This last week I have spent away from the Lords in the USA, first at a global education conference at Stanford University and then in Tennessee seeing how education innovation is rolling out on the ground. It was an inspiring week that reinforced my view that English education is in real danger of being left behind.
The USA is an interesting place for educationalists of all persuasions to visit. Like England it has some of the best and some of the worst schools. We are both home to the best universities. We have large attainment gaps between pupils from rich and poor homes. We both have examples of great innovation but show no sign of scaling that up to make a difference across our school systems. All of these factors make it an interesting and challenging place to compare notes.
First of all some old truths. In an inspiring talk, Geoff Canada, the highly effective Commissioner for Harlem, reminded us of two things. If you are turning around schools in a toxic community you will always be fixing failure until you also help turn around the whole community. Schools and teachers can’t be blamed for the ills of society but they can help make it better.
He also reminded us that no one is born equal, we are all born different and none of us will ever find the answer for what works for every child. We must keep learning and finding new answers. But every child is born learning. Before they get to school they have learned a lot and will carry on learning if it interests them. If school is boring they will use it to have a rest from learning, until they are allowed out again and can learn from what seems relevant to their world – good or bad.
Time and again private sector, public sector and not for profit educators stood up for the importance of teachers. Teachers need to be equipped with good training, with on going training, with as many tools as possible to help them with the diversity of children they are asked to keep interested in their learning and with both coaching and support.
Most teachers do a good job and we should celebrate their achievements. As I saw in Tennessee, we could be also be much smarter in our use of data to track teacher effectiveness. This allows teachers to be better supported by better equipped school leaders. It also allows those who are not suited to be teachers to be identified and helped into a job they would enjoy more.
I think we should revive the notion of teachers having a right to in service training for professional development, and in return a requirement to take up that training as part of a renewable licence to practice.
Of course, much of my week was spent discussing the role of technology in learning.
There are great examples of investment in technology to make schools more efficient and allow them to be run at reduced costs. Similarly there are examples where teachers’ time is freed to teach (an example was the launch of www.sharemylesson.com in the US last week). These are good reasons why schools all over the world are investing in technology.
Technology for learning is however more controversial.
At the less controversial end was the use of video conferencing and virtual classrooms that I saw in Tennessee. This is being used in a number of places to keep small schools open and offering a wide range of courses. It is helpful for pupils off sick, or who are not in school for other reasons. Many states now require all students to take at least one course 100% on line, in part because on line learning is a feature of training in so many future careers.
More controversial is whether technology improves learning. There is too much to say here but I was introduced to the work of Ruben Puentedura (see his blog http://www.hippasus.com/rrpweblog/). His analysis of effective use of technology makes sense.
If it is used to just digitally enhance analogue methods it will have marginal impact. The real learning gains take place with modification and redefinition. We need the equivalent of Henry Ford using electricity to transform manufacturing a generation after Edison invented electricity – only we shouldn’t wait a generation to develop new pedagogy for the new technology.
The most interesting of these is “flip schooling”. The state of Oregon calls this mastery learning and is moving to roll it out across the state. Instead of teachers using valuable class time to deliver general instruction aimed at the median ability in the class, teachers set homework in advance of learning in school. Learners receive the generalised instruction online with some assessment so that the teacher then knows how each pupil is doing before they arrive in class. The classroom activity is then pitched more precisely to meet the needs of the individual pupils. This is proving highly effective and I am trying to get trials of these methods going in this country.
I got back from this inspiring week to find that Michael Gove wants to revive O Levels. What a contrast! Instead of shaping the future, he wants to return to a time when qualification choices determined life chances. The 1950’s worked for the minority who went into the professions, the majority left school unqualified and ready for factory work. That is not what we need to go back to. No wonder his comments were immediately trashed by experts like Lords Baker and Adonis.