly evidence based research done by actual practitioners – education research has tended to be done by people who don’t practice – health research, if you compare it, is done largely by practitioners – that is a huge strength of health research.

The iPhone in my pocket and the car in my garage deliver advanced functionality into my hands, almost regardless of the extent of my technical illiteracy. In the same way, appropriate education technology can deliver sophisticated pedagogies into the hands of ordinary classroom teachers, who are never going to spend their evenings wading through obscure academic journals or coding new digital activities in JavaScript. If academic educationalists and practicing teacher have trouble in working together, then it might just be that industry can provide the shuttle diplomacy to bring abstract theory and concrete practice into a mutually reinforcing relationship.

Industrial revolutions are led by demand. What is needed from the policy makers in government is not initiatives directly targeted at improving pedagogy in the classroom, but the market infrastructure that will enable innovative suppliers to deliver to the shipwrecked mariners the sails and oars and compasses that they require: the concrete, practical “tools of the trade” that can be shown to make their job easier and more productive.

Previous related posts

Girl blowing a bubble gum bubbleMOOCs and other ed-tech bubbles argues that MOOCs, learning analytics, OER and other ed-tech fashions are premature. Even though they may have elements of good sense in them, preconditions for their success are not yet there.
The problem with “Technology Enhanced Learning”, criticises this acronym and the academic-led initiatives that are commonly subsumed by the term. A shorter version of the analysis of MOOCs is included.
What do we mean by “content”? analyses the use of this poorly-defined term, which often excuses low-grade, non-interactive, information-bearing resources. The post makes the argument that there are many types of content and the sort we really need bears not information but activity.
A woman reading a printout on an early mainframe computerLearning Analytics for better learning content explores the preconditions for enabling learning analytics to be used to improve the quality of learning content (one of which is commercial provision of content)—concluding that interoperability is the most important.
Home page, with a full listing of posts on this blog.


To link to a section in this article, right click on the appropriate section and choose “Copy link address”.

1. The shortage of teachers
2. The Nuffield solution
3. Improving the classroom environment
3.1. The flipped classroom
3.2. Limitations of the flipped classroom
3.3. Arguments for autonomous craftsmen
3.4. Teaching as a form of engineering
4. Types of digital learning resources
4.1. Instructional software
4.2. Learning Management Software
5. Conclusion


[1] Defining Quality in Learning Resources, held by BESA and the Publishers Association on 3 December 2012. See

[2] L C Taylor, Resouces for Learning, Penguin Education, Hammondsworth, 1971.

[4] L C Taylor, op. cit. p.24.

[5] L C Taylor, op. cit. p.26.

[6] L C Taylor, op. cit. p.25.

[7] L C Taylor, op. cit. p.26.

[8] Professor Dylan Wiliam, Assessment, learning and technology: prospects at the periphery of control, keynote speech by Dylan Wiliam, Deputy Director of the Institute of Education, at the 2007 Association for Learning Technology Conference at

[9] L C Taylor, op. cit., p.236.

[10] L C Taylor, op. cit., p.178.

[11] L C Taylor, op. cit., p.237.

[12] Some might object that both of these formulae miss the point, which is that education should be centred on the learner. But this is to argue that we are aiming for learner-centred learning, which is nothing more than a meaningless truism.

[13] Op cit, page 5

[14] Learning Styles, Concepts and Evidence by Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., and Bjork, R., University of California, 2012.

[15] Dylan Wiliam, op. cit., p.5.

[16] Diana Laurillard, Teaching as a Design Science, Building Pedagogical Patterns for Learning and Technology, Routledge, New York and London, 2012, available in the US and UK.

[17] Diana Laurillard, op. cit., p.1.

[18] Ibid, p.1.

[19] Mor, Y., & Winters, N. (2007). Design approaches in technology-enhanced learning. Interactive Learning Environments, 15 (1), 61-75. Quoted in Diana Laurillard, op cit p.7.

9 thoughts on “Education’s coming revolution

  1. Crispin,
    I enjoyed your post immensely! It points in a direction of hope as we try to find the solutions to the demand problem for more teachers as well as a scalable set of resources.
    When we started out with the issues that led to a web based set of standards for content – SCORM, the analogy we used was an 18th Century Gun smith producing a rifle whose parts were all unique and hand made for that weapon – no interchangeable parts. That rifle was a unique, one of a kind product and expensive.
    We wanted to see a set of standards that promoted interchangeability with reduced cost on content development. The counter to the 18th Century Gunsmith analogy was Eli Whitney at Harpers Ferry Arsenal, who produced rifles on an assembly line process with parts that were interchangeable. The scalability of this process was a contributing factor to the North’s success in the Civil War over the South’s as the North out produced them not only in rifles but other “consumer” products – a competitive advantage. I think to you point we need to do something about the educational process, in order to have a competitive edge.
    Back to the point, I don’t think we realized our vision twelve years later, simply because we never really connected to the practicing teacher in that “row boat’ of yours, with content that met their challenges. Yes they have a standard LMS/VLE which may be necessary but not sufficient.
    I agree the teachers are at the core of the educational process but I also think a change in the process of education that you are advocating is also required with resources that facilitate the “sage on the stage” model.
    Thanks Frank

    • Hello Frank,

      As ever, many thanks for the support!

      Of course I agree with you that standards are another critical piece in building the market – how critical, I still do not believe the policy-makers in the UK really understand yet. And so I am hoping that, in another couple of posts I will move towards a more detailed consideration of standards – SCORM, Tin Can and the IMS portfolio of specs.

      I wasn’t at the table in the formative years of SCORM and I never heard about the 18th century gunsmith analogy – but I agree that commoditisation and scalability are key benefits of industrial production (as well as rapid filtering out of products that don’t deliver).

      Best, Crispin.

  2. A thoughtful post, as ever, Crispin and I agree with you that recent discussions around the flipped classroom reflect Taylors resource based learning. I’m not convinced that we should consider commoditisation or scalability as the key benefits of technology (Not that I am suggesting you are) , SCORM was fit for purpose where consistency, certification and conformity were the desired educational goals (As the AICC required for those fixing aircraft systems) and premised on the notion (originally) of the single learner sat at the PC , the goal of our education system is or should be something quite different . Where (educational technology) specifications and standards have not been successful to date have been in encouraging interaction in the constructivist sense (Look at IMS LD) well intentioned yes . Current standards development in education have focussed, in my view ,on the economics and efficiencies of education, on data exchange use and analysis (analytics) lets hope that the eTernity project is the exception to this trend !

    • Hi Paul, do you think that there is any part of education, as we are trying to do it, that is measurable? And if (or to the extent that) the answer is yes, should we not be trying to do it well, consistently?

      As for “commoditisation” of education technology, I will sign up to that too. Only commoditisation of the market creates the incentives for innovation (and for standardised interoperability) to occur.

      Re. standards, I don’t see that any standards for *instruction* (as opposed to standards for administration of education) have had any real success. I think that e-textbook has a part to play – and let’s hope that this goes somewhere – but I think the real key is in the circulation of runtime data about competency and learning activity – and I don’t see anyone other than the SCORM community even trying to address that requirement.

      Hope to see you around BETT and we could discuss over an overpriced coffee.


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  4. Hello Crispin
    This is a very powerful piece. Have you spent any time with apprentices seeing how they learn.
    Best wishes Robert

    • Thank you Robert – you must have been Googling Kim Taylor!

      No I don’t have any experience of vocational education, though I did speak at an Edge Foundation event in the summer (whose CEO, David Harbourne, may like to comment). I would imagine the following benefits of a technological approach to education in the context of vocational training and apprenticeships.

      1. Clearly an active approach is important to vocational training, and I understand from recent radio programmes on the subject that the investment in the machinery required for high-status apprenticeships is increasingly hard to find – so there may be the same place for the sort of simulations that have played a major part in military training for a long time. Beyond what is sometimes expensive kit, successful approaches to “learning by doing” also require considerable instructor effort in setting up and running activities, and so the contribution of the computer is also to support instructor effort and expertise, and in multi-player simulations, in bringing together participants who may not be in the same place.

      2. I understand that there is often a difficulty in co-ordination between academic education providers and workplace providers – and good information and learning management systems can do much to support teamwork and co-ordination between different teachers and instructors, even if they are at different locations.

      3. I believe that an important prerequisite for remodelling our education systems on a technological perspective is to describe our learning objectives clearly – something that we do very badly at the moment. I have made this argument more recently in my article “How technology will revolutionize research” at There have been a number of data standards initiatives in European CEN, ISO/IEC and US-based standards organisations – none of them really successful. The HR sector has for a long time used talent management systems that use “competency frameworks” – but I do not believe the idea of competency is really transferable to education – for one thing, competency is binary while mastery improves incrementally. I am currently working on a series of blog posts in which I will develop my ideas on this requirement – but I believe that its relevance to vocational training is that such digital representatons of learning objectives will assist in the alignment of training programmes with the requirements of industry (which, at the moment, often complains that education is over-influenced by the academic values that will only ever be relevant to only a few).

      In respect of your question regarding how apprentices learn, I see digital technology, properly used, as a medium for expressing, implementing and evidencing different pedagogies. Different pedagogies will be based on different theories of how we learn. To that extent, I hope my writing is pedagogically agnostic, though, I have spent a lot of time criticising accounts of education technology that are committed to what strike me as rather tendentious theories of constructivism — I learnt recently from Larry Cuban that this tendency was criticised by Seymour Papert as “pedagogical determinism”.

      I don’t know if that over-long reply answers your question – but I would be very interested in any thoughts you might have on the application of edtech to vocational training. As I say, David might also like to comment.

      Best, Crispin.

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