April 17th, 2013 § § permalink
Sean Connery, in his thoughtful memoir Being A Scot, tells the story of finding himself on a plane seated next to a compatriot, a young woman. Talking to her, he found that she was a literature student at the University of Edinburgh, and that she was currently studying Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
“Do you see any parallels between Roskolnikov, in the Dostoevsky novel, and the character of Robert Wingham, in James Hogg’s Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner?” he asked her.
“Oh, I haven’t read that,” said she, “I’m in the English Literature Department, not the Scottish.” Connery was bemused, but presumably did not bother to ask why, given her odd perspective, she was studying a novel originally written in Russian.
Connery had left school at 13 with little to show for his eight years in Scottish education other than an ability to read. But early in his acting career, a fellow-thespian had suggested a list of books that the young Connery ought to read, and he had subsequently embarked on his own education in fine literature. His young travelling companion, on the other hand, had successfully completed seven years of primary schooling, five or six years of secondary schooling, and by the time Connery met her at least a year or two at university. So what was the difference between the famous actor with his paucity of formal schooling and the literature student with a decade and a half of institutional education behind her?
In the literature student, I believe that we can see something of the schooled mind at work, in this case someone for whom the books she read were prescribed by others and for whom reading was largely a means to an end. In Connery, a lover of literature, we can see the independent mind of someone who has taken control of his own learning, someone for whom reading was a pleasure in itself, and nothing to do with passing examinations or gaining qualifications.
It is interesting to ponder the differences between the truly autonomous learner and the schooled mind, to explore the nature of learning in an age where, although the opportunities for self-directed learning are expanding immensely as the tendrils of the Internet extend into every facet of our lives, the enduring institutions of the school and the college and the university (all of which I am happy to refer to collectively and conceptually as ‘the school’) remain stubbornly tenacious. This durable social construct, one that has been shaped and adapted continuously throughout history to suit the needs of time and place and wealth and power, has allowed the myriad social, political and religious entities that have sustained it, and that continue to sustain it, to retain an often insidious and reductive grip on the minds of those who pass through their hands. And, despite that constant refrain of ‘the school is dead’ that we have heard in different times and in different places, the school is arguably stronger in some ways today than it has ever been.
Of course, the tale of Sean Connery and the young literature student raises more questions than answers: the gulf between the autonomous learner and the schooled mind is rarely identifiable as a simple dichotomy between the free spirit and the captive will. The reality for most of us is that we find ourselves, throughout our lives, shifting back and forth along a continuum somewhere between the two extremes, although we night hope that, as we grow older, we become more aware of the dangers of the schooled mind, and therefore develop a greater capacity to break free of the constraints placed on us by the school in our early years. Connery’s self-taught love of literature was perhaps not entirely free of instrumental intentions: as an actor, he recognized that an appreciation of literature would be useful to him in his career, but it was his own recognition, not one suggested by others or imposed from without. Equally, the young woman, we hope, would have taken up her course in English Literature because of a love of reading. But between those two routes into books, and most certainly in the student’s response to Connery’s question, there lies a discernible difference between the approach that each had previously taken to their mutual love of literature. Connery, consciously or otherwise, had discovered that there is a higher and deeper and wider significance to learning than can be gleaned from submitting to the strictures of the classroom. The young woman had allowed herself to be persuaded that, like the overwhelming majority of ‘educated’ people, she had little choice but to accept those strictures as seemingly the only available path to an education in the discipline that she enjoyed.
The road taken by Connery was one that led not only to a knowledge of fine literature but also, I would contend, to a greater chance for attaining a degree of self-knowledge that, if not actually denied by school, has rarely if ever been an explicit aim of schooling. The school, historically, has not actively encouraged independence of thought, nor has it cultivated the truly spontaneous or creative mind. We develop such traits despite school not because of it. School is fundamentally about training the mind, developing the intellect (as opposed to intelligence), passing on the knowledge deemed important by a society to those whose role it will be to perpetuate and preserve that society at all levels. As such, the school continues what already is and what has been; its function, whatever the rhetoric, is essentially backwards looking, seeking to maintain the structures and relationships from the past and present on into the future with minimal change.
But given the ubiquity of the school, we cannot simply equate the schooled mind with attendance at school. To do so would be ludicrous. If the schooled mind were to be identified merely by dint of someone having attended school there would no chance of escape from the condition for most of us. But schooling does imbue the student, the scholar, with certain characteristics that the learner has to find the means to overcome either while at school, or more likely once schooling is complete.
I will come back to what that schooled mind is all about, why we must not be content with the intellectual framework that school bestows on us, and how critical it is that we are able to overcome at least the most deleterious and pernicious aspects of the school’s legacy on our own development as rational, free-thinking human beings.
March 7th, 2013 § § permalink
Evgeny Morozov dismantles the lazy thinking and the fundamentally anti-progressive notions outlined in Gavin Newsom’s recent book: Citizenville:How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government [bad book, so no link!]. California’s lieutenant governor is taken apart in an article in Bookforum.
[It is his] lack of any basic curiosity about the technological solutions that he advocates—and especially about their unintended consequences—that makes Newsom’s account so suspect. Public institutions such as the BBC might be terribly inefficient and scandal prone, but they still do a better—and more systematic—job at rooting out corruption than Newsom’s citizen-hackers armed with databases and sophisticated visualization tools.
I don’t agree with everything Morozov writes (his Net Delusion described some critical blind spots in our understanding of the Net today — delusion was too strong a word, but I suppose it helped to sell the book) but this piece gets it spot on with respect to Newsom’s Ayn Rand-induced, hacker-worshipping, anti-democratic nonsense.
Most of all, Morozov exposes the fundamentally conservative and regressive philosophy that so many thoughtless, slow-minded and mantra-spouting lovers of technology-for-its-own-sake mistake for creativity, ‘thinking different’ and enlightenment.
December 20th, 2012 § § permalink
Right now, all of the places we can assemble on the web in any kind of numbers are privately owned. And privately-owned public spaces aren’t real public spaces. They don’t allow for the play and the chaos and the creativity and brilliance that only arise in spaces that don’t exist purely to generate profit. And they’re susceptible to being gradually gaslighted by the companies that own them.
Anil Dash, on just one important issue amongst a number, in a great piece on Rebuilding the Web we Lost.
Affirming ‘the play and the chaos and the creativity and brilliance’ of truly public spaces, namely spaces not intended purely for profit, is critical to an open social web, and precisely what the Facebooks of the world can never engender.
Thanks to Stephen Downes for the link.
October 27th, 2012 § § permalink
Typography from Ronnie Bruce on Vimeo.
“.…you’ve got to speak with it too.”
Taylor Mali, poet.
Wonderful, and of course true!
September 27th, 2012 § § permalink
In a piece in the Independent, in 2011, Gordon Brown wrote:
.…the international aid system for education is failing the world’s children.
He was introducing his UNESCO report — Education For All: Beating Poverty, Unlocking Prosperity.
On a number of occasions over the past 6 years I have been able to watch the work of UNESCO at close hand and in the process gained considerable respect for the organization. In keeping with that, I do believe that this report is a superb, detailed and compassionate summary of the state of education for millions upon millions of children across the developing world. It offers a description of a state of affairs that should bring shame to the rest of the world — we are failing all those children very badly.
Early in the report, he states that:
No education system anywhere in the world is better than its teachers.
And he goes on later to say:
Teachers are the backbone of any education system. Ultimately, learning is the product of what happens in classrooms through a relationship between pupils and teachers. That is why no education system is better than the availability, accessibility and quality of the teachers it provides, and the level of support that it delivers to those on the front line of education in the classroom.
With I Am Learner in mind, this begs many more questions than it answers, but it would be churlish in the extreme not to accept the core point being made, that good quality teaching should be central to a good educational provision, and most especially for the education of young children.
It is a dismal and unassailable fact that there is a massive shortage of good quality teachers across the developing world, especially, but by no means exclusively, across the countries in sub-Saharan Africa. According to Gordon Brown’s report, the world’s poorest countries need something like 1.8 million additional teachers over the next three years alone to provide even basic primary education to their children, as well as around 4 million more classrooms and all of the most basic items of equipment that we might expect to find in those classrooms.
Brown is absolutely right therefore to state that:
The world is today facing an education emergency. That emergency does not make media headlines. But it has disastrous human, social and economic consequences. It is consigning millions of children to lives of poverty and diminished opportunity, holding back progress in health, reinforcing disparities linked to wealth and gender, and undermining prospects for economic growth. And it is destroying on an epic scale the most valuable asset of the world’s poorest nations – the creativity, talent and potential of the young generation.
An education emergency indeed, and one on a vast and massively consequential scale for humanity worldwide. It requires equally vast and prolonged global investment to put right.
Elsewhere in the report, Gordon Brown enthuses over the potential for harnessing technology to improve educational provision. However, he believes that:
New technologies do not offer a quick fix for systemic problems in education systems. What they do offer is a vehicle for improving access to opportunities for education and the quality of service provision.
The last thing this global emergency needs is any kind of quick fix. But I do believe that there is a potentially powerful application of digital and networking technologies that could play a significant role, alongside all the other big investments needed, in contributing to a much better quality education for many millions of the poorest children in the poorest countries around the world.
From Massive Open Online Course to Massive Open Online Classroom (MOOCl)
Anyone with even the remotest interest in higher education of late will be aware of the MOOC. The basic concept of the Massive Open Online Course (a term devised by Dave Cormier) is a simple one, but the implications of the MOOC for the future of higher education in particular are the stuff of a debate that is washing around global education at the present time.
I will trust that anyone reading this already knows what a MOOC is, although I will not necessarily trust that everyone knows that there are MOOCs and there are MOOCs. If your knowledge of the concept of the MOOC is restricted to those ‘delivered’ by the likes of Coursera or Udacity, then I would urge you to go back to grass roots and read some of what you might find, for instance, in MOOC.ca, set up by Stephen Downes to host news, information and discussion around the concept, in the writings of George Siemens, Dave Cormier, already mentioned, and others. Open, experimental and connectivist in nature, the MOOC is an explicit and conscious attempt to use the incredible affordances offered by the Internet to change the nature of education.
The massive-ness, openness and online-ness of the MOOC are all givens, of course, and are all critical to the effect that the development is having at the present time. But I, for one, am less sure that the course-ness of the concept has to be a given too. I would recognise that the fact that the MOOC is built around the course is probably what is keeping the concept fairly firmly within the broad arms of higher education, for the moment at least. As Martin Weller has written:
…after a decade of OERs, it’s interesting that we’re coming back to educator constructed courses…
Classroom instead of Course?
When I look at the situation faced by those millions of children worldwide, in a context of potential massive global connectedness, and yet in circumstances where so many of them have no access to good teaching, I can’t but help wonder how the MOOC might be taken, re-shaped, and made into something that could begin to ameliorate some of the worst effects of that generally awful situation.
I recognise, of course, that such a simply stated change is, in fact, anything but simple. The course is a generally uncomplicated thing, usually (although by no means necessarily) linear, structured, a comprehensible process in which ideas or concepts or information are introduced, discussed, dissected, re-shaped, combined, understood; it can be a single unit of ‘instruction’ or a whole programme of learning, or something in between; and it can be delivered or presented (taught) by a single teacher or in some senses by everyone on the course (as the original conception of the MOOC seeks to achieve).
The classroom, even the virtual, conceptual classroom, is a quite different beast. It is a ‘place’, a platform; it is the site where courses can happen, where teachers can offer lessons across all disciplines, where learners can go to access learning, debate, insight, expertise, authority; it is a meeting place in which education can happen; it is the locus for teaching and learning activities of all kinds.
I believe we have many, perhaps most, of the elements already that would have to be brought together to create the MOOCl. Instinctively, however, I feel that a MOOCl would not be nearly as simple as a MOOC to start up and sustain. It would require an operational core of a kind and scale that is probably not true of the MOOC, although that operational core, I would suggest, need not be a single organizing unit: it could be an open, distributed affair, sympathetic to the origins of the MOOC. It should offer access to masses of great teaching and learning resources — the Khan Academy is an obvious example of what could be utilised, but so too could the thousands of other high quality, freely available teaching and learning resources that increasingly throng the web, and across so many of the world’s major, and not so major, languages.
So far, so what? All of these resources are available today. But the MOOCl would have to incorporate some kind of organizing layer, a simple interface that would allow any individual anywhere in the world not only to access the resources as such, but also to access courses, communities, teachers (who can be, and probably will be, other learners), expertise and guidance. The MOOCl might also be a device for those teachers who already are on the ground, so to speak, in the poorest countries, to grab hold of and use as a means of enhancing their own teaching expertise. The MOOCl would be the teacher’s global mentor, guide, teaching assistant, just as much as it would be the learner’s teacher too.
Again, you might say, this sounds like a description of the World Wide Web. But the MOOCl would have to be more than simply ‘available’: it would have to be set up in a way that would allow it reach out in a proactive way, to find its way into those places in the world where we know there are young children who currently have few or no teachers to help them learn, where there are few or no teaching and learning resources. This will require much thought, huge organization, and of course investment. Is there a role here for the big philanthropic foundations as well as governments? I believe so.
But what of access to the network, access to connected devices? Of course, the MOOCl would have to be capable of being used across the world’s mobile networks and accessible on mobile devices — Gordon Brown’s report tells us that mobile cellular penetration has reached 50% in the developing world and is still increasing fast. The cell phone is the default access device for many millions of people in the world’s poorest countries, and that is likely to be the case for many years to come.
How much of this can be done in the same spirit as the original MOOC? I don’t know, I suspect not much, but I would love to be proved wrong. I know I am merely scratching the surface with an undeveloped and potentially stillborn idea — but if the acute minds of thoughtful and creative people can come up with the MOOC, I would like to think those same, and other, minds could be applied to how we can turn the Massive Open Online Course into the Massive Open Online Classroom to serve the desperate desperate needs of so many millions of children in dire economic and educational poverty across the world.
July 24th, 2012 § § permalink
Disputes and controversies and disagreements abound in every sphere of human knowledge and activity. That is the very nature of human discourse. The world would be a dreadful, boring place if we all agreed with each other all of the time on everything (some people, strangely, would define their heaven in just those terms). A little less disagreement here and there might avoid wars and bloodshed and pointless death and destruction, but that possibility does not appear to be a universal likelihood any time soon.
Disputation and debate differ in kind though from one sphere of activity to another. We can, for example, contrast the kinds of disputes that scientists might have with disputes between religious ‘scholars’: the former might arise out of differing interpretations of evidence whilst the latter are more likely to be debates characterized not only by a complete lack of evidence but often by a contempt for same.
My own principal sphere of activity, education, is an intense and constant battleground of crossed swords, conflict and contention, and it falls, I would attest, somewhere between those polarities of scientific and religious debate. The vigour of the manifold disputes in education is a function of its intrinsic nature as one of the humanities, as an activity arising out of the human condition.
As one of the humanities, there is simply no absolute right or absolute wrong in education. We make judgements and take positions based on our reasoning, of course, but also based on our values and principles, philosophies and ideologies, interests and self-interests, prejudices and, indeed, bigotries. There are, oddly, very many people — teachers, writers, philosophers, politicians, thinkers and non-thinkers alike — who will tell you, categorically, that their standpoint on any particular aspect of education is unequivocally right, and therefore that any differing take on the same issue is plainly wrong. Sometimes, these same people will point to ‘evidence’ that ‘proves’ their standpoint, all the while forgetting that undertaking research on education is a billion light years away from undertaking research on particle physics (for example). Educational research is in the same league as research in philosophy or sociology or anthropology: outcomes are heavily dependent upon the questions asked and the positions taken by the researchers. Evidence is useful, of course, but it will rarely if ever constitute ‘proof’ of anything in education — it gives us a starting point, if we are lucky, but never absolute validation.
Those who understand this distinction understand therefore that they can never claim any absolute validity for their views on education, since they recognise that their perspective on any or all education questions is inextricably bound up in the values they hold, in the political ideology to which they ascribe, in the psychology of their own learning experiences throughout their lives, in their (or their family’s, or their community’s) self-interest, whether conscious or unconscious, and in so many other imponderables in their lives.
Such people understand that they must argue and debate their standpoint constantly, and that they must be prepared to listen to other’s views, to learn from others and to change their own views through debate with others. Equally we are perfectly justified in seeking to explain and affirm our own philosophies in education, and even to seek to persuade others to see learning and teaching and pedagogy and all aspects of education as we happen to see them.
Don’t mistake my argument as one that endorses unalloyed relativism: we must always be willing to make critical judgements on the basis of our experience and, yes, on the basis of whatever evidence we can lay our hands on (going far beyond just the outcomes of academic research). But we use experience and intellectual argument and evidence to substantiate and support our own judgements, not to ‘prove’ that we are absolutely right and others are absolutely wrong. We must continue to judge, to evaluate, to distinguish between good and bad logic. Education, as a humanity, has to be based upon rigorous intellectual analysis and reasoning, as well as on moral and ethical considerations.
It is in that flux of ideas and conflicting opinions generated, maintained and developed by thoughtful, autonomous and rational minds that the beauty of coherent educational debate lies. We need not respect others’ views, but, mostly, we do need to tolerate them (I am with Frank Furedi when he decries the modern tendency to equate tolerance with acceptance and respect, and even the trend towards devaluing the meaning of respect itself). The caveat to such tolerance, of course, will be the extent to which we feel that others’ views on education are actually physically or emotionally harmful to children, to young people, or to learners generally.
And that is a whole other debate in itself.
July 15th, 2012 § § permalink
Taking breakfast with friends in San Jose, Costa Rica, sounds like a nice way to start the day. But unfortunately I will not be able to take up my invitation to the Commemorative Breakfast being held for the 25th anniversary of the Omar Dengo Foundation on Friday of this week, 20th July. It would be nice to meet up once again with friends such as Clothilde Fonseca and Eduardo Monge, as well as the current Executive Director of this great organization, Leda Munõz.
I first visited the Omar Dengo Foundation back in 2007 and was struck immediately by the determination of everyone in the organization to work for a better society through the potent combination of digital and networking technologies with a progressive philosophy of education. I have been back a number of times since and I always come way greatly impressed by their work.
I hope the breakfast goes well, and I know that the Foundation will go from strength to strength, and will surely still be working on behalf of learners and teachers in Central America and beyond 25 years from now!
July 13th, 2012 § § permalink
- The school as we know it is based on a limited understanding of human nature
- School cannot be reformed in isolation from reform of the wider society in which it exists
- School has failure built in
- The concept of mass schooling — one-size-fits-all-schooling — is no longer valid
- School, by its nature, is designed to build society from the top-down, and ignores the criticality of culture in enabling learning from the bottom up
- School isolates learning from life
- School is the primary instrument for social engineering in society today — and all such social engineering is doomed to failure
- Pedagogy in school today is limited by the structures that school imposes
- Disintermediation will happen (is happening?) to schools — but do not look to newspapers, the music industry or the travel industry as models of how this will play out
Just some thoughts.….
April 11th, 2008 § § permalink
“Anthony.…has many problems with writing. He is uncomfortable with words on a page. He wants to use graphics and other media to make his points. He is more comfortable with the fragment, with the poetic than he is with the whole sentence. He is prepared to communicate, but only on his own terms.”
Ron Burnett tells the story of Anthony, who he believes is “… building and creating a new language that combines many of the features of conventional languages but is more of a hybrid of many different modes of expression…”, a process that some regard as a disaster for our cultural integrity. Anthony “…uses SMS and a variety of social networking tools to communicate with friends and family. He uses a small video camera to record his everyday life and edits the output on a laptop and then uploads the material onto the Web. He is adept at video games, though they are not an obsession. Cell phones are expensive, but he finds the money…”
Ron, rightly, sees Anthony as “…a harbinger of the future. He will not take traditional composition classes to learn how to write. Instead, he will communicate with the tools that he finds comfortable to use and he will persist in making himself heard or read. But, reading will not only be text-based. Text on a page is as much design as it is media. The elliptical nature of the verbal will have to be accommodated within the traditions of writing, but writing and even grammar will have to change.
The problem for education (and especially formal education) is that too many simply will not be able to understand the point that Ron is making here — their capacity to comprehend the criticality of these evolving modes of expression is more or less non-existent. But these are the people who are still able to define literacy in a way that Anthony and the millions of other Anthonys no longer accept.
Technorati Tags: ron burnett, modes of expression, literacy, culture