Round-table with Ian Livingstone at Computing magazine

Round-table at Computing magazineWhy I disagree with Ian Livingstone (and why we should continue the discussion)

Last month I participated in a videoed round-table at Computing magazine’s offices in Soho, chaired by Peter Gothard. The panel included Ian Livingstone (the father of RPG games like Dungeons and Dragons and co-author of the Nesta NextGen report), Phil Bryant of OCR, and Joanna Poplawska of the Corporate IT Forum.

Part 2 of 3 of the conversation was published yesterday. Part 1 contains the panelists’ opening remarks and part 3 will address BYOD. It is this second part that contains the heart of the discussion.

I was a little taken aback, when I showed the video to my work colleagues yesterday, that they all complained that we were all far too polite to each other. “Where’s the passion?”, they complained. I assured them that this was not my normal reputation when discussing Learning Technology (indeed, I boasted, I had recently been threatened with legal action for defamation). But I can see what they meant. Maybe the shortness of the recording session and the unfamiliarity of the studio setting made us all a little stilted.

So, while there was much that the panel did agree on, I write this piece to highlight my disagreements with Ian Livingstone. They are generally disagreements of degree rather than of category—but they are significant nonetheless. When you add them together, they become pretty fundamental—and I would not want the importance of this disagreement to get lost in the civilities of the TV studio.

With all quotes coming from his first speech, I disagree with Ian…

That learning should (necessarily) be fun

I think computing exemplifies a way in which learning should be more…fun

It is true:

  • that we may learn more when we are having fun;
  • that we are likely to be more motivated when we are having fun;
  • we all like to have fun, regardless of whether we are learning or not.

So I do not disagree that fun is a “nice to have”. I just want to add a couple of caveats.

  • Having fun is not the purpose of school: fun is a means to an end and not an end in itself. The question that always needs to be asked at the end of a class is not “did everyone have fun?” but “did everybody learn something?”
  • Different people have fun in different ways. Some children have fun pulling the wings off flies, lighting up behind the bike shed or bullying the new boy; others enjoy reading books or creating complex artefacts. The role of the teacher is to encourage children to have fun in the right way and with the right balance between productive fun and relaxation. Learning to have new types of fun (for example, writing complex computer programs) often requires quite a lot of pain and perseverance along the way. The ability to graft and delay gratification are vital lessons for mature adult life.

These important gains will be lost if “fun” is over-prioritized. Teachers should encourage the right sort of fun, leading to the achievement of the right sort of learning, at the same time habituating students to the need for self-discipline, even when they are not having fun.

That relevance and context are critical

I think computing exemplifies a way in which learning should be more in context and relevant…I think relevance is really important.

There are two interconnected points about context and relevance here.

On the contextualisation of learning, Ian gave an example of learning Maths by playing games or solving problems, like working out how many trucks it would take to move Mount Fuji from here to there. Children should be given an opportunity to solve real world problems instead of learning abstract theory.

“Up to a point, Lord Copper”. One of the problems of contextualised learning is that you are never quite sure what the student has learnt. Have they learnt the abstract, transferable skills or have they just learnt to move Mount Fuji around (which incidentally is an ability that is neither useful nor relevant to anyone)? So part of the teacher’s complex job is to apply abstract learning to many different types of contexts, ensuring that students can use transferable skills to solve all these different problems. Articulating the abstract theory is a necessary part of being able to conceptualise and apply those skills to any context that comes along.

Becoming comfortable in that abstract world is also an essential foundation for higher sorts of learning. Where is the practical problem that can be solved by the common sense application of quantum mechanics? How can you deploy calculus (or even the humble long division) unless you are comfortable with abstract theory and notation?

So the mistake here is oppose abstract theory and practical application: they are two sides of the same coin. If Ian is saying that students should be given lots of practical problems to solve, then I completely agree—and I think he will find that this already happens. If he is saying that they do not need to grasp the abstract theory as well, then I completely disagree.

As for “relevance”, this is a weasily buzzword. Relevant to what? Relevant to what students are or to what students could be?

You need to start by engaging with students’ current experience but the whole point of education is to take them somewhere completely different, to do things and appreciate things that they had never dreamed of. “Relevance” can be used to excuse a culture of low expectations.

Is it “relevant” to be able do advanced Maths? Sure, it is relevant to being able to get a job at CERN or to earn lots of money as a market analyst in the city; but it is probably not very relevant to watching TV and hanging around outside the local newsagents.

That you can acquire skills without knowledge

If you say “here’s Mount Fuji, you’ve got trucks that are this big, how many trucks will it take to move Mount Fuji from here to here” and they will figure it out through just computational thinking and an approach to problem solving. If you gave it in pure maths terms, it might seem a boring problem to set them.

How can they possibly work this out without the maths required to calculate the volume of Mount Fuji and divide it my the volume of the trucks?

This speech gives the game away. For Ian, it is not about contextualising learning: it is about avoiding all the difficult theoretical stuff and relying just on general qualities like “creativity” and “problem solving”. As I have argued in previous posts, these are bogus curriculum objectives unless it is possible to break them down into specific knowledge and domain-related abilities.

That games-based learning is currently viable

Games based learning, where you can learn mathematics playing a game…

Many proponents of game-based learning use it to refer to the use in education of commercial games. These may provide a lot of fun but it is hard to see how they are going to produce very much learning (see slide 8 of this presentation by the leader of Becta-sponsored Games Based Learning, Graham Brown-Martin).

If we are talking about “serious games” or “educational games”, which focus on specific educational objectives, then they are a good idea but by and large, they do not exist. This is an industry/market problem (and one that I am working on in association with the British Standards Institute, the British Educational Suppliers Association and other organisations). It is not a problem that can be solved directly by teachers in the classroom—or by making modifications to the curriculum.

That collaboration is critical

I think collaboration is also really important…let them collaborate because collaboration is what they are going to be doing in real life—so let them collaborate because they have got different skills.

Again, “Up to a point Lord Copper”. It may be true that students can teach each other things (I would call this “peer mentoring” rather than “collaboration” because it assumes the superior knowledge of one student over another rather than a genuinely synergistic relationship). I also agree that peer mentoring offers one route to scaling education in the absence of sufficient qualified teachers. But students very commonly teach each other the wrong things and collaborative groups are easily distracted. Even when motivated, collaboration often depends on weaker students either copying or free-riding off the work of stronger students.

Not that the pro-collaboration lobby thinks that copying is a problem. Sir Ken Robinson says

[Children] have spent ten years at school being told that there is one answer – it’s at the back…and don’t look, and don’t copy, because that’s cheating. I mean, outside schools, that’s called collaboration.

This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of education. “Outside schools” the objective is, let us say, to move Mount Fuji half a mile to the left. If someone else knows how to do that and you don’t, then the smart thing is to collaborate (or more likely, hire them—”outside schools” the free-riding school leaver will be disappointed to find that skills and knowledge generally cost money). Inside schools the objective is different: it is not to move Mount Fuji but to learn how to move Mount Fuji—and that is not something that can be delegated to someone else. The working group puts their hands up and says “Please Miss, we’ve finished—we moved Mount Fuji half a mile to the left”; but if 4 out of the 5 group members do not understand how it was done, they haven’t finished. They haven’t even started.

The dangers of an over-emphasis on collaboration is shown by the report about teaching problem-solving through coding, brought to my attention by Keith Turvey. In the paragraph on pages 4-5 it states that:

Children’s programs often displayed production without comprehension, in that programming constructs such as variables, test statements, or even simple commands like “repeat” may have been used in one program, but not understood in another. Rote use of chunks from other children’s programs or those of the teacher seems to be responsible for this rigidity of use.

Collaboration may be useful in certain circumstances. Conversation and debate are critical. Peer mentoring may be a great tool for scaling learning conversations to large numbers of students…

That we can make do with teachers-as-facilitators

If ICT teachers don’t feel qualified today to serve a rigorous and robust curriculum, let them be facilitators.

…however, none of these techniques can replace the guidance and management of good teachers. The cry of “let them be facilitators” is a little reminiscent of “let them eat cake”. It shows a willful blindness to a glaring problem that anyone with eyes should be able to see clearly. More particularly, it fundamentally devalues the the teacher, who is repeatedly shown by research to be the most important contributor to learning. Dylan Winter, for example, claims that the research:

has shown is that actually it does not matter very much which school you go to, but it matters very much which teachers you get in that school. 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.

That online resources are generally sufficient

Let the children use the resources that are available through the web. What’s wrong with them learning through YouTube?

What is wrong with students learning through YouTube is that it assumes that learning is all about absorbing information. Education at the fundamental level is much more than this: it is about developing understanding and skills that can only be achieved through guided activity. This fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of education (which is astonishingly widespread) has been addressed elsewhere on this blog (see for example MOOCs and other ed-tech bubbles and In the beginning was the conversation).

While in principle, very good interactive digital resources could be developed, on the whole they have not been (often because of the misconception that education is about the dissemination of information). This comes back to the problem with the market and is not a problem that can be addressed by teachers in the classroom.

Phasing out examinations

We always tend to task children to learn the same information by rote and regurgitate it to order to pass an examination but often that examination has no use. But if they learn practical skills together, especially the creatives and the technologists working together with an output that is relevant and fun, then I think that addresses a problem, not just for Computer Science but for the way of teaching everything.

This passage covers several points—but the one that strikes me most forcefully is the common misrepresentation of exams as simply being about the regurgitation of dry facts. That may be what bad examinations do. Good exams test student abilities to solve problems and to be creative. History exams test the ability of students to create a coherent argument; Art exams test their ability to create a piece of art; Computing exams will test their ability to code.

The point about dry facts is in fact a red herring. Ian’s real objection to exams is that they test at an individual level—but if you do not do this, then it will never become apparent that some students have been free-riding throughout all that collaborative school work they have been doing, and actually have ended up with no skills at all.

This desire to phase out individual testing is a very common one—in an earlier post I have already quoted Professor Stephen Heppell making the same point on Radio 4.

There also appears to me to be another questionable assumption about early specialisation—that even among children, some are naturally “creatives” and some are naturally “technologists” (whatever happened to the creative use of technology, or the aspiration to produce polymaths?) While we clearly need schools that recognise and value a wide range of abilities, we should not allow children to give up too early on the learning that they find difficult.

Evidence from the PISA research shows that low performing cultures tend to associate performance with innate ability—they are cultures in which people commonly say “I’m no good at Maths” or “I’m a creative”. High performing cultures associate performance with effort. To young children who find Maths difficult, it is vitally important that we should be saying “if you keep working / work harder at your Maths, then you can do it”. The worst possible thing that we can say is, “find someone else who can do the maths for you”.

Any teacher knows that the real problem is not that some children are creatives and some are technologists. It is that some children are good at everything and some are good at almost nothing.

That it is by teaching of technology that we can use technology to improve learning

The second part of Ian’s speech quoted above makes the common conflation of the teaching of technology and the use of technology to improve learning. This is the common mistake that has been made by the proponents of ICT and which I have addressed in numberous posts on this blog, starting with Scrapping “ICT”.

The supposition has been that if you teach technology in a particularly fun, collaborative and un-examined way, children will become much better learners across the curriculum and throughout their lives. After decades of trying and billions of pounds of investment, there is absolutely no evidence to support what was always a highly implausible suggestion in the first place.


Ian Livingstone has made a valuable contribution to the debate on the Computing curriculum and has passionate and doubtless very well-intentioned views about improving education. However, coming from outside of education, he seems to have picked up on some of the more tendentious, pseudo-academic babble, produced by those whom Diana Laurillard calls the “technology opportunists”. Many of the solutions that he advocated during the round-table seem to me to over-simplify what are in fact complex problems. The result, when all these points are aggregated, is that Ian Livingstone would take our education system off in completely the wrong direction.

In a short studio session, we did not have time to discuss these issues, to respond to each other’s points of view or to discover where our disagreements were superficial and where then were more fundamental. The whole subject, not only of teaching Computing but also of using technology to improve education, is so fundamentally important that maybe Peter Gothard would be willing to invite us back to the Computing studio, so that we could continue the debate?

2 thoughts on “Round-table with Ian Livingstone at Computing magazine

  1. I agree with most of what you say, but I disagree on the question of learning as “fun”.

    I remember a long time ago, when the term “gamification” was new, an article that opposed the views of two game developers on gamification.

    The “anti” view was by a programmer who felt that gamification didn’t actually pick up on the real game, the “fun”. He argued that the whole enjoyment in gaming was the pure mental stimulation of constant learning — learning the level layouts, refining your strategies for killing the baddies etc. A bad game is confusing or unclear, and thereby hampers the player’s learning; but a well designed game gives constant progression, constant improvement, constant learning. Hell… I can go back to the games I played as a child, and I remember them, over two decades on.

    The fun in the game is in the game mechanics and the game structure — the storyline and “achievements” are mostly superfluous, and yet that’s exactly the parts that the gamification crowd are trying to carry across into education.

    And that’s the same thing with education, because Learning = Mental Stimulation = Fun .

    So making learning fun is really just a consequence of making learning more efective.

    Sadly, we tend to try to “add” fun to the learning, rather than regarding it as intrinsic to the learning, and we just make it worse.

    • Hi Niall,

      I think I might agree with you, both on fun and gamification. My brief discussion of “fun” above is influenced by Aristotle’s discussion of “happiness” in the Nichomachean Ethics, Like most of the Greeks, he dismissed “pleasure” because this could be addictive, leading to a cycle of withdrawal and compulsion, and was often trivial if not harmful. Socrates would ask whether one the most intense forms of pleasure was not itching – maybe he meant masturbation – which is something monkeys do, while John Stuart Mill addressed a similar point when he asked whether we would prefer to be an anguished human or a contented pig, and modern philosophers have come up with the thought experiment whereby you could swap your life for one in a “pleasure machine”. Aristotle’s definition of happiness, “eudaimonia”, is normally translated as “flourishing” – or at least the sense of pleasure that comes from the act of flourishing. Which fits almost exactly into what I think you are saying about the pleasure of learning.

      So to mimic the argument about “serious games” and their opposite (“trivial games”?), I am not suggesting like some straight-laced puritan that we should only have “serious fun”. We need a balance between serious fun that comes from flourishing, achievement and learning, and the fun that comes from a good laugh with friends or the occasional sensation-overload,

      As you say, “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” would be other ways again of saying much the same thing. All of which makes the same point that there are different sorts of fun and that some of them are not only trivial and some are positively harmful.

      So to come back to Ian Livingstone, my caution is about saying “we have got to make learning more fun”. Learning *is* (seriously) fun. If you start talking about fun that is not a consequence of learning, then you are talking about extrinsic fun – and that too can be a useful thing, in moderation, in order to improve attitudes in a disaffected class – or even a perfectly well disposed class that just needs a cold start, as it were. But too often, I think we don’t put the choke back in again when the engine is running, getting hooked on a constant supplement of extrinsic fun which actually gets pretty dull after a while and makes the engine splutter. Most damaging of all, I think it breeds an expectation of and sense of entitlement to fun, which is (a) a serious handicap in life when the going is bound to get tough at some point, and (b) positively harmful in that it prevents children understanding that the best sort of fun is the fun that they make themselves. I think we are both saying pretty much the same.

      I also think I very much agree with you on gamification, which also comes down to a point about intrinsic and extrinsic. I was amazed, in my discussions on the ICTRN network with Graham Brown-Martin, that his Games Based Learning group – a sort of off-shoot of Learning Without Frontiers, completely rejected serious games as seriously boring. The alternative (learning through the *playing* of Call of Duty or – as Ian Livingstone seemed to be suggesting – Angry Birds) seems to me to be absurd. Pure extrinsic and ultimately mind-numbing “fun”. I can see that a lot of “serious games” are in fact third-rate games with a bit of pseudo-learning trivia tacked on (“answer this question to progress to the next level”). So I agree also with your comments about the importance of the game mechanics which must themselves be challenging and reflect the nature and structure of the learning itself. The whole business of exams and marks is a sort of gamification of learning already. The “playing pieces” of good educational games will, I suspect, more often be analytical comments, pieces of evidence, and laboratory equipment rather than saccharine cartoon characters. Maybe “gamification” is a more helpful term than “games”.


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