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.
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.
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.