Monday, April 09, 2018

Reply to the Comment in Labour Consultation on Education Policy

There was a reply to my contribution to the Labour Consultation on Education Policy, which can be found through here if you sign in:

Here is my answer to that comment:


Thank you for your comment.  For a summary of what I would like to say in response, it is possibly easiest just to watch this video on the 6 problems with our School System.

For more in response:

Whilst you accept that many children are failed by the current schooling system, you do not think that an impersonal learning system is the main source of the problem. However
, your suggestions for solving the problem of pupil failure, ie: to get rid of standardised testing, league tables and a rigid micro-managed curriculum would be effective precisely because it would free up schools to offer more personalised learning!  You also suggest that we need more teachers and teaching assistants which again would mean that schools could offer students more personalised learning. This suggests that despite what you think you believe, on some level you do recognise that the current problem for many learners is that schooling is far too depersonalised and I therefore agree with all of your suggestions above.

Your explicit argument against personalisation of learning is that:
"Learning is essentially a social process that occurs in collaboration with others"

However I think you may be mistaking the objective existence of shared knowledge for the process of  creating knowledge.   Yes there is such a thing as "shared knowledge" in the sense that a number of individual brains can appear to contain the same set of information (although of course, they almost certainly don't when it comes down to the detail).  However this appearance of shared knowledge has nothing to do with the process of actually growing knowledge, which is what we should be concerned with if the question we wish to address is "how can we make education more suitable and efficient".  The process of acquiring knowledge is only ever done by the individual learner when his brain fires up and addresses the electrical input from the senses with theories that he has already developed in order to create new information which only ever actually exists in his brain.

This distinction is important for educational theory because we must accept that knowledge is not imparted through a process of "sharing" it or by a process of seepage from one brain to another.  Or to use another analogy, it is not possible to pour information in to the head of another as one would pour water in to a bucket.   A failure to appreciate this fact is the key error in current schooling theory, and is the reason that so many children are failed. Under the model of "shared knowledge" there is an assumption that if a teacher teaches, a pupil will learn, thereby failing to consider the fact that the pupil must be the actor here. 

The reality is that for any knowledge to grow, the learner must cause activity to occur in his brain, and this is most likely to happen when the dopamine reward structure is active. This is what causes properly effective learning since the reward system causes the attention to focus on the subject under study. Learners learn best addressing subjects that interest and inspire them and provide them with that dopamine reward and this is why we need education to be personalised as we cannot reliably say that all children will be interested by the same things.

Regarding your concerns about "collaboration, co-operation, compromise and negotiation", home educators can testify to the fact that a personalised education doesn't mean that young people will not learn about these things. Learning happens in individual brains yes, but it happens in the context of a social world and learners will want to understand how best to work with this social world. So for example, learners working on the subjects that interest them will most likely find others with similar interests, or may get new angles on their own subject by interacting with others who specialise in different subjects.  Many home education groups develop great skills in collaboration, co-operation, compromise and negotiation and do this all the more effectively for having a flat hierarchy and a mutually co-operative approach which means that learners throughout the group learn to take responsibility for group management, co-operation, negotiation, etc.  In the world outside education, many successful companies recognise the value of mixing different specialisms at the water cooler and design their buildings to facilitate such cross fertilization. Schools could afford to prepare their students for this sort of world. 

Personalised education also doesn't necessarily mean "that 
everyone is doing something different."  There may be some superficial differences in the knowledge base, but there will be underlying similarities which are far more significant as these key features underpin all knowledge. Students who are able to pursue the questions they are interested to pursue have a much greater chance of learning how to think well. Since they care about their subject, they will want to the best they can in all areas.  They will not only be learning how to read, write, listen well, construct an argument and tolerate difference, but they will also be learning about how to seek the truth of the matter, how to evaluate different truth claims to see which is the best argument, (an argument that is hard to vary because every detail plays a functional role) and how to change their thinking for the better argument. They will learn about how they learn (all the more so if they can get quick feedback that websites can provide). They will learn to recognise when they are tired, hungry, dehydrated and/or their attention is waning and they need a break. They will learn to recognise the times when their attention and performance is optimal and how to achieve this. 

You go on to say "Technology must be an addition to human contact, not a substitute for human contact; learning is primarily an interactive social process; current research in developmental psychology is really clear about this."

I am by no means suggesting that there shouldn't be human contact in the schooling environment. I am simply saying that we could make this contact voluntary and therefore just so much more relevant and useful to the learner because the learner could be asking the questions and seeking the help that they need from either tech or the teacher.

One idea: have a big room with work spaces that can easily be made open or separate and with teachers of various different specialisms available to all the students, so that a student could interact with others, or close the space off and focus quietly on their own space, and could call in the teacher as and when they are stuck.  Teachers could also make themselves available to teach lessons that suit a number of pupils as requested. 

I referenced Duolingo and Brainscape because they are useful systems for information retention, but you cite them dismiss the idea that websites can be used to help develop deep level thinking which is not something that I explicitly claimed that these ones could do (though I think it a matter of debate as both COULD be used that way if used creatively and are anyway very much based upon strong learning theory evidence).  However it is patently untrue that other websites cannot develop deep level thinking. Plenty of other websites such as two others I also mentioned, eg: Khan Academy and, are very useful for this and other websites offer a discursive, social model of learning as well. Look at what we are doing here, after all! Why are we bothering to have an on-line consultation on education if not to develop deep level ideas about the subject?  I can also honestly tell you that I have in the past learnt more from one single website than I ever learnt at school and university!  This website provided evidence, arguments and ideas that challenged my entire way of thinking, and also, through a discussion forum, offered feedback and critique to the point where I was able to change my entire view on many fundamental ideas.  It was deep level thinking and a profound experience which no amount of "academic research" can possibly dismiss! Much of this sort of research must be taken with a pinch of salt,  by the way, and reminds many home educators of the 15th century technopanic about the printing press.

For further evidence of the efficacy of tech, my home educated son learned most of his writing skills by being mentored by on-line writers in a gaming site that had strict moderation rules about how to present an argument eg: no errors of thinking, no logical fallacies of any sort, and certainly no spelling or grammatical errors. When he eventually went to sixth form college, his English AS teacher told me at the parent's evening that after just listening to his conversations with another home educated friend of his, she knew she had nothing to teach him and this was because of the rigor of his on-line education as well as the interactions he had had with fellow home educators.

And this isn't something that is peculiar to my family. We know a lot of home educated children who have learnt a lot on line, one way or another.

But I am not saying that tech is the only way to go. Where tech doesn't work for a child and he prefers and benefits from human interaction, there would still be teachers available offering either personalised or class based lessons.  However, for more children than you possibly realise, human interaction with a teacher is often a matter of total torture.  There's the anxiety and shame of knowing that a real human who is in charge of your destiny has just marked your paper with a load of red ink, or the embarrassment of getting something wrong in front of the teacher and the whole class, or the worry about appearing like a know-it-all when answering a teacher's question...all these sorts of experiences are frequently far more painful than is regularly acknowledged by the teaching profession and yet this anxiety prevents effective learning by hijacking the brain and removing the higher levels of cerebral function in order that the body be prepared for flight or fight.   For many children it is far less stressful to be working with an impersonal website than to be confronted by the all powerful teacher who is able to condemn, control, and bore a child for years on end. 

The other advantage of tech is that the feedback from a website is just so much quicker and more efficient than it is possible to get from a teacher who has to take the books away and mark a whole class and give it back days later when the actual lesson is no longer of any interest.

You may think this is all way to out there and too risky to be tried. But the precautionary principle is not an option here because the status quo is not working for so many children!  Even those children who are getting by in the current system could well do even better if we were to go down this route. We will most likely not get everything right immediately, and refinements will have to be made, but we don't have anything to lose.

Children have been imprisoned in a rigid school that is not of their choice for way too long.  We don't do this to adults!  Adults have choices about how they live their lives.  We are not preparing our children for adult life by removing their autonomy and not helping them learn how to use it well.  Labour has a real chance here to do something about it and it could look to home educators, amongst others, to help them develop systems that actually really work for young people!

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