The Commons Education Select Committee held an interesting conference last Tuesday as part of its investigation into the purpose of education. I believe that the issues that were raised are vitally important for the future of education. The popular consensus among teachers and educationalists is that the purpose of education is either a platitude or a mystery but that, either way, it is not something that teachers should worry about too much. I believe that this assumption is profoundly damaging to our attempts to improve education—but that it is based on a consensus so deeply engrained that addressing the problem is no simple matter. As is the way with all conferences, people have their say, drink their coffee, head for the door, and leave a pile of unsorted opinions and unresolved disagreements all over the carpet. Sorting through this detritus will take some time but, as I have been criticised for writing at excessive length in the past, I will split my reflections into about ten reasonably manageable instalments, aiming to publish two or three a week. This is the first.
Why progress on edtech is dependent on a better understanding of educational purpose
If my last post was a light-hearted love story, this one is more of an attempt to write a Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. But I hope that the reader will be compensated by finding the argument to be original. I make the case that the recommendations of the recent Commission on Assessment without Levels are fundamentally mistaken.
It is a response I submitted to the current House of Commons Select Committee’s enquiry into the purpose of education. When announced, this enquiry was dismissed by Andrew Old as a waste of time: the purpose of education, said Andrew, was simply to make people cleverer. While I know where Andrew is coming from (who needs another waffle-fest with a lot of high-faluting rhetoric?) and agree with Andrew most of the time, I disagree with him that this is a pointless enquiry, if the question is understood in the way that I will suggest.
As my previous posts have argued (especially How technology will revolutionize education), technology is not about generic kit, but about the systematic means by which we pursue our ends. If no-one can be sure what our ends (or purposes) are, then any technological approach to education is doomed to fail. If we are not taking a technological approach to the business of teaching itself, then what hope is there in applying digital technology to education productively? Judging by the success we have had so far, the answer has to be “not a lot”.
My contention in this piece is therefore that the development of systematic pedagogy will never be achieved until (a) we know how to describe our educational objectives more clearly and consistently, and (b) until we understand the role of digital technology, both in supporting the description of educational objectives and in implementing the pedagogies required to attain those objectives.
This article first appeared in Terry Freedman’s Digital Education (formerly Computers in Classrooms). In it I analyse the Secretary of State’s excellent speech on edtech at BETT 2016, comparing the views she expressed with those of the ETAG report, and analysing what this might mean for the relationship between government Ministers and edtech. And I observe, along the way, that the course of true love never did run smooth.
Why the introduction of a computerised maths test may mark a new beginning for edtech in the UK
At the end of my review of the ETAG report in May, I confidently predicted a new government edtech initiative:
“So favourable are the circumstances to the launch of such a significant new initiative that if it does not happen I will join a well-known member of the Liberal Democrat Party in eating my hat”.
Well, no such initiative has been forthcoming and, while Lord Ashdown reneged immediately on his hat-eating promise, I have not been intending to cop out so easily. During my Christmas shopping, I could not help eyeing up the hat department for something that might prove reasonably digestible.
But the new year has brought news that offers at least a glimmer of hope that such a drastic step might be avoided. The government is introducing a computer-delivered test of multiplication tables as part of the KS2 SATS tests.
How significant is this initiative? Is it an irrelevance or a false dawn? Or could it be the first, faint pulse of a new government policy on education technology?
As a Head Teacher, Dame Sally Coates turned Burlington Danes from one of the worst schools in London to one of the best. Now, as Director of United Learning’s Southern Academies, she is becoming an influential figure in the education debate. She recently urged that “every child aged 4-14 should be taught the same topics from a prescriptive national curriculum at the same time”. I do not entirely agree with Dame Sally on this, as I made clear in my article Setting the Curriculum, but I think the basic argument that curriculum development should be centralised is right and comes as a welcome antidote to the poorly thought-through current fashion for curriculum autonomy. This has been given its most recent airing by the very poorly argued Assessment Without Levels report. I shall be reviewing this report and drilling down in some detail into the issue of the curriculum in my next posts, discussing what we mean by the term “curriculum”, what its purpose should be, what we mean when we say that it it should be coherent, and what its relationship should be to assessment and teaching.
In the meantime, Dame Sally has been asked by Michael Gove for advice on how to improve education in prison.
As my partner is responsible for monitoring education on the Independent Monitoring Board of one of our local prisons, I am aware of many of the endemic problems of prison education. We responded together to the online questionnaire (now closed), which included a number of questions that specifically focused on the potential of education technology. As this is a complex subject, as laden with false promise as with genuine potential, I supplemented our answers to the questionnaire with a short paper on edtech, which I publish here.
Having also recently spoken at a conference on military e-learning, what I particularly want to emphasise is that there are certain common prerequisites that need to be put in place if edtech is to be effective in any of the many different sectors to which it has such a significant contribution to make. What we need is a cross-sector effort that pools the expertise and requirements of education in schools, in FE, in HE, in prisons, in the military, and in corporate training and private tuition. The generic requirements are the same and, at a generic level, so are the solutions.
Those of us who complain that edtech gets too little attention in the national press should perhaps have been beware of what we wished for. Two recent studies to have hit the headlines both say that the general impact of technology on learning is negative.
Advocates of technology enhanced learning have tended to brush this research aside. Various online commentators have said that the reports were “flawed”, “confused” and “tosh”, and those who reported them were guilty of “lazy and irrelevant journalism”.
The two reports are:
Communication: Technology, Distraction & Student Performance
- written by Louis Philippe Beland and Richard Murphy
- published by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics
- in May 2015
- which I will referred to as “the LSE report”.
Students, Computers and Learning—Making the Connection
- published by the OECD under the direction of Andreas Schleicher
- in September 2015
- which I will refer to as “the OECD report”.
In this post I will:
- review what the reports say and why they said it,
- assess the arguments put forward for dismissing them,
- and suggest some conclusions to take away.
At over 14,000 words, I cannot pretend that this is anything other than a long article—but the length is unavoidable given the nature of the topic. What is more, I believe that the reaction of the edtech community to these reports is sufficiently important to justify the effort of writing it. I thank you in advance for making the effort to read it and hope that by the time you finish, you will also think that it was worthwhile.
Dame Sally Coates, Director of Academies South for United Learning, has claimed that all schools should follow the same curriculum, as created by a group of nationally-appointed experts.
Pedro De Bruyckere thinks that this is an April fool of an idea, that would kill the professionalism of teachers. On the whole, I am with Dame Sally.