The final task at the end of the fourth and last week of Exeter University’s FutureLearn course – Testing Times in the Classroom. Challenges of 21st Century Education was to re-imagine compulsory schooling. This seems like an enormous task to tag on to the end of the final week of a four week course, which is probably why, as far as I can see, only one person has made any attempt to complete it. Exeter University have tried to minimise this task by giving some advice:
We would encourage you to undertake this re-imagining exercise in any way that might make sense for you. It is entirely up to you how you choose to respond. For example, you might just want to add some notes to the discussion below on your re-imagined school system, or you might want to compose a short poem which captures some of your main thoughts. It might also be helpful for you to do this by creating a visual image.
As an example they provide a link to this blog post – The problem with that equity vs. equality graphic you’re using. I doubt that the complexity of re-imagining compulsory schooling can be reduced to one image, although it might be possible to represent aspects of it in this way and it probably could be represented by a map, particularly if using Matthias’ Melcher’s Thought Condensr Tool. (See the examples on this page – http://condensr.de/samples/)
At this stage I am at a loss as to how to complete this task. The FutureLearn site has told me that I have 11 days of access left to the site. After that I have to pay if I want continued access, which I don’t intend to do. But it will take me more than 11 days to think about this task in any depth. A whole book could be written on the topic, or a PhD or at a minimum a Masters thesis. Nevertheless I have decided to collect resources which might inform how I could respond to the task.
UNESCO has launched an initiative called ‘Futures of Education’, “a global initiative to reimagine how knowledge and learning can shape the future of humanity and the planet.” …. The initiative is framed around the idea of ‘learning to become’, that is, “a philosophy of education and an approach to pedagogy that views learning as a process of continual unfolding that is ongoing and life-long. To think in terms of “becoming” is to invoke a line of thought that emphasizes potentials, rejects determinism and expresses a flexible openness to the new.”
This approach suggests a real possibility of re-imagining education as something other than the essentialist approach to education currently taken by the UK government.
But what does ‘learning to become’ mean? Many educationalists have written about this. Ronald Barnett, with reference to students in Higher Education, devotes a whole chapter to the idea of ‘Becoming’ in his book ‘A Will to Learn. Being a student in an age of uncertainty’, referencing Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Deleuze, Nietzsche, Sartre and others, showing us that this is an age-old discussion. In concluding this chapter, Barnett writes:
In a genuine higher education, the student not merely undergoes a developmental process, but undergoes a continuing process of becoming. This becoming is marked by the student’s becoming authentic and coming into herself, which are two depictions of the same phenomenon. In this coming into herself, the student finds for herself a clearing that is hers. The staking out of the clearing brings with it freedoms, but also responsibilities; for the student can now be called to account on her own account, not that of others……. She discovers her own voice, is able to articulate it and deploy it to effect. She brings to bear not just her own intentionalities, but her own will…… However, this is a becoming that is never finished. The challenges keep coming; the student is called by her programme of study to displace herself into yet another place. Here, we see an ontology in-the-making, but it is continually in-the-making.
Barnett writes in the context of higher education, but his understanding of the meaning of becoming could equally be applied at all educational stages. This would require, as a starting point, a philosophical approach to re-imagining education as opposed to a political, economic, determinist, social equality approach. Perhaps this is what the UNESCO initiative hopes to do. Time will tell.
The last two weeks of Exeter University’s FutureLearn open course: Testing Times in the Classroom: Challenges of 21st Century Education were devoted to key changes that have taken place in the field of education over the last 20 or so years. These changes were discussed mostly in the context of the UK and Europe, but participants were encouraged to add their knowledge and perspectives from their own cultures and countries.
The 20th century in the UK saw the creation of universal education, through the growth of state funded education and the raising of the school leaving age from 12 to 16. Following the Education Act in 1944 state-funded secondary education was organised into three type of schools; grammar, technical and secondary modern. Allocation to these schools depended on children’s performance in the 11+ exam. Between 1944 and 1965 this tripartite system came to be increasingly criticised for being divisive and leading to educational inequalities. In response to these concerns in 1965 the Labour Government introduced comprehensive schools for secondary aged children, with the aim of providing an entitlement curriculum for all, without selection through financial considerations or attainment. I was at University at this time and remember having long discussions with people of my parents’ generation who were appalled that good grammar schools were being replaced by comprehensive schools. I myself, in my youth, was ‘fired up’ by the thought that comprehensive schools would ensure that any and every child would have an equal opportunity for a good education. Ultimately comprehensive schools were also discredited with comparisons being made between comprehensive and independent schools.
In the FutureLearn course this was illustrated through two YouTube videos – one of Radley College – an independent boys school, and the other of Faraday High School, a state comprehensive.
Faraday High School
Personally, I did not think this was a fair comparison to make. My first teaching experience was in an inner city comprehensive and it was nothing like Faraday High School. Faraday High School would be a ‘bad’ school in any circumstances. Evidence from the video suggests that it had incompetent teachers and poor leadership. Nevertheless comprehensives like Faraday High School did exist such that the system failed and led to increasing concern with educational inequalities related to social class and ethnicity, which still exists today, together with additional equality and diversity concerns, such as gender and disability.
Over the past 20 to 30 years, much educational reform in the UK has focussed on a response to these equality and diversity concerns, raising research questions such as:
Do schools favour girls?
Do schools make the rich richer?
Does social class still matter?
Is the school system failing black children?
Whilst there are many research articles that deal with these questions separately, there is now increasing recognition of the importance of intersectionality, i.e. that the wide range of different inequalities intersect. For example, a student’s educational experience will not be affected by gender alone, but also by social class, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and so on.
Another question that was asked in these last two weeks of the course was:
Is the purpose of school reform to improve international economic competitiveness?
Surprisingly, to me, when course participants were asked this question 54% answered ‘Yes’. I myself had no hesitation in answering ‘No’. For me the first concern of education should always be the learners/students. We should ask ‘how can the system support each individual in realising his/her full potential?’ If this could be achieved then perhaps international economic competitiveness would follow or, better still, lead to educated thinking adults who would question whether international economic competitiveness should be the purpose of education. Some in the course considered my view unrealistic and utopian, since they argued that education is simply a means to an end.
So it seems that my view is not the majority view and certainly the UK’s approach to educational reform in recent years has been based on a belief in the importance of education for international economic competitiveness. Thus some recent key reforms, which are easy to recognise, have focussed on:
Accountability and performance management. This has led to increased testing and school inspections, performance based pay and funding, and increasing focus on management. This system rewards success and punishes failure.
Competition and markets – league tables, choice for parents, and the marginalisation of collaboration and collective effort. This approach to reform can already be seen to be leading to hierarchies and differences between socially advantaged and disadvantaged students. For example, some middle class parents are prepared to move house to ensure that they are in the catchment area for schools high in the league tables.
Increased control over schools and universities – inspections, audits, reviews and evaluations to measure educational performance, all supported by increased capacity to collect and store data. This necessarily neglects aspects of education that cannot be measured.
worked perfectly to describe a phenomenon that Sahlberg identified as both spreading and destructive, behaving “like an epidemic that spreads and infects education systems through a virus” (Sahlberg, 2012, no page).
Sahlberg has identified the principal features of the GERM as increased standardisation, a narrowing of the curriculum to focus on core subjects/knowledge, the growth of high stakes accountability and the use of corporate management practices as the key features of the new orthodoxy.
In the UK, 30 years of these reforms has led to layer upon layer of change and a degree of complexity that could conceivably take at least another 30 years to unravel, even assuming that the ‘powers that be’ think this necessary. We now have a UK education system which has shifted to decentralisation with over 70 different types of schools, whilst at the same time increasing centralisation through the introduction of the national curriculum and increased testing. Derek Gillard (2018) in the conclusion to his report writes:
This history has focused on the long struggle to create for England’s children an education system which values them all. It has, in many ways, been a sad story.
But he ends on a more optimistic note, writing:
Meanwhile, across the country, tens of thousands of teachers still care deeply about the well-being and prospects of their pupils, and go to work every morning determined, despite the often unhelpful interventions of politicians, to provide them with the best and most humane education they can.
Hall D. Grimaldi E, Gunter, H, Moller, J, Serpieri, R and Skedsmo G. (2016) Educational Reform and Modernisation in Europe: The Role of National Contexts in Mediating the New Public Management. European Educational Research Journal. 14(16):487-507. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1474904115615357
If there is one thing that has come out of this second week in Exeter University’s FutureLearn MOOC –Testing Times in the Classroom: Challenges of 21st Century Education – it is that it is not easy to determine the purpose of education. Everyone has a view on this and these views appear to be culturally, contextually and experientially dependent. It has been interesting to read the perspectives of participants from different parts of the world.
Views on the purpose of education can also be time dependent. Just a quick look at what some notable philosophers, activists, artists, writers and scientists from the past and present have said confirms this, although some succeeded in making timeless statements which are as valid today as when they were said. For example, Albert Einstein’s (1879-1955) comment that ‘Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think’, resonated with a lot of participants.
Then we have the question of what the word ‘Education’ means and how is it different from ‘Schooling’. It’s interesting to try and clarify the similarities and differences between education and schooling.
Schools can come in for a bit of stick. For example in this video – I Sued the School System
Personally I think it’s too easy to lay the blame of a failing education system at the door of schools and teachers, whose hands are often tied by government policies. According to another video we have been shown this week, the problem is that we ‘simply have the wrong curriculum’.
I don’t think this video’s got it completely right either, although I’m not sure what completely right would be. Perhaps that’s what’s wrong with the video – the suggestion that they have the answer. I don’t think it’s as simple as finding one solution. But this led to an interesting discussion around some of the major philosophies of education, which were listed as:
To support this discussion we were led to a quiz on an external site which aimed to identify which philosophies we lean towards. I don’t know how reliable the quiz scores are, but I was surprised that social reconstructivism came out on top in my quiz score, whereas I would have expected it to be existentialism. What is abundantly clear is that here in the UK the national curriculum is an example of essentialism, so perhaps the problem is that we ‘simply have the wrong curriculum’, but I don’t believe there’s anything simple about it.
The question that we haven’t yet discussed is if so many of us recognise what is wrong with our education systems, why are they so difficult to change? What do we need for a paradigm shift?
The first task for Week 2 of Exeter University’s Future Learn course: Testing Times in the Classroom: Challenges of 21st Century Education is to reflect on our own personal educational experiences and to consider the impact of these experiences on our understanding of education. We have been asked to consider our earliest memories and what was effective, what wasn’t, and what could be changed.
I have a terrible memory and an especially poor early memory. I put this down to the trauma of having to leave India, where I was born, at the age of eight and return to a boarding school in the UK. I remember very little of my education or even life before the age of 11, when I was taken out of the boarding school and returned to live at home with my parents. Others in the course have mentioned how trauma can negatively impact on education.
But I do have memories of my schooling from after the age of eleven, and like others in the course I can remember specific teachers whose teaching had a life-long effect, notably my secondary school literature, geography and biology teachers. But if I reflect on my educational experiences there was one event that established my career trajectory, and three people who have been hugely influential in determining my educational philosophy.
I went to University in the 60s, where, in the first year I studied zoology, chemistry and physiology. I don’t know how common my undergraduate experience was, but mine was not good. Most notably, not a single lecturer knew my name, or me, for my entire three years. With one exception, the event which shaped my life and career, my university education consisted of sitting in large lecture theatres, staring at the back of the lecturer who was writing on a blackboard and frantically trying to copy down everything he wrote ( I don’t remember having any female lecturers) – or – of sitting in solitary silence in the library writing essays. The exception was that in my first year the physiology lecturer ran group seminars in which we were required to research, prepare and give a presentation on a chosen topic to the rest of the group. My chosen topic was ‘pain’. This was a significant event for me because it was when I realised not only that I could teach, but also that I loved it. The rest, as they say, is history.
At the time when I started my teaching career, behaviourism (think Skinner) and teaching machines were the thing. I got a high mark for a project in my teaching diploma year (following graduation) for writing a mini textbook on ecology in the form of a teaching machine, i.e. programmed learning with in-built feedback. It was a while before I began to be influenced by constructivism and social constructivism and theorists such as Dewey, Bruner, Piaget and Vygotsky. Whilst these theorists of course influenced my thinking and practice, they didn’t have such a huge effect on my thinking, my practice and educational philosophy as the following three people, all of whom I have met and in some capacity have worked with or alongside. I will try and explain why they had the impact they did.
Etienne Wenger. I am an introvert and my natural tendency would be to work alone. Etienne’s work introduced me to social learning theory, the power of communities of practice and working collaboratively with others. He has also written extensively on learning and identity. It was Etienne who really brought home to me how learning is about learning who I am.
Stephen Downes. Being an introvert, I am not a natural networker. Early in my career I was told I needed to improve my networking skills. Stephen’s work on the theory of connectivism was hugely influential in helping me to see that everything is connected, and that knowledge is in the network; learning is the ability to make connections and traverse the network.
Connectivism depends on certain principles which now form the basis of my philosophical and pedagogical approach to education.
I have also been influenced by Stephen’s thinking that – To teach is to model and demonstrate. To learn is to practise and reflect.
Iain McGilchrist. Iain has been the most recent influence on my thinking about education. By listening to Iain and following his work I have reconsidered educational issues such as depth and breadth, ways of knowing, embodied learning and truth. Perhaps one of his most significant ideas for education is that everything is in flow, always changing and that therefore we have to be able to live with uncertainty and ambiguity. Another is that knowledge comes through a relationship. Iain discusses this in terms of ‘betweenness’. To understand this we need to think about “a world of ‘togetherness’ and intersubjectivity, rather than one of competition and bias; a world where we transcend the apparent duality of subjective and objective, of realism and idealism (p.144, The Master and his Emissary). This is a world which focusses on the relations between things, reciprocity and empathy.” This approach to education would promote ‘both/and’ thinking.
Iain’s work has made me realise how important it is to learn how to think, and I have wondered why philosophy is not a stand-alone subject in the national curriculum for all ages.
I haven’t explicitly written about what was effective, what wasn’t and what could be changed. I am hoping that this is self-explanatory in this post. This was a useful and enjoyable task to complete.
The course, which will run for 4 weeks and is open and free on the FutureLearn platform, is being offered by Exeter University, UK. I have enjoyed the first week, which is helping me revisit some of the long-term issues that have bedevilled education, and to consider the issues that prominent educators and educational organisations are currently discussing.
The title of the course ‘Testing Times in the Classroom’ refers, of course, both to the over-reliance on ‘testing’ in current education systems, but also to the challenges current education systems face. In this first introductory week questions that have been asked are:
Why does education need to change?
Is it really the case that education needs a complete overhaul?
What are the key issues facing education today?
What should we do with what we know? What next?
What key recommendations would we make to policy makers?
What ‘what if?’ questions should we ask?
There are about 20 people on the course, although now that it is the weekend more people are joining in and beginning to post comments, and who’s to say how many are observing. Only about half a dozen participants are visibly very active, so it’s difficult to draw any conclusions from Week 1, but I think it would be fair to say that the majority of this small number of participants share similar concerns about the future of education. In a nutshell these seem to cover issues such as:
Change in education systems has not kept up with the pace of change in the world at large. Education has been slow to adapt.
Education needs to be re-imagined. There are many changes we can make to the existing system, but we need a paradigm shift. We need a learning approach for our times.
The current state of education is, for the most part, viewed negatively and equated with an over-emphasis on testing, concerns about children/students’ health and well-being, concerns about the dominance of technology, insufficient funding, too much government bureaucracy and the lack of creativity and innovation in the curriculum.
The only positive advancements mentioned were open education, online education and the potential of AI to support certain aspects of education (this last point needs further discussion).
Near the end of this week’s activities we were asked to ‘Think of some (three) “What if …?” questions that could open up the possibilities for education to be radically different in the future.’ I found it surprisingly difficult to think of three questions that might lead to a paradigm shift. I ended up making the following post, but didn’t feel very satisfied with my response.
1. What if children designed their own curriculum? This is not so far-fetched as it might sound. The HighScope programme from way back in the 1970s required early years children to plan their own school day.
2. What if children/students self-assessed against given criteria? What might be the benefits and drawbacks of doing this?
3. What if success in learning was a measure of how a student/child thinks rather than what s/he knows?
Throughout this week I have felt that somehow the discussion has not got to the nitty gritty of the problem. Earlier this year I wrote a post ‘Tinkering with the system won’t help reinvent the purpose of education’ My thinking hasn’t changed. To get beyond superficial (by superficial I mean ‘on the surface’) changes to the existing system, we will have to rethink education at a deeper level.
For example, it struck me this week that there were quite a few comments about preparing children/students for the world of work. Is this the purpose of education? Next week the course will focus on the purpose of education. Hopefully this will shed some light on what a paradigm shift in education might require.
I wasn’t looking for this course, but Rome is a city that I have recently thought I would like to visit and then FutureLearn’s newsletter listing this course landed in my inbox. I signed up, thinking this would be an opportunity to find out whether I really do want to visit Rome. I have completed Week 1 of the course and now know that I do.
It’s been a while since I have felt excited by a MOOC. I am surprised by my response. I am not a historian and have never had more than a passing interest in history. At school I had to choose between history and geography for my ‘O’ levels (that dates me!) and I chose geography. In my school days history was memorising dates and facts and I have always had a terrible memory! Of course geography and history are closely aligned so over the years when I have visited sites such as Machu Picchu, whilst the geography is spectacular, it has been impossible to ignore the history, but I have never tried to commit this to memory. Whatever sticks, sticks and I have learned that whatever sticks usually sticks because of some sort of emotional reaction.
Dr Matthew Nicholls, from the University of Reading, who is the tutor for this 5-week MOOC, is succeeding in eliciting an emotional response from me, i.e. I feel motivated. After the first week I already know that I will probably not engage in social interaction in this course. At the moment I do not want to do a history project or take this further. I just want to know enough to know what I am looking at when I visit Rome.
Why, after just one week, do I think the course is so good?
Matthew Nicholls is clearly very knowledgeable, passionate about his subject and an excellent communicator. He makes the subject come alive and is not at all patronising despite obvious considerable expertise, not only with Ancient Rome but also with technology.
The course content is colourful and lively. The text is easily accessible and there are lots of references provided to follow up on for those who want to extend their study. There are also lots of photos and the videos are very good. We see Dr Nicholls in Rome, and also in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. I never realised before that so much historical information about buildings, aqueducts, roads, sewers and people could be gleaned from coins.
But best and so impressive has to be the 3D digital model of ancient Rome built by Matthew Nicholls using SketchUp. This is used extensively to explain how Rome was built and the significance of different buildings and roads. To see how amazing this model is you would have to join this free course, or there is also a very interesting video on YouTube by Matthew Nicholls in which he explains how he built the model and how he uses it with his students at Reading University.
A friend recently told me that he didn’t think it was possible to have an emotional response to an online course in the same way as you can in a face-to-face course and implied that this diminishes the online experience. I have had lots of social experiences online over the years which have elicited an emotional response. I am intrigued that this course is able to do this through its content alone, without the need for social interaction, although there are plenty of opportunities for adding comments to the discussion forums and making social connections if you wish. Maybe I will change my mind about participating in the discussion forums as I work through the course. I think Phil Tubman’s Comment Discovery Tool, that I wrote about in a previous post, would make a great addition to this course.
MOOCs: Back to the Future. This was the title of a lunchtime seminar I attended last week in the Educational Research Department of Lancaster University, UK.
In this seminar Phil Tubman (PhD student with Educational Research and School of Computing and Communications, and also Senior Learning Technologist in the ISS eLearning team at Lancaster), shared the progress he has been making on his PhD into whether MOOCs are living up to their promises. The title of his talk was chosen to suggest that with respect to MOOCs we currently have our backs to the future. As such we need to turn round and look for ways forward.
Given that he works for Lancaster University Phil is well placed to explore social learning in FutureLearn MOOCs. Lancaster University is a FutureLearn Partner. Phil is interested in the problems of sustaining discussion in online forums and the role of the FutureLearn platform in this; FutureLearn claims to be a social learning platform.
Phil and his colleagues have looked at discussion threads in forums and found that they don’t include many members and that conversations often do not extend beyond a first reply. These findings are supported by other researchers. Phil and his colleagues have therefore designed an intervention which they hope will increase and improve interaction and social learning in these forums. This is an interactive word cloud which they have called a Comment Discovery Tool (CDT). This tool displays the top 200 words from a forum thread as a word cloud. MOOC participants can then click on a given word to display all the comments which include that word. The example shown in the seminar was from FutureLearn’s MOOC on Wordsworth. Phil clicked on the word ‘daffodils’ in the word cloud which took us to all the relevant forum posts. Having done this, it would then be possible for the MOOC participant to follow the discussion from there without having to wade through potentially hundreds of forum comments and threads. Phil is continuing to develop this tool for his PhD and is interested in whether and how the comment discovery tool will affect interaction in the FutureLearn forums.