Unlocking pedagogical innovation

A 1568 woodcut published in Meggs, Philip B. A History of Graphic Design. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1998. (p 64), via WikipediaJust as Gutenberg’s printing press provided the means by which the intellectual culture of Europe was transformed, so ed-tech will provide the means to transform our understanding of pedagogy.

This article was originally published (a couple of days ago) as “The View from Here” in the first edition of Terry Freedman’s re-launched newsletter, Digital Education, to which you can subscribe here. It provides a relatively short summary of the position I have outlined in this blog, arguing for a new approach to education technology that focuses on formalising and systematising the transactions and processes involved in education, rather than chasing after chimera like independent learning and twenty-first century skills.

The education research problem

The central challenge to face modern education is how to handle scale. Ever since Socrates, more than 2,000 years ago, we have known how to teach small groups of students through a process of continuous dialogue with an expert tutor. But the Socratic model has never met the need of modern societies to educate the many and not just the few.

Modern research still confirms the vital importance of students receiving timely, actionable feedback, the essence of “dialogic” teaching. But the amount of such personalised feedback in most schools and colleges is extremely limited. While we appear to be unable to respond to the one incontestable finding of modern education research, the 1998 Tooley Report (which I summarise in It’s the technology, stupid!)showed that the bulk of education research is either flawed or irrelevant to the needs of teachers. The result has been a proliferation of quack theories. One of the more pernicious of these has been the myth of the “independent learner”, an article of faith for large sections of the ICT community over the last fifteen years.

At the heart of our failure to distinguish effective pedagogy from snake oil is a view common amongst teachers that their practice is something of a mystery, bound up with their own personality, their private experience, their relationships and the infinitely variable objectives of their students. As a result, the education service sees itself as a collective of autonomous craftsmen rather than an enterprise using clearly defined processes to respond consistently to the requirements laid upon it. Teachers should not be surprised if that they are not viewed as a true profession when they produce wildly inconsistent outcomes, when their default position is to oppose the independent evaluation of educational outcomes, and when they cannot point to an authoritative, defensible body of knowledge on which their practice is based.

Never mind the technology?

The failure to produce a rational account of pedagogy has represented a major barrier to implementing education technology. It has become almost a truism of the ICT community to tell us not to mind the technology but to look instead for the learning. But the people who repeat this axiom do not appear to realise that pedagogy is the particular sort of technology that is proper to teaching; or that digital systems offer the best opportunity to formalise pedagogy so that it is applied consistently in teaching practice; or that it is only by teaching that any of us can have any influence on the learning of our students. Like so many orthodox views about teaching, the supposed dichotomy between technology and learning collapses as soon as it is given any scrutiny.

This does not mean that we need to achieve consensus on what good pedagogy looks like before we can move forward with education technology. The invention of the printing press stimulated the writing of books and pamphlets, some good and some bad, but which collectively transformed the intellectual landscape of Europe. In the same way, the emergence of capable ed-tech infrastructures will stimulate innovation in pedagogy by providing the means by which those innovative pedagogies can be encapsulated, disseminated and applied consistently.

The importance of data

Those same ed-tech products will produce the data that will allow us to produce an evidence-based account of what “good” looks like. Over the last year, the government has invested significant funds in promoting randomised controlled tests in an attempt to improve the quality of education research. But it has failed to answer two important questions about this aspiration.

First, how will the outcome of this research be applied in the classroom, when teachers are notoriously resistant to changing their practice?

Second, how will sufficient amounts of data be collected to control for student intake and teaching style while avoiding the distorting Hawthorne effect? There is only one plausible answer and in both cases it is the same: data-driven education technology is the only plausible way of ensuring that new pedagogies are replicated consistently and evaluated rigorously.

Such a new approach to education is already beginning to emerge in America, where the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) platforms are working on automatic essay graders for higher education and where Knewton is producing systems for adaptive instruction. Even in the UK, the flawed assumptions of the Becta era are beginning to come under more general criticism and people are showing interest in the potential in education for “big data”. There is much that remains unclear about how these visions will work out in practice (educational data is more likely to be medium-sized and tightly structured than Google-esque in its vast bagginess). Nevertheless, we have started to move forwards. Education technology (the use of technology to improve teaching and learning) has been teased apart from the computing curriculum (the teaching of technology as an end of education): two quite separate objectives that were previously conflated under the catch-all term “ICT”.

Barriers to progress

In spite of these first signs of progress, we still we lack the sort of dynamic, open market that will foster genuinely innovative ed-tech products. Learning from Becta’s mistakes, the current government has rightly insisted that it cannot lead ed-tech innovation. But in its enthusiasm not to impose top-down solutions, it has failed to recognise that only government can create the market conditions in which innovation can thrive.

Most importantly, government leadership is needed on data interoperability. While this may sound a dry subject, remote from the daily practice of teachers, it is the most important lever for change in our current education system. No ed-tech product (such as the various possible types of learning activity software, activity sequencers, analytics or portfolio systems) will prove effective in isolation. Nor can a single supplier provide a one-stop-shop solution to a requirement as complex as education. Data interoperability is as necessary to the ed-tech market as the three-pin-plug is to the market for electrical appliances. And it is ed-tech that offers the most plausible means of improving teaching and learning across the education system.


After decades of bumping along the runway, the ed-tech aircraft is finally looking as though it might have what it takes to get airborne. But if the UK schools sector is to play any significant part in influencing that transformation, then it will need to demonstrate considerably more ambition, imagination and capacity for self-criticism than has been evident of late; and the Department for Education will need to offer considerably more proactive (though not prescriptive) leadership than it has been prepared to offer so far under this government.

3 thoughts on “Unlocking pedagogical innovation

  1. Crispin – another interesting and well-written discussion.

    I have asked you before for concrete examples of what you would count as good and useful EdTEch. You still don’t seem to have any. So your comments are always very abstract – talking about things that don’t exist.

    To use your own phrase, you too offer only snake oil.

    Give us some case studies that show how collectible, repeatable and reliable data can drive an improving assessment regime while providing useful “actionable feedback”.

    It would also be nice if you could soften your snarky generalisations about teachers a little. I agree that there is some b+++s+++ out there about learner-directed, co-created learned etc etc., but there is equally little evidence that the ‘market’ can do any better. Market drive innovators too are driven by their own varities of crapology.

    if anything market driven approaches tend to increase corruption, graft, and getting away with the least effort for the most reward. It depends on your examples of course – I too don’t want to over-generalise – but which market players or innovators might you be talking about? Capita for example is a disgrace – an incompetent near-monopoly trousering truckloads of tax money; Pearson is remorselessy driven by self-interest above all else, peddling any old nonsense to get traction on yet more public money (e.g. “An Avalanche is Coming”); and as for relying on data-driven systems, well where is the reliable practice and the trustworthy technology?

    Indeed the very idea of data-driven systems has moved to the centre of significant political rows – surveillance, health care, policing, OfSTED statistics, all these and more supposedly rely on data, yet somehow the more data that we generate the messier things get.

    So you need to be much more specific what kind of data-driven EdTech you are thinking about if you are to convince your audience that you are really putting forward a reliable, trustworthy and accountable approach. For example, you talk about interoperability – whose system/model/methods should we trust and why?

    Knewton? Sorry, this is just edtech snake oil and quackery and, worse than that, pompous pseudo-rationality … (see http://www.knewton.com/about/).

    Cheers 🙂

    • Hi David,

      Thanks for the comment – challenging as always!

      Use cases

      You are right, I promised you use cases and have not got round to it. So I will try and do that as soon as possible.

      One caveat though. My use-cases will be imaginary examples rather than cases of empirical evidence of what has already worked. And that is not a problem – talking about things that don’t exist (but might if we did them) is not snake oil – it’s innovation. Businessmen (about which more in a moment) understand that very well but civil servants often don’t, particular when they demand evidence-based policy.

      A second point is that I am not specifying particular solutions. I am saying that on top of a certain sort of data-driven infrastructure, a huge range of different (and complimentary) sorts of innovation will be possible. I am not touting any particular approach to pedagogy.

      But with all that said, concrete examples are useful – so thanks for the nudge.

      As for the market, the appearance of disagreement between us may come back to the abstract/concrete dichotomy. You are right that I am talking in the abstract (and do not apologise for that). So when I talk of the market, I am not talking of the very dysfunctional market that we have at the moment (which is largely the creation and mirror image of top-down government procurements, such as the IMLS framework which, as I predicted – https://edtechnow.net/2012/01/25/stop-the-imls-framework/ – has been a disaster). I am talking about the open and competitive market that government *ought* to create. I am talking about the principle of the market which, when we have seen it applied in other, commercial spheres, has produced almost every piece of useful tech that we carry around in our pockets and brief-cases.

      So I agree that markets can be driven by crapology just as much as bureaucracies. So what we need is an informed and discerning clientele, who can spot the snake oil from the genuine stuff. That is what I mean by “open and competitive” – and I think that government has a vital role in helping to bring it about.

      As for which innovators I might be talking about, I agree with you that the field seems a bit bare. I also want to blog about this in my thoughts on BETT. But my basic thought is that if you set up the right market, then the real innovators will come – maybe they will be new entrants who come out of the left field. I think many of the current players have become too used to a market stitched up by cosy relationships with Local Authorities and government agencies, and (however strong they look now) are in danger of being blown away when we see real innovation occur at an international level. There are a lot of big players at the moment who are interested in ed-tech as an emerging market.

      As for my snarkiness about teachers, let me take this opportunity to repeat that I think many teachers do a heroic job and are unnecessarily stressed by working in a dysfunctional system in which there is no well established account of what works, and in which they are asked to do what is virtually impossible. I see teachers as victims and not culprits. Though they become culprits when, probably out of defensiveness, they defend the current status quo and its assumptions as absolutely fine and make puerile ad hominem attacks on anyone who challenges these assumptions. I don’t see this as a substantive problem though – teachers will come round very quickly to ed-tech when we get the real McCoy, stuff that will improve learning and make their lives easier, not harder.

      I also think that the role of the teacher is absolutely central in any attempt to improve teaching. I am not trying to replace teacher with robots – that is the central plank of my argument against MOOCs, which I shall be reiterating shortly on this blog (I am taking part in another debate on the issue at Learning Technologies on Thursday).

      But in the meantime, it would help if teachers (at least the vocal ones) could be rather less vitriolic and ideological in their oppostion to perfectly reasonable and moderate proposals coming from the current government (e.g. that we need robust assessment and that knowledge plays an important part in the curriculum) – have a look at the recent #AskGove Twitter stream for a good sample of what I am talking about.

      And when you have got through the issues to do with tone and focus on substance, the essential point is that when people talk nonsense, they need to be challenged. But if we can have a constructive and rational debate, then that is great and the temperature will be lowered all round.

      So in the light of that hope, thank you again for your comment here.

      I shall try and answer the questions you raise in your final paragraphs in forthcoming posts. I agree with you that the reliability of data is critical – and the government’s instinct to mandate the collection and promotion of certain sorts of data is very unhelpful in this respect. As for interoperability, we need processes that encourage open competition to find out the systems/models/methods that work best and deliver to teachers what teachers need.

      As for pompous pseudo-rationality, American PR copy is not to my taste either. But in my view, Knewton is on the right track in delivering adaptive learning (which I discussed in a lengthy essay at https://edtechnow.net/2013/02/25/conversation/) – though they seem to be doing it in what might turn out to be an unhelpfully proprietary model. Which is why we so urgently require more proactive government action to ensure open markets.

      I value the conversation and will continue it in my posts, as soon as I am able.


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