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.
I have enjoyed reading the reaction in the UK media following Eddie Mair’s typically relaxed laceration of The Man Who Would Be King on Newsnight at the weekend. Mair, for me, as someone who listens to a lot of radio, has been one of the best radio journalist in the UK since I used to listen to him years ago on Good Morning Scotland on BBC Radio Scotland. Talk of him finally making a move onto television news is both welcome and sad, since he will be undoubtedly excellent on the screen (as Newsnight showed) but will be missed from radio if he comes to neglect that medium.
But amidst all the chatter about Mair’s performance and Johnston’s dismal showing, I couldn’t help notice one telling phrase used by Leo Benedictus in his Guardian appraisal of Mair on Monday 25th March.
Born and brought up in Dundee, state-educated, the son of a lorry driver and a nurse, he was as obvious a broadcasting prodigy as you could ever find.
It was ‘state-educated’ that caught my eye. Here in Scotland, we would simply call Mair ‘educated’. That Benedictus thinks it important to add the qualifier tells us so much about the condition of English education.
In the 1980s, German philosopher and provocateur, Peter Sloterdijk, proclaimed ‘the end of the belief in education’. Despite society’s declaration that Knowledge Is Power, young people, he said, live…
…with the risk of learning without prospects. Those who do not seek power will…not want its knowledge…and those who reject both are secretly no longer citizens of this civilisation.
How much more do Sloterdijk’s words resonate today than they did three decades ago? Today knowledge is power, still, of course, but we can also say that knowledge is currency, knowledge is economic lifeblood, knowledge is culture, and so much more.
Education for education’s sake is fine as a mantra, but in the real world, we need to be able to offer our young people hope. How many young, and not so young, people see little if any hope today? Too many!
Too many will therefore question the point of education in the formal sense. And who can blame them?
There is a conspicuous and abiding fallacy residing at the heart of formal education, namely that what is taught is what is learned, that what the teacher teaches is what the student learns. Education systems, schools, college and universities around the world today rest, as they have done for much of their existences, on an illusory foundation, and I believe that much of what is wrong with formal education today arises from this enduring and mistaken belief.
When we come to the full realisation of the actual relationship between teaching and learning, we begin to discern the sheer pointlessness of so much of what passes for educational policy and strategy in today’s world. We know that human beings learn through interaction with others, with ideas, with information, with the world at large, but that ultimately they create and shape their own learning. The intervention of the teacher in this process is important and valuable, but at no point in the interaction of teacher and student, other than by occasional happy accident, does the learner ‘learn’ what the teacher ‘teaches’.
An appreciation of this, the true nature of learning, means that the complex edifices of curricula, pedagogy, assessment, accreditation, teacher education and professional development, as well as the overbearing structures of institutional management and educational organization, start to crumble to dust before our eyes.
There are strategies that teachers and schools can employ to ensure that technology becomes purposeful and systematic. There can be little doubt that its potential is very great, as it provides the opportunity for effective teaching of skills, of finding and using information within a context of high student interest. This unique combination is too great a value to be wasted.
Celestine Kemunto Nyamari lives in Kenya, where she attends St. Theresa’s Girls’ Secondary School in Kithimu, a couple of hours drive North-East of Nairobi. Celestine took part in the first student-led Education Fast Forward debate (in November last year) as a guest debater and is set to join EFF6: From Learner Voice to Emerging Leaders on January 28, 2013.
The knowledge necessary to function successfully and follow a career was seen to already exist: it could be handed down from experts and leaders to learners and workers. In the Industrial Age, curriculum development was a matter of selecting the most important knowledge to transmit to students; experts decided what knowledge to mass-prescribe and in which sequence.
Jane Gilbert and Rachel Bolstad (amongst many others) questioned the traditional concept of curriculum development in their 2008 book Disciplining and drafting, or 21st century learning? Rethinking the New Zealand senior secondary curriculum for the future. Their words are quoted in a new White Paper, sponsored by Promethean’s Jim Wynn, and authored by Gavin Dykes, Michael Furdyk, Sara Hassan and Jennifer Corriero for Education Fast Forward, entitled From Learner Voice to Emerging Leaders (downloadable PDF).
The authors agree with Gilbert and Bolstad and state their position clearly:
…this model of curriculum development is difficult to maintain given that: it is no longer possible to accurately predict the type of knowledge youth may need as they move through life, the rapid pace at which technology is changing and new knowledge is developing, the rate at which career possibilities are proliferating (ones with which we are familiar and ones we have yet to imagine), and social, economic and environmental challenges are becoming increasingly complex.
They ask the question:
How can learner voice help address these uncertainties?
And the seemingly simple answer?
By giving learners an authentic say in what and how they want to learn.
The White Paper will underpin discussion at the next Education Fast Forward debate, to take place as part of Education World Forum in London at the end of this month. The paper, which will be presented by Sara Hassan, of Taking IT Global, joining the debate from Toronto, is an excellent summary of the issues surrounding this critical question, and the authors have been able to offer a combination of sound thinking, practical advice and a way forward for those in education (still too few, I would say) who believe that curriculum design, pedagogy, the role of technology and national education policy-making all should be influenced and shaped by the voice of the learner.
The event will combine a live presence at EWF and a global presence via the magic of Telepresence, An articulate group of young education leaders will debate the issues around ‘From Learner Voice to Emerging Leaders’.
The primary aim is twofold:
And it will all take place across a truly international matrix of connections, crossing countries, cultures, and communities.
The event itself takes place on Monday 28th January at 11am and you will find the link to the live video broadcast on the day itself on the Education Fast Forward page on Promethean Planet. Promethean’s Chief Education Officer, Jim Wynn, will be opening the EFF6 debate, which will once again be moderated by independent education consultant Gavin Dykes. Discussion will be led by Sara Hassan and three student presenters. Closing the debate will be Michelle Selinger, Director of Education at Cisco.
Twitter users can follow the debate itself using the hashtag #eff6, while there will be some interesting discussion around many of the key issues in the debate using the hashtag #learningmatters.
Finally, a reminder that you can download the White Paper.
I don’t believe for a moment in technological determinism. I believe any technology can be used benignly and malignantly. You can use a pen to write beautiful poetry. You can also use a pen to poke peoples’ eyes out.
Gardner doesn’t ‘believe’ in technological determinism, in the same way that someone might choose not to believe in a deity or the existence of Santa Claus. Fair enough. However, the example he gives to support his unbelief is not only misleadingly simplistic but also specious. A pen used to poke an eye out is not being used as a pen and is therefore not a pen at that moment in time. It is merely a pointy stick. If he had said that the same pen can be used to write beautiful poetry and also to sign the death warrant of an innocent person, his argument would have been a little more cogent, but still only within the somewhat narrow limits to which he chooses to restrict his notion of technological determinism. We expect better from a Harvard professor.
This much we can agree on: technology is only technology when it is being put to use. Otherwise, it is merely passive artefact. At the level of the instrument (such as the pen), technology can be used for good or ill. But that is not a condition unique to technology; it can be posited for virtually every product of the human hand or mind. Richard Feynman put it succinctly when he quoted a buddhist proverb:
To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven. The same key opens the gates of hell.
I made that point in a post back in 2006 when I compared certain characteristics shared by education and technology: they are both instruments that can be put to good and bad uses; they are both instruments that can be truly transformative or deeply destructive. Given those shared attributes, I used that post to appeal for care in how we choose to bring about their conjunction. But these are attributes that bear no relation to whether or not technology is deterministic; hence the problem with Gardner’s position.
If we want to see how truly deterministic technology can be, and is, we must elevate our point of view so that we can see beyond the individual instrument and allow ourselves to comprehend the broad vista of the technology landscape within which that single instrument is utilised. Whether a pen can write beautiful poetry or consign a person to their death really tells us nothing about how, at a much broader level, systemic shifts in the underlying nature of technology undoubtedly do influence societal interactions and, quite simply, how we do certain things, amongst them, education. To try to pretend, for instance, as Gardner must inevitably do with his ‘unbelief’ in technological determinism, that the way we learn — or for that matter, the way we teach — can remain the same in the digital era as it has been for centuries of print is just naive.
The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.
The digital era — the computer, the network, the Internet, the Web, social technology, universal search, and so much more — changes radically all of the relationships that are critical to how we learn and how we teach: the relationship between teacher and learner; the relationship between the learner and information; the relationship we all have with the concept of learned authority; and the social relationships between ourselves and the rest of the human race. It is of course a hugely complex process of determination, with nuance layered on nuance, but it is undoubtedly true that broad global shifts in technology, such as that between print and digital, determine how learning can happen and therefore should (and inevitably will) determine what it means to teach.
A university is not a scientific hothouse with some frills around the edges – such as the humanities – generating off-the-peg ideas for business to patent and commercialise. It is an independent, autonomous institution housing multiple academic disciplines whose cross-fertilisations and serendipities lie at the heart of the capacity to enlarge the knowledge base. It is consecrated to delivering knowledge as intellectually held in common – why the freedom to research, to publish and to disseminate is the sine qua non of academic life. It is a public, open institution, so a private university is a contradiction in terms. Knowledge, and the qualifications that go with it, is necessarily public currency.
Will Hutton, in today’s Observer.
The knowledge economy is massively dependent on the intellectual powerhouse of higher education, and a critical ingredient of that is its capacity to sustain high levels of postgraduate training and development. That capacity is under threat at the present time from the concomitant effects of the huge rise in undergraduate fees and the decisions by the research councils in the UK to withdraw support from taught masters courses.
Just another example of the current UK Government’s willingness to allow ideology and self-interest to trump what is good for the country in the long run. As in schools, so in higher education too.
[This is a cross-posting from my new blog at I Am Learner]
That, however, is where agreement ends and debate begins. Beyond that point, we cross a turbulent landscape where competing definitions of leadership abound, where the very nature of leadership is the stuff of argument, where conflicting philosophies of education each generate their own understanding of what makes for an effective leader and how a good leader should behave, and where notions of how we must go about educating and training the next generation of education leaders scatter in every direction at once.
But such observations are not a counsel of despair. Far from it! Just as education itself can never be a science in any accepted sense – it is a sphere in which battles will always be fought between philosophies, beliefs, ideologies, cultures, prejudices and histories – so these same battles are reflected in the ever-restless and exciting debates and discussions around leadership in education.
Whatever our own standpoint might be, we should accept that one voice is often missing from this unruly discourse: that of young people, the very group most often affected by the decisions of education leaders. Just as they are absent from educational debates generally, so youthful voices are too often muted when the topic is the leadership of the social good that is utterly central to their futures: their education.
Education Fast Forward (EFF), an organization, sponsored jointly by Promethean and Cisco, that brings together leading global experts and change agents from the world of education to discuss ‘the topics that matter most’, wants to begin to change that by bringing together some articulate and intelligent voices from the world’s youth to discuss issues that are relevant to young people themselves and to their education.
In July 2012, in the most recent of the five debates organized by EFF to date, a group of eloquent and youthful voices debated the topic ‘From Learner Voice to Global Peace’. The young people were located all across the globe and came together primarily through the wonder of Telepresence (TP), a high-definition video conferencing technology. The discussion that day was not only intelligent and thoughtful: it was truly inspiring for everyone involved.
The full debate can be watched and listened to on Promethean Planet.
And now, in January 2013, during the annual Education World Forum, to be held in London, another group of exceptional young people (including some of the voiced from EFF5) will come together through the magic of TP to talk about ‘From Learner Voice to Emerging Leaders’. Those of us involved in EFF have some hopes and expectations of what might come out of the event, but we are also highly aware that there must be a genuine space in amongst our presumptions for the hopes and expectations of the young people themselves to come to the fore during and beyond the discussion.
The primary aim is twofold:
Issues such as the structure of the curriculum, how education is delivered (including differences in this across the world), the relevance of education to their lives, how we might encourage real change in the relationships between people in education systems, seeking to realise the extraordinary value that can be sought by tackling education’s challenges with people rather than doing it to them. We need all policy makers to take on board the knowledge that they are making decisions now that will affect the generation ahead, and perhaps more than one generation ahead.
And all of this will be happening across a truly international matrix of connections, crossing countries, cultures, and communities. I will be blogging again in the New Year with details of the date and time, and with information about the key speakers, young and not-so-young, who will be leading the discussion.
Watch out for that!