Education’s a slow learner (lessons from WISE 2011)
1200 leaders in learning from 120 countries at WISE2011, all flown into Doha by the Qatar Foundation to shape the future, with a focus on innovation. Did they succeed? Yes and no. It takes more than three days to create an Education Spring. Here’s my take.
Education’s a slow learner
It may be more accurate to say that education has learning difficulties. The system is fixed, fossilised and, above all, institutionalised, so the rate of change is glacial. People are, by and large, trapped in the mindset of their institution and horizontal sector. In truth, small pools of innovative practice are patchy and stand little chance of wide scale adoption.
Many of the speakers repeated platitudes about education being the answer to all of the world’s problems. What they were short on were solutions. Education is always seen as the solution to all problems. The problem with all this utopian talk is that it dispenses with realism.
It took a politician, Gordon Brown, to show we educators how to communicate, teach, frame a problem THEN a solution. His speech was masterful, laying out the many dimensions of the problem, informing through humour, moving the audience with heart rending stories then he hit us with a vision, a clear goal and details on funding. All children in school by 2015, with massive injection of funds by the private sector, public sector, religious institutions and not-for-profits. He put great emphasis on tech companies such as Google, Apple and so on, which was novel.
Few were using Twitter, Facebook was a mystery to most and fewer still blog. The stage was often filled by older people in dull suits who all agreed with each other, that education was a glorious and great good. If only our leaders could see this, give us more money, then all our sins would be washed away. But this doesn’t wash. Things only sprang into life when we got younger learners' voices, like the young Qatari woman who shocked the academics by saying she wouldn’t have got through her medical degree without Wikipedia. She challenged the audience to step into their local school to see if things have got better (obviously meaning they had not).
Real innovators, like Jimmy Wales, were thin on the ground. I would have given him the WISE prize, as Wikipedia is a truly amazing, global, scalable success in learning. He explained that he didn’t have a business plan and just got on with the task, “I’m a carpenter not an architect”. A recurring theme of the conference was the undercurrent of ludditism. Even the presenters were at it, with little digs at technology. We kept hearing ‘technology is only a tool’, ‘technology is not proven’, ‘it’s not the technology its teachers that matter’. Replace the word ‘technology’ with ‘books’ and you’ll see how odd this is. Valerie Hannon of the Innovation Unit has continued with this anti-technology theme in her blog.
Crisis of relevance
The Arab Spring has taught us educationalists a lesson. The heavy investment in education, especially universities, is turning out graduates with low, relevant skills, resulting in mass unemployment. Across the Arab world of 85m 18-24 year olds, nearly 1 in 5 is unemployed. The immediate (and it is immediate) challenge is to develop skills for employment and security. 1 in 4 are out of work in Tunisia. In Egypt 34% of young people wait for a long time before finding a job. They call it the ‘waithood’ and can be up to 3 years or more. At 7% of GDP on education, Tunisia is near the top of the league table, so what went wrong? Why has so much money been spent with so little success? Ask the graduates. “No one wants the skills we have and we don’t have the skills they want”. E4E (Education for employment) has a real and relevant approach where employability matters with application based learning and good career guidance. Employers want real world experience not just paper qualifications, so you have link education to the workplace. With female job seekers it’s worse , with unemployment at more than 30-35% among female graduates.
There was some agreement on the lack of relevant skills, most employers expressing dissatisfaction with critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork and communications. The system was stuck with memorisation and lecture based learning. Professors sell their notes and set exams around the memorisation of these notes to increase sales. Asking questions and questioning the knowledge of teachers and academics is barely tolerated. This is not education, this is programming. On top of this there’s a strong stigma against vocational training, especially among educationalists.
Edgar Morin saw modern universities as having failed to respond to modern times. Their disciplines limit our knowledge and lead to separation. We need relevant knowledge, not barren , specialised experts, lost outside of their discipline. The proof? The current financial crisis shows this – academics are impotent and lost. They have lost the ability to communicate properly and come up with solutions.
A German Professor of Mathematics told me that he’s just spent 6 months in Ethiopia help set up 40 (not a mistype) Universities. He thought this was lunacy. The country has barely functioning schools and they’ve been fed the line that HE is the answer to their problems. What they need, he explained was more vocational colleges for technicians and functional jobs, not advanced degrees. This is the madness of institutionalised initiatives.
All over the Middle East and Africa, western Universities are playing this game, setting up campuses in education parks. It’s a distortion that they could do without. It sets the expectation that everyone should become a ‘Doctor or Engineer’. That’s the phrase you hear all the time. No, these countries need functioning managers and professionals across a wide range of professions. On the same panel, a South African claimed that the country needed ’more postdocs and women in Engineering’ (that old trope). Oh yeah?
I attended a completely sterile debate on University rankings. Despite general agreement that a linear sequence does not statistically represent the diversity of the institutions or data, and despite knowing that they don’t represent teaching (yet are used by parents and teachers to choose universities), they are still used by academics who should know better. These are lies told by people who know they are lying. Prof Jeffrey Sachs was clear, don't invest in the American model, now driven by greed selfishness and short-sightedness.
The Arab Spring was omnipresent. It coloured everything. Young people want jobs and in the Middle East the current model hasn’t worked. Degrees have been commoditised. What people need is jobs. We need to recognise that technology played a huge role in the Arab Spring, and if it can help topple governments, it can help transform education. The Arab world has one language and could benefit hugely from an initiative that produced good Arabic content, from the cloud, that was device-independent. If the Qatar Foundation could step up to the plate on this one, we’d have real progress.
Some voiced the opinion that the Arab Spring is the best thing that could have happened for education in the Arab world. It could help elevate the agenda to where it ought to be. Why? Long standing institutions, with sclerotic structures and management, are the problem, with deeply rooted incentives to prepare for a test or get a diploma. So, at the heart of any programme needs to be the reform of incentives, comprehensive and ambitious reform, not only in countries that have gone through revolutionary change but other countries by proximity.
A deeply depressing incident occurred in Charlie Leadbeater’s session on innovation. After a brilliant triplet of innovators who were reshaping education by getting it out of the traditional classroom, the Minister of Education for Iran swanned in with a posse of henchmen. Or so we though. It was actually a lackey who read a speech that had numbered goals around setting tens of thousands of Koranic schools and prayer rooms, linking, and I quote ‘knowledge to religion’. This cultural engineering is a disgrace. More education, in this, sense is casting the net backwards.
Out of the box
You must not only think out of the box but get out of the box that is the classroom. Indeed, the best workshop was on three innovations from India, Denmark and Australia. All three had taken education out of the classroom. A school in Denmark, Hellerup Skole, had been built as a ‘house’ then space allocated and appropriate furniture bought. In Australia Stephen Harris had abolished classrooms and reimagined education around different concepts of space. I asked him why his kids were still in uniforms and he said, clearly annoyed, “it’s the legacy of the British public school system”.
I heard of schools under mango trees, walking schools that took place in a different house in the village each day, learning in church halls after hurricanes that had wrecked everything else, pavement kids in India that had school bussed to them as they couldn’t leave their home unguarded. Did you know that 50% of all schooling in Afghanistan takes place in tents?
Of course, the real space that has been colonised by learning is virtual. Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, iTunes, Facebook, Twitter, Khan Academy, VLEs, OER and a huge number of other sites and tools have created an alternative world of learning. Despite WISE attendees being largely lost with technology, technology is easily the most important innovatory force in learning.
Lifelong learning appears to have been hijacked, at least in Europe, by educational institutions. I attended a workshop on LL that started with nothing but talk of Universities and the funding they receive in Lifelong Learning. Until, that is, the audience revolted and pointed out that institutions are the reason why Lifelong Learning is failing. We know that formal and informal must be recognised. This is not about schooling, but avoiding the trap that schooling leads to – that learning must take place in institutions through courses, with teachers. One could argue that Universities have little or nothing to do with this.
On the topic of realism, Martin Burt runs schools as businesses. The schools pay for themselves. Rather than teaching abstract maths they teach business maths. For him this is not a business project but a business. This is interesting, an appeal that more learning should be REAL and RELEVANT. Until we see knowledge, skills and learning in context we’ll be stuck in a culture that values the academic over everything else. We know this has been a huge mistake. Vocational learning needs a voice.
Despite the obvious barriers, such as small screens, cost, technical variability in devices and basic illiteracy, it’s starting to happen. Mobiles are powerful, personal and portable. The costs are plummeting, with some operators offering zero rates for educational use. In some countries the cellphone has leapfrogged other technology for the poor.
Dr Maths has been used by 30,000 students in Africa, and elsewhere, to deliver text and tutor support in maths. They bypassed schools and teachers entirely relying on word of mouth. They operate in S Africa and found that even in the townships mobile ownership and access was pretty much universal. In fact it is staggering how much poor people will spend on mobiles – up to 30% of their income.
Of course, seeing mobile as just a communication device between teachers and learners restricts its primary advantage – scalability. Tutors and teachers are not scalable. I learnt how Twitter was used for language learning (the 140 letter constraint is the trick). Siri offers a breakthrough here with voice recognition and AI driven coaches, assistants and language learning.