Monday, June 30, 2008

2 marks for swearing!

Fuck off
The only two words on the candidate’s English paper were ‘Fuck Off”. AQAs Chief Examiner, who awarded the marks, felt that the student had expressed meaning and feeling – 2 marks. Apparently, another mark would have been awarded if there had been an exclamation mark!

Actually, one could also argue that the student was bold, succinct and to the point. On a deeper level it shows courage, and a disregard for the conventions of language within examinations, the drudgery of the A+ essay with all of its dull conventions and playing for marks. It’s stunningly subversive and liguistically legitimate - Shakespeare and many more brilliant writers did it all the time. (Tongue in metaphorical cheek.)

Why do we swear?
For more linguistic depth on the subject of swearing, read Chapter 7 of Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought, where he explains why swearing is a natural form in all languages, along with reasons for the existence of swear words. He argues that swear words tend to be sexual or scatological as, in our evolutionary past, these things signified danger and disease. The blaspheming brain is particularly sensitive to the conotations of swear words ad patiets who lose their ability to use articulate language can sometimes still swear. Tourette Syndrome is evidence that swearing is a coherent neurobiological pheomenon. Blasphemy ad profanity is the other rich source for swear words.

Jay Z mash-up

Mash-up video from Jay Cross, with excerpts from London's Learning Technologies – Jay Cross, Ken Robinson, Nigel Paine, Donald Rumsfeld and the other Donald - me. You could say Jay is a Millennial mind in a Boomer body! I'm minded to call him Jay Z, as he thinks even beyond the Gen X/Y/Millennials.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

7 'bad language' habits in learning

My first beef is the word 'learner'. Imagine walking into a room and calling the people in the office, library or cafe - 'learners'. They're not learners, they're people. But there's lots more...
1. Language of learning as work and punishment
“Have you finished your work? Have you done your homework? Get down to work. Stop working now. Show your working. This is how you work it out. I’ve finished my work, Miss.”
Research by Guy Claxton has shown that teachers unwittingly use the inappropriate language of industrial labour, for learning. This turns learning into a series of chores or tasks to be completed. It’s the language of closure, not learning. Completion, not competence, becomes the goal. Learning is further presented as a series of tasks that sound like punishments. To lecture someone in the real world is to patronize and talk down to them. To teach someone a lesson is to punish them.
2. Language of behaviourism
The lecturer, trainer, instructor are all rooted in deeply behaviourist models of didactic instruction. Is there anything more inappropriate than the job title Lecturer? We know that the 1 hour lecture is a hopeless method of learning. We also know that many lecturers are actually researchers, who are sometimes unskilled even unenthusiastic about teaching. There are few professions where the basic skills (teaching) are so loosely acquired, taught or evaluated. And in the training world, you train horses don’t you?
3. Language of time and place
Taking a class is another giveaway, suggesting that learning is synonymous with sitting in a room and being talked at. We have autumn, winter, spring and summer terms {prison-terms?), something you have to get through. Schools have other echoes of prison – gates, uniforms, corridors, incarceration interrupted by short exercise periods and detention.
4. Language of profession
And lastly, we have odious, professional jargon; the words learning styles, kinaesthetic, pedagogy, metacognition, learning objectives, competences and so on. There is no need to expose people to this nonsense. Ordinary language is just fine.
5. Language of opposites
A sort of apartheid exists in British education, between academic and vocational, between knowledge and skills. We foolishly want to mirror this in A-levels versus Apprenticeships. Much of this is simply linguistic. The boundaries, in real life, are massively blurred. We’d do well to stop using these artificially opposed and falsely exclusive words.
6. Language of assessment
Language of assessment is the language of fear and failure. We sit exams and tests. We pass or fail. It’s a red pen culture, where failure is failure, not an opportunity to try again, overcome and succeed. It’s the finality of failure – no second chances that make it all so depressing.
7. Language of accreditation
If the language of assessment isn’t bad enough, the English accreditation system has produced bewildering layers of confusing language and brands. As a student and parent the world of GCSEs and A-levels will quickly unravel into: Foundation and Higher levels, KS1, KS2, KS3, KS4, Levels 1-8. Then there’s the crazy fact that each subject has several awarding bodies, each with their own variants on the curriculum – AQA A, AQA B, Edexcel A, Edexcel B, OCR, NICCEA, WJEC. Then there are BTECs and dozens of other vocational acronyms. I’d be surprised if it’s any different in other countries.
Promote language of learning, not teaching
At West Kidlington school they’ve tried to shift the language of learning towards positive values. They have 22 words; trust, respect, quality, responsibility, unity, peace, thoughtfulness, happiness, patience, care, appreciation, honesty, understanding, love, friendship, humility, hope, simplicity, tolerance, courage, cooperation and freedom.
I like this but feel that this language is a bit abstract. It’s the everyday language of a school that determines its culture. It’s the language of encouragement, not censure and closure; let’s try, how come, how could. There’s Kipling’s ‘who, what, where, why, when and how’, pushing students to probe, explore and push beyond the task.
We need to simply stop defining learning as work, homework, lessons, classes, lectures and redefine these as aspirational activities; sessions, challenges, projects and clubs. Then there’s the avoidance of terms of incarceration. A school is not a prison, the school gate is not the prison door, and attainment, not attendance, is the aim. As for teachers, lecturers, instructors and trainers, surely tutors, coaches and mentors would be better. The branding of qualifications simply needs to adhere to Occam’s razor – the smallest number of entities to reach a give goal. Keep it simple stupid. Much of the language of learning is actually the language of teaching. In business the language of sales is the language of the customer, not the vendor. We need the language of batting, not bowling.
The language of the web is, I think, a good place to look for trends. It is the language of inclusion – myspace, facebook, youtube and so on. We could also learn from the language of games - challenge, game, play, player – to motivate students.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Politicians and e-learning

All of this fuss over political donations and MP expenses. A few years ago I was asked by the Labour Party to make a short e-learning programme on the new rules for donations. This we did. We never got paid and it turned out to be a veiled excuse to get a cash donation, which I refused to do.

Question Night
‘Question Night’ our e-learning programme, was a cracker. Loosely based on ‘Question Time’, we had a panel of politicians, an expert and a journalist, who answered questions from the audience. You were clapped, ignored or jeered by the audience, depending on your answers. It was beautifully produced but, sadly, never used. If it had been rolled out we may have avoided many of the excesses we’ve see over the last few years. Politicians, it turns out, are always carping on about skills and training, but refuse to accept the idea that they also need to learn.

Politicians and e-learning
So, it was heartening to hear that Brown’s bedside text this week is Leadbetter’s Me-Think, a book on user-generated content. He’s an internet freak, loves email and shoots them off to Junior Ministers at all hours. He was also the man who gave us UFI, an organisation I’m proud to support, and one of only two public e-learning bodies to have actually delivered anything of worth (the other is the OU).

Tony Blair is an altogether different creature. I once asked him whether he thought e-learning had a major role to play in education and training. Typically, he answered with an anecdote, “I visited an education centre last week,” he replied, “and completed an IT assessment test. I looked at the guy next to me and congratulated him, as he had a much better score than me. ‘That must make you feel quite good’, I said. ‘Not really’, he said, ‘You’re the Prime Minister and I’m one of the long-term unemployed!’

I’ve met lots of politicians over the years and most were sultry creatures, simply doing the rounds. I thought I’d show Robin Cook some medical e-learning, as I knew his wife was a GP in Scotland (I grew up in his constituency). He scowled throughout the demonstration, said nothing, and off he went with his grumpy entourage. Two days later, the news broke that he was leaving his GP wife for a younger woman –OOOPS!

Heseltine, was an open and witty guy, genuinely interested in the web. When I recommended that he get a hold of the Michael Heseltine web address, he quipped, ‘You know, I think I’ll need it!’ This was just before he resigned from his cabinet post.

Aitken was just a crook, Galloway a charming chancer, but one who really did understand the importance of the internet and television, as opposed to newspapers (a medium he despises), Margaret Beckett was sour-faced and shadowed by her husband who stood behind her in an old anorak and took copious notes.

Michael Gove is, without doubt, the one I dislike the most. I had a spat with him last year, when, during one of his rants about declining standards, he claimed that, “School pupils need to know the relationship between, the planets orbiting the sun in the solar system, and electrons orbiting the nucleus in an atom’. My request was that he find a better example of useful knowledge, “As the quantum positions of electrons around a nucleus have absolutely nothing to do with the gravity controlled orbits of planets in our solar system”. He glared at me, and simply answered another imaginary question.

My favourite politician was the best Prime Minister we never had – John Smith. He was smart, friendly and polite. I got to chat to him, on TV, two days before a general election. How very different the UK would have been if he had lived to fulfill his promise.

Politicians and e-learning now
Most politicians are cosseted from technology by layers of civil servants, advisors and lackeys. It’s all face-to-face posing. Their clumsy attempts to appear homely on YouTube are laughable. There’s absolutely nothing honest or spontaneous about any of this – it’s all polished, over-produced, central office nonsense. They really don’t get it.

What’s much more interesting are the YouTube speeches and assorted videos made about politicians, posted by ordinary people and the political blogs. Blogs, especially have breathed life back into politics, apart from those over-moderated marketing blogs by BBC journalists, another mob who really don’t get it.

Similarly, the higher echelons of Government civil servants are full of ageing Boomers who really don’t understand, or even like, the internet. The policy makers are, unfortunately, on the wrong side of the new Digital Divide (see previous post).

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Boomers on wrong side of digital divide

Scientific American report a study, by the University of Minnesota, of 600 urban teens, from families in the lowest socio-economic groups – almost all use the internet, three quarters have social network sites, most have acquired valuable skills, upload media, edit media, write text, even edit HTML.

I never really bought into the Digital Divide movement. It tripped off the tongue nicely, and lots of well meaning, but misguided, Boomers made lots of money publishing piles of paper reports that only other Digital Dividers read. It was obvious that with an emerging technology the glass would fill up nicely, yet the doomsayers loved to focus on the glass being half-empty, they’re still at it, eve whe the glass is almost full. Note how few reports there are on the new technical underclass – wealthy Boomers.

Digital Divide reversed
The digital divide has actually reversed. It’s the wealthier, middle-class Boomers who have lost out. They’re the anti-tech, game haters who see kids as plagiarizing morons and see their own delusional standards as being dumbed down. Working class people have always lapped up technology, whether it was video recorders, games consoles, DVD players, wide-screen TVs and computers. They have none of these middle-class hang-ups; boasting to people that they’re still on vinyl, hate computer games, don’t watch much television, or still have their 14” TV!

When it comes to life skills, it’s the Boomers who have a defecit. Most kids leave school with an unacknowledged qualification in IT. They know how to text, download, Bluetooth, troubleshoot, edit media, build a website and network socially. Boomers have been left behind and moan away with their culture of computer complaint. It’s they who are on the wrong side of the Digital Divide with a sort of sneering, inverted snobbery.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Immersive games beats classroom in maths

Well designed study
The University of Central Florida tested a hypothesis; that interactive maths games are more effective than classroom instruction. This was a well constructed study; The Effects of Modern Math Computer Games on Learners' Math Achievement and Math Course Motivation in a Public High School Setting, Mansureh Kebritchi, Ph.D., Atsusi Hirumi, Ph.D. and Haiyan Bai, Ph.D.

They took 193 algebra students, control groups and then did evaluation through pre- and post-study assessments, surveys, classroom observations and interviews. Over 18 weeks, on average, students in the experimental group made gains of 8.07 points (out of 25), while students in the control group made gains of 3.74 points.

They used an immersive video game world that engages students in the instruction and learning of mathematics. Pre-algebra and algebra objectives are covered through a series of missions that bring math into a world that today's students understand. Students become so captivated in solving problems that they forget they're learning but they don't forget what they've learned. The study has many detailed findings, but the main conclusion was a significant positive effect on student mathematics achievement in a public high school setting:

Gamers do better at maths
Students who played the math video games scored significantly higher on the district-wide math benchmark exam, F (1, 188) = 6.93, p < .05, and on the math performance test generated by the publisher, F (1, 188) = 8.37, p <.05, than students who did not play the games. While students in both the experimental and control groups demonstrated significant gains from pre-test to post-test on the district benchmark exams, students who played the games demonstrated greater gain scores from pre-test to post-test (mean increase of 8.07) than students who did not play the games (mean increase of 3.74).

Higher achievement in standard tests
Higher achievement scores and greater gain scores on district benchmark tests by students who played the games, compared to those who did not play the game are particularly significant because there is a high correlation between the district math benchmark tests and the state-wide math FCAT tests (as reported by the district).

Teachers and students report improved maths
Teacher and student interviews support the quantitative findings. The majority of the interviewed teachers (4 of 5) and students (15 of 15) reported that the participants' mathematics understandings and skills improved as a result of playing the mathematics games.

Positive teacher feedback
According to the teachers, the games were effective teaching and learning tools because they (a) were experiential in nature, (b) offered an alternative way of teaching and learning, (c) gave the students reasons to learn mathematics to solve the game problems and progress in the games, (d) addressed students' mathematics phobias and (e) increased time on task. As one of the teachers stated: "It [the games] makes them want to learn [math]."

Positive student feedback
According to the students, the games were effective because they (a) combined learning and fun, (b) offered mathematics in adventurous and exploratory context and (c) challenged students to learn mathematics.

Consistent with previous studies
The positive results are consistent with prior empirical research on the effects of math games, including those reported by Ke and Grabowski (2007), Klawe (1998), Moreno (2002), Rosas et al. (2003) and Sedighian and Sedighian (1996), suggesting that computer math video games may improve mathematics achievement.

Consistent with meta-analysis
The results also support findings from two meta-analysis, including: (a) Vogel et al. (2006) who concluded that interactive simulations and games were more effective than traditional classroom instruction on learners' cognitive gains based on a review of 32 empirical studies, and (b) Dempsey et al. (1994) who concluded that students who played math video games and attended the traditional classroom instruction achieved higher mathematics score than students who only attended traditional classrooms based on 94 empirical studies.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Rate My Professors - Professors Strike Back

The 'Rate My Professors' site is huge in the US, and got into TIME Magazine's Top 50 websites for 2008. It now features English Universities. My local University of Brighton has 9 staff rated and University of Sussex 54.

Each Professor gets a name, subject, overall smiley symbol (good, average, poor), quality rating (1-5), ease (1-5) and whether they’re ‘hot’ or 'not'! At a more detailed level they rate easiness, helpfulness, clarity, interest prior to attending class, textbook use and the opportunity to submit (non-libelous) comments. They also have a Facebook app that lets you to search for, browse and read ratings of professors and schools. Then there's the Top 50 lists.

Professors Strike Back
The Professors Strike Back section is great. They come right back with some witty and sensible replies, “Yes - apparently one of the problems with taking College Classes is that you have to read ‘books’, and alas they’re mostly not thrillers, so I’m terribly sorry that you had to read those boring things.” And check out fantastic All Time Most Popular rant from the great Professor Andrew Tomasello (18+ rating).

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Storytelling sucks

It’s received wisdom in learning that storytelling and narrative are unquestionably good. But is it? Plato warned against filling young minds with fixed narratives and I’m coming round to a similar view, but with a twist. I’ve always been a big fan of sports and more recently of reality TV. Add to this computer games, virtual worlds, blogging, wikis, social networks, email, messenger and skype, and I find that most (not all) of what I really love is relatively unscripted, open, fluid, and often with more than a touch of ‘play’.

The top-down, command and control, baby-boomer culture is really starting to annoy me. The more I watch prescribed movies ad TV, with their fixed plot structure, and abandon the publishing hyped ‘modern’ novel, the more I enjoy life. There’s an obsession with ‘stories’ that borders on the manic in learning, the arts and media. They really do want us to open our mouths and swallow.

Big Brother - superb non-narrative learning
I recently met Nick Hewer, Sugar’s sidekick in The Apprentice, who made a good case for the programme being a learning experience for future managers and entrepreneurs. I agree but think Big Brother is better. I've said this before but I do think this is one of the most educational shows on TV because it doesn’t have a fixed narrative. It’s not entirely real, but there’s enough rope for people to hang themselves. It teaches us about how groups form, how conflict emerges and more importantly it teaches valuable lessons about acceptable social behaviour. The viewers are quick to condemn any aggressive, bullying, sneaky or scheming contestants. Young people are pretty sound in their judgments. They consistently vote for people who are helpful, socially adept, non-judgmental and generally all round good-eggs. Even more important has been the exposure given to people who generally have difficulties in life.

Look at the winners:
Craig Phillips (Ordinary bloke)
Brian Dowling (Gay)
Kate Lawler (Ordinary gal)
Cameron Stout (Scottish Churchgoer)
Nadia Almada (Transexual)
Anthony Hutton (Ordinary bloke)
Pete Bennett (Tourettes Syndrome)
Brian Beno (Black guy)

My bet this year is Mikey the blind Scotsman.

This show had done more for diversity than all the diversity courses put together, and it's fun!

It's interesting asking Boomers and Gen X/Y people about the show. To be fair, it isn't made for Boomers, they don't understand it, and they generally don't like it. Boomers like their TV polished and pre-packaged and if they're not being officially 'taught' it ain't real learning. Oh how they love those management training courses. They really can't take the chaos of real people. Bit of a cheek from a generation that seems to lap up antique, property, cooking and make-over programmes, reflecting avarice, greed, gluttony and narcissism. They’re always on about ‘celebrity culture’ yet fawn away at book festivals getting their narratives ‘signed’. On that note, literally millions used to turn out for 30s film stars (celebrities) when they arrived in London from the States. Baby Boomers are also obsessed with the Royal Family, basically a bunch of clapped-out celebrities.

With GenX/Y, it's different. They're more attuned to social observation and participation. They don't mind 'user-generated' content. It triggers endless conversation about who they like and don't like. More importantly, they discuss 'why'. Race, gender, sexual orientation, class differences, regional differences, bullying, cooperation, narcissism, styles of communication, friendship, leadership. This is genuinely informative and instructive. That’s why Big Brother works.

Sports- non-narrative learning
I love sport because of its unpredictability. The story is ever fixed and from this one can learn a lot through being a spectator or participation. My children have spent years learning Ta Kwon Do and it’s done wonders for their application, attention, sense of achievement and self-confidence, and that’s before we get to the more obvious mental and physical skills.

Computer games – non-narrative learning
Games do, sometimes, have a narrative arc, but it’s gameplay and participation that really matters. This is what makes them such powerful learning experiences. The unpredictability is what makes them challenging. When the narrative is too strong, or the challenges too narrow, the game suffers.

Wikis – non-narrative learning
Baby Boomers feel uncomfortable with Wikipedia, not because of the content but because it doesn’t fit their expected fixed-narrative expectations. They can’t abide the idea that ‘experts’ need to ‘author’ content into ‘fixed’ packages. This open, fluid and on-going debate around knowledge is epistemologically sophisticated, but they can’t live with the uncertainty. They crave certainty.

Blogs – non-narrative learning
There is a clear gradient now in ‘journalism, from comments to posts to blogs to online and print articles. Bloggers are, of course, despised as amateurs by so called professional journalists. Yet who are these journalists? I’d say the bloggers, as a group, are often a stronger in terms of their experience and knowledge. They can often be more objective, as journalists can be constrained by fear of upsetting advertisers. They also present a less fixed narrative, open to comment and debate.

Social networks - on-narrative learning
Every person’s a portal, every person’s a publisher. Online identities evolve and change within rich networks. There is no fixed biographical story here, only millions of people creating their autobiographies as they live their lives. Baby Boomers carp on about privacy but what they really don’t like is the erosion of identity as a fixed narrative. They need control. Young people are relaxed about identity. They don’t see it as fixed and immutable. It's also a great soccial lering space, where people learn about how to commuicate with each other.

Every Baby Boomer has a bad novel in them. Let them stick with their peripheral book groups. They seem only capable of feeding on what they’re served up, receivers rather than givers. And don’t tell me that this is a story I’ve just posted…..

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Learning Light snuffed out

So another crazy quango gets extinguished, presumably because of its illegal governance (CEOs illegal board meeting behaviour), miserable performance (read appallingly low income) and the crazy idea that a regional initiative would have national significance. It's been mothballed and folded into the Government Office for Yorkshire and Humberside, which is tantamount to being strangled to death, then buried in a very deep pit. What a tragic waste of time and money.

After spending silly money on an array of consultants and stupid services, the money has clearly run out. The aim was to give it hefty funding (millions), which would lead to it being finacially independent. With its hapless management and stupid, provincial in-fighting, it stood no chance.

The good news is that Sheffield is shaping up nicely to rival my home town of Brighton, as the UKs leading e-learning cluster. In fact, the expansion seems to be a combination of southern companies setting up northern bases (LINE and Brighto based Kineo).

Thursday, June 12, 2008

10 curriculum changes

Give the limited time and opportunities, what should one study at school? Unfortunately, the system seems to be overloaded with irrelevance, pain and wasted time. Learning is to get the brain to do things it often doesn’t want to do. It’s hard, so why make it even harder?

1. Maths – scrap complex algebra
Millions of children are subjected to the convoluted pain of advanced algebra, at the expense of being capable of understanding statistics, interest rates, mortgages or their own, simple, personal finances. The vast majority of people will sail through successful lives without ever having to use the subject, yet algebra is probably the main reason for switching people off maths and numeracy. Scrap algebra at GCSE and relevant results would soar.

2. IT – teaching the past
A fact that is often ignored in baby boomer complaints about dumbed-down standards is the fact that most students leave school with an unacknowledged A-level in useful IT, which they learn, not in school, but in spite of school. Curiously we don’t teach keyboard skills, troubleshooting, research on the web, how to search on Google and many other practical and useful skills. Instead they get outdated content and tools they are unlikely to use. For a subject of the future, the IT curriculum is hopelessly mired in the past.

3. English – irregular and difficult
I know the Shakespeare debate rumbles on, but taking students through to an exam, with specific questions on a Shakespeare play, without them actually seeing the drama is frankly stupid. Yes folks this happens all the time in our schools. Shakespeare did not write to be read, he wrote plays to be seen. Then there’s the irregularity of English spelling and punctuation. What is less well known is the drag effect it has in education. There are about 800 words that are very difficult to spell without hours of drill and practice, as they are loaded with unnecessary and silent letters. Compared to other European languages, English has a heavy burden to bear in spelling being phonetically weak (eight, height, dreamt, through etc). Other countries have changed and simplified their spelling (Portugal, Russia, Turkey, Germany). Language is about communication, so why make it so difficult to learn and use?

4. Music –violence of the violin
Desperate efforts are made by the educational system to get parents to buy violins for very young children. They are then subjected to the tedious task of learning an instrument that is particularly difficult for children to even hold, never mind finger (no frets). It’s a fiendishly difficult instrument to learn. Then there’s the noise. This is tantamount to child abuse! In terms of productivity, the attrition rate is horrendous. There’s a glut of half-size, second-hand violins on the market. Rather than promote instruments that are actually used by the vast majority of adults later in life we adopt an outdated ‘classical’ view of music and aesthetics, which more likely to kill than encourage a child’s interest.

5. Art – unstructured mess
At no point have my kids been taught to draw. Call me old-fashioned but this seems to be a basic skill in art. The teaching, in general, seems to be an unstructured mess, no more than a series of ‘try it and see’ creative experiments. Neither have they ever been taken to a major gallery, despite free entrance, and being less than an hour from London, which has some of the greatest galleries in the world. Have we abandoned the idea that there’s some skill, as well as creativity in art?

6. Languages – English the lingua franca of the world
Hundreds of thousands of students are put through years of classroom teaching in a foreign language only to emerge with little or no ability to speak or understand that language. Why? You don’t learn a language in the classroom without supplementing it with lots of other forms of practice. Language learning needs exposure, immersion and lots of one-to-one practice. An intensive few weeks in an immersive course would achieve more than a 4 or 5 year school GCSE course. We have other disadvantages. Everyone else is trying to learn English, and succeeding, making it difficult (and arguably less necessary) to learn a foreign language. If English is the lingua franca of the world, why bother?

7. Latin – resurrecting the dead
Where in educational theory does it say that learning a language that has been dead for centuries, is a sensible educational goal? Nowhere. This old fossil of a subject is perhaps the most wasteful, but also the most vociferously defended, subjects in the school curriculum. The old-chestnut of an excuse, that ‘it helps one learn other languages’ is simply false. If this were true, it could only be true of romance languages. You’re far better off just learning those languages. Learning Latin just reduces the amount of time you can devote to that task. Latin is a middle-class affectation.

8. Religious education – stay secular
We live in a largely secular country, so why so much compulsion around sheep-dipping in and out of the world’s major religions? Why not remain firmly secular in schools? Ethics I could understand, but seeing everything through the cloudy lens of multiple religions is a restrictive, pluralistic jumble.

9. Cut wasted corridor time
Imagine if every company and organization in the land got their employees to stand and march off to another department every hour. That’s what schools do. Getting students to shift every hour wastes huge amounts of their productive time. The time taken to pack up, file out of the classroom, walk the corridors, file into the next classroom, unpack and settle down is hugely wasteful. The there’s the rounding up of stragglers. Go for three 100 minute lessons per day; two in the morning, one in the afternoon. Our school does this and it works.

10. Learning at home – where did it go?
Why have so many state schools abandoned the idea of students doing their own learning at home? Our secondary school has all but abandoned homework in the first three years. Weeks go by without any significant learning at home. This has put many parents in the position of having to set homework for their own kids. Many simply hire tutors (this is massive in many state schools). I know of one parent who has simply lifted their child out of the school on this one criterion alone. Well structured learning at home (what schools foolishly call home’work’), is the foundation of autonomous learning. It reinforces and extends what’s taught in the classroom and allows parents to get involved.

The English curriculum looks as though it has been designed by a committee of pensioners from Tunbridge Wells. It’s old-fashioned, overloaded with unnecessary baggage and at times stops rather than encourages learning. On top of this we have several curricula, by several examination bodies, confusing the matter even further. What keeps all of this waste alive? Simple inertia, the fact that we’ve always done it this way.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Classrooms, Computers and Confucius in China

I spent some time traveling around China in May, and have been involved in some e-learning work with the Chinese Government through the World Bank. What did I learn from all this? Well, it’s an amazing mix of contradictions. A people addicted to passive, non-critical, classroom learning but a rising generation addicted to mobiles and the internet. A culture still profoundly conformist and Confucian in education, yet dying to to break free from the past. With education all but destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, China is trying to use education to create its own future.

Confucian meritocracy
Today 10.5 million Chiese sit the gaokao, the state entrance exam for Universities. Only 6 million will succeed. The cream of the crop are likely to be employed in government. This selection process has an ancient pedigree in China. Confucian education is nearly 2,500 years old and is based on hard work, compliance to the state, a focus on personal behaviour and competitive examinations. Confucian exams were take so seriously in the past that papers were kept locked up, examinees body searched, essays transcribed into identical calligraphy and read by at least two independent examiners. The penalty for abuse was death and exile for one’s family, and nepotism was avoided through quotas. In was an absolute meritocracy. One study showed that 83% of the top students were from lower-class families. Note that it wasn’t until the 18th ad 19th centuries that meritocratic examinations were introduced in Europe and the US.

Education abhorred
Although China has this Confucian continuity, in the second half of the 20th century, Maoism led to compulsory Marxist-Leninist ideological schooling then the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, encouraged by Mao, when school teachers and intellectuals were ridiculed, tortured and even murdered by their students. Their education system literally imploded. China today is really a Deng Xiapeng inspired, post-Mao society, where education has exploded from nothing to warp speed in 25 years.

Learn Mandarin? Don’t bother
There are nearly as many people learning English in China, as speak English in the US, Canada and the UK combined. Learning Mandarin is pointless, better to learn other skills, while Chinese kids learn English. English is absolutely the language of choice in China. You see English schools and ads for English lessons everywhere, and the use of the internet for learning English is massive.

Save to learn
Its cities are its economic dynamos and the Chinese salt away up to 40% of their income for their old age, education and support, exacerbated by the one child per family policy (apart from minorities). This draconian birth control policy means they are vociferous savers and invest a high proportion of their income specifically in the education of their children. These savings fuel the economy and pay for the financing of their own and even the US economy.

Learning fast
They start at six/seven and have six years of primary education, followed by six in secondary up to the age of 18. But in terms of the curriculum, China is very different, with more focus on science, technology and vocational subjects, which have been mandated to drive economic progress. This has now widened out with increasing interest in the humanities.

Schooling is long hours and often long journeys with absent parents working away from their home town. Everywhere in China you see groups of track-suited kids (school uniforms are colourful sportswear). Playgrounds often have large groups of students doing choreographed dance, singing patriotic songs and generally being drilled into a communal approach to progress. One lovely feature I saw, were children taking a daily nap after lunch. The Chinese have long recognized that children are in no mental state to learn in that post-prandial period.

Behind all this is a recent, massive growth in the private sector in learning. Despite the appearance of uniformity and the desperate grind towards getting your child to University, there is plenty of variety in the system. A sign of this ambition is the fact that there are more Chinese students studying abroad than any other country.

Stunning Shaolin
A visit to the Shaolin monastery in Central China, the acknowledged 5th century source for all martial arts, revealed a fascinating side of Chinese education. It was a unique occasion, as a big-wig was visiting, and this brought out the entire student population. This is the home of Zen Buddhism at the foot of a sacred mountain with a temple, founded in 496 AD. There are an amazing 160,000 students here, many in schools with up to 30,000 students, who receive a disciplined martial arts and academic education. Students are sent here by their parents from all over China. The aim is to give them some discipline, independence with the promise of good jobs in the police, military, security, even the movies.

Shaolin was a mass of students, colour, movement and flags. There were students in mock fights, poses, even meditating in the woods. They were remarkably disciplined and happy, despite the cold wind that cut through their flimsy, silk outfits. I will never forget the sight of these tens of thousands of smiling students. It was especially thrilling as my sons are both experienced Tae Kwon Do students and instructors.

Exercise and sports
Curiously, my first glimpse of sport in China was cricket, on the way from the airport. However, it was clear that the Chinese have a radically different tradition and approach to sport and exercise. Table tennis is everywhere but basketball is the sport they adore. Space is at a premium, so soccer fields are rare. Basketball is played in every school.

Then there are the street gyms – free equipment in little parks for citizens to exercise. But this is nothing compared to the millions of older Chinese who get up at dawn and do Tai Chi and a myriad of other activities in their local park every morning. China wakes up, exercises and gets on with the job. They are clearly conscious of personal health, and obesity is very, very rare.

Visit the Temple of Heaven, or any other public park, and you’ll witness the early morning activities – tai chi, swords, fans, a game where one keeps a feathered shuttlecock aloft with one’s feet, calligraphy using a large brush and water, singing, playing traditional music instruments, cards, mah-jong. Thousands of people taking exercise or simply having fun with their fellow citizens. It’s quite moving. A typical Western park at that time of the morning would be empty apart from a couple of dog walkers. Its social function is extraordinary as older people sit, chat, exercise, sing and walk their birds. This was a sort of small paradise, far different from parks in the west.

In Luoyang I went for a walk in the Peony Park at 6.30 am. It was a riot of activity but all organised and at a pace to suit everyone. There was slow paced tai chi, ultra-slow tai chi, faster with swords, slower with pikes, mid-pace with scarves, the two large groups dressed in beautiful red and white silk suits exercising with fans which would all chop open at the same time producing a wonderful wooden snap sound. There were also modern dancers doing waltzes and the tango. One group were dancing in unison to Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ but in a slow and graceful fashion, in complete opposition to the lyrics, which I’m sure they didn’t understand. The there were the badminton players and people playing foot badminton. Big brush calligraphy was also on show. There was even a guy with a bullwhip and a spinning top. Several people came up to me and spoke in English. One an older man, had great English, another woman wanted me to meet her English teacher and they turned up at the hotel the next day.

No internet, no life
That was a quote from a Chinese youngster. Internet cafes are everywhere, some with hundreds of PCs, and full of youngsters escaping the lack of privacy and cramped conditions at home. PCs are expensive and this is a way of getting some social contact with one’s peers. News is HUGE, MSN is HUGE, game playing is HUGE. However, the government has been trying to close many of them down over the last couple of years. They’re seen as subversive.

Internet and mobile use ahead of US
Internet use in China is now much bigger than the US and has a very different profile. China has restricted media and is a huge country with a huge population, so news and email are the two big uses. More than 220 million Chinese were on the internet in February 08, according to estimates from official Chinese statistics by Beijing-based research group BDA China. (Official Government statistics come out in July). With a growth rate of over 50% per annum, the numbers are mind-blowing. This compares to 216 million users at the end of 07, in the US. Of course the percentage of the population in the US on the internet is over 70%, compared to China’s 17%, but China has 1.3 billion people compared to the US’s 304 million.

China is also the world leader in mobile telephone use. Mobiles are unbelievably common, and preferred to landlines. They have literally skipped a generation in telecoms. One curious cultural difference was the way the almost wholly Chinese audiences chat and answer mobiles during the whole performance, and even stand up in front of you before the performance is finished. The audience was awash with mobile phones being held aloft to video/photograph the action, blinding those in the row behind. The act of recording was clearly, to many, more important than enjoying the real performance. I’m told that cinemas are similarly plagued with people who cheerfully answer and chat into their phones during the entire movie. I’m told this also happens in India.

With many tens of millions of bloggers, one would expect a lot of anti-government activity. However, a lot of bloggers are just as angry with the western media’s coverage of China, the Olympics and Tibet.

Great Firewall of China
No matter how may electronic fingers they insert into the wall to stop the leaks, the people and technology seems to be winning. A PC costs as little as £200 and the software is all pirated. I tried the usual Tibet, Tianamen and Taiwan searches but most were disabled. However, Wikipedia is available, with only sub-sections rendered inaccessible. Of course, other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, also control internet traffic. They have just one ISP which screens out un-Islamic sites. Chinese traffic is too large to police but it has four levels of filters and keyword identification. So Tibet, Taiwan, Tianamen, Falun Gong are pretty much kept outside of the wall. However, the Great Firewall is full of leaks and much traffic takes place between mobiles and using flash drives.

Education does not mean innovation
It is not clear that the Confucian Chinese system of education, with its focus on passive, rote learning, leads to innovation. It seems to have produced a culture of copying and commoditisation. What all of this manufacturing and rush to modernity means is commoditisation. China is not an innovator. there was little in the way of things that was surprising, fresh or new. The same copied stuff appears everywhere. One yearns for creativity, rather than copying. I suspect this has a lot to do with the educational system, with its Confucian conformity. It was disappointing to see MacDonald’s, KFC and Starbucks in all major towns and cities. I hope the Chinese don’t fall for this commoditised, US version of western culture.

Several recent commentators have looked at China’s long history of imitation, borrowing and copying. The scale of software pirating is immense, even at the corporate level and punishment is rare and irrelevant. Local officials are often involved in counterfeiting businesses and tourists lap it up. This creates an unfair commercial playing field. It also puts a break on ideas led innovation and entrepreneurialism as everyone knows that their ideas can be pinched and copied. This is a nation that broke all the rules to get here, they see this as a virtue. The bottom line here, is that this avoidance of law is, in fact, a massive global subsidy.

The downside of rapacious capitalism, is that there are few great companies and problems with productivity, rampant counterfeiting, corruption, white elephant projects, risky bank loans and inflation. China was not a signatory of the Kyoto agreement and many of its huge cities sit beneath smog that blots out the sun for days on end. Desertification is eating away at productive agricultural land, water is polluted or in short supply, and air quality is appalling. This remains a problem for both China and the world.

Economically, this is rampant capitalism, with few of the slowly evolved checks and balances of the West. Companies keep three sets of accounts, one for the bank, one for tax, one for management. Loans and bad debts may yet rebound if there’s a downturn or recession and the credit crunch in China could be mother of all crunches. The necessary lowering of expectations may also lead to political problems as there are huge funding issues around health, education and social security. China is 144th in the world on public health supply.

Sorry if I’ve gone on a bit – just wanted to pass on my general impressions before they fade.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Learnish - the language of learning

Gave a talk yesterday to a packed audience of hundreds of teachers with Professor Frank Coffield and Professor Guy Claxon. It was an exhilarating day as the audience was really up for it - very feisty.


Professor Guy Claxton kicked bogus learning styles theory into touch. He heard one teacher pointing to a hapless lad at the front of her class, "This is Brendan, our kinaesthetic learner. Aren’t you Brendan”. ‘Kinaesthetic’, he said, was teacher code for naughty! He abhorred this pseudo-academic talk in the classroom. True to his word he gave a lovely, relaxed talk around the language of learning. In a fascinating observational study, teachers were found to use the word ‘work’ far more often than ‘learning’ (98% to 2%). By simply shifting towards the language of ‘learning’ (learnish) you can see a whole change in attitude by teachers and learners.

He is right on all of this. There's too much bogs theory and language floating around in our schools. Learning is getting the brain to do something it often doesn't want to do. This needs the language of encouragement and persuasion, not the language of 'work'. He was a joy to listen to.

Frank Coffield
Frank Coffield is a hero of mine, as he swept the whole ‘learning styles’ obsession into the dustbin with a brilliant research project that brought the whole house of cards tumbling down. Then there’s his brilliant critique of educational policies and organizations, where he laid bare the whole Byzantine mess. He is a great speaker and very good writer. Just a few of his bon mots:

DIUS – Department for Ingenious but Unworkable Schemes
ALL principals should teach
Have a definition of learning
Understand learning theory
WhiteBoards – 2 major studies (London and NE) show they are ineffective
Get back to teaching and learning

Terrific day
We all got a very positive response and as the excellent organizer, Jo Trump, reported by email, ‘a terrific day yesterday. Staff went away buzzing and are fired up to examine practices and assumptions and to make some changes’. She was absolutely right, the chair couldn’t get the audience to stop talking to bring the event to a end.

Strange suggestion
I knew we had hit the right note when one teacher, during my Q&A, stated that I shouldn't be allowed to speak at such conferences. Now, as I put forward some radical ideas around the use of technology in learning, I've been heckled and had some pretty aggressive 'baby boomer' reactions, but complete censorship has never been suggested. Should someone like her, so unwilling to learn and listen to the views of others, really be allowed to teach? Luckily her colleagues came to my defence in their droves. They were pretty much a fine bunch all round.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

10 reasons not to use Second Life in learning

Nice list from Clark Aldrich on why Second Life is not all it's cracked up to be in learning:

  1. Support for a good scripted story.
  2. Support for After action reviews (AARs)
  3. Heads up display (HUD) to support specific , as opposed to navigation.
  4. Interfaces that map to real world actions (see directing people in an educational sim: a case study in balancing "open-ended" with helpful )
  5. Dynamic AI Characters, with which participants can repeatedly try new behavior to see how they react, and any form of interesting computer controlled, scriptable units for a player to influence.
  6. The modeling of functional Work Processes
  7. Levels, tasks, and milestones.
  8. Dynamic systems, with interacting primary variables and secondary variables tied to Actions.
  9. Supporting mentor/supervisor/guides.
  10. Any direct support of Big Skills or Middle Skill (in a way that is richer than real life).
This is heading in the right direction. Closed learning games and tools (such as Caspian Learning) are far better bets in this area.

In lectures, no one can hear you dream

What do we actually know about attention in lectures?

Studies suggest that learners attention, after a 2-3 minute settling down period at the very start, can be held for about 15-20 minutes Johnstone and Percival studied students with 12 lecturers in over 90 lectures. They spent 2-3 mins settling down, 10-18 minutes first lapses in attention after 10-18 minutes, then progressively shorter attention periods, dropping to 3-4 minutes towards end.

A later study, by Burns, matched student summaries with lecture content and found exactly the same thing , "As the lecture proceeded attention spans became shorter and often fell to three or four minutes towards the end of a standard lecture." Highest recall was at the start with a fall off after 15-20 minutes.

You would think that the solution to this problem would be no lectures, at least shorter lectures or even the recording of lectures for future attention at your own pace. But no, the one long lecture remains the mainstay of almost every educational institution and conference. This is akin to transport by horse, herbal medicine or astronomy by binoculars. They all work to a degree, but are hopelessly limited.


At last a British university has had the good sense to follow Stanford, Yale and MIT, and publish materials via the iTunes U service. UCL, with Trinity College and the Open University, has launched its iTunes platform, with free lectures, interviews, seminars and news available to download onto iPods or computers.

What I do like about the UCL service is its enlightened mix of content:

  • a virtual tour of this year’s UCL Slade School of Fine Art Summer Show
  • recent lectures by high-profile speakers, such as Dr Tadataka Yamada of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • first-hand expert accounts of the history of neuroscience
  • UCL’s popular Lunch Hour Lectures, providing the public with behind-the-scenes look at cutting-edge research

UCL on iTunes:

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

10 ‘tyrannies of time’ in learning

Had a wonderful experience this week – over two days I watched all 12 episodes of ‘The Wire’ (possibly the best TV series I’ve ever watched) on video on demand. I’ve ordered the next two series on DVD. It got me thinking. TV programmes start on the hour or half hour. Why? So we remember when to watch them – they’re timetabled. The whole DVD, video-on-demand, iPlayer, download, bit-torrent thing time-shifts TV and film, so that we can watch when we want. It’s liberating.

In learning, time is tragically tyrannical.

1. Agricultural timetable
Schools, colleges and universities work to a pre-industrial, agricultural calendar, resulting in one long summer holiday (period of forgetting) and several other long holidays, all suited to the needs of (harvest and fruit-picking) and now timetabled holidays for teachers. Most educational buildings are therefore empty most of the time.

2. Hour of learning
One hour lectures and e-learning bought by ‘hour of learning’ metric. Yet there’s nothing in the psychology of learning that says this is right. We have hours simply because they’re easy to timetable. Even worse, consider the fact that we only have hours because the Babylonians had a base-60 number system. It’s a pathetic learning period.

3. Fixed length courses
In my kids’ school we have fluent, first-language French and Spanish speakers in French and Spanish GCSE courses for years on end! Many courses are too long, some too short, and of you want to go into further education in October, you’ll have to wait for nearly a year to start your course.

4. Tyranny of timed talk
Timetabled talks – lectures - are the mainstay of higher education. But having to sit and listen to someone (ofte a poor presenter) talk at you (for an hour) is hard going and educationally inefficient. The ‘chalk and talk’ model has being going on for so long that we’ve simply forgotten that it doesn’t wash.

5. No recording and distribution
Preventing learners from access to learning content when they want is criminal. Why don’t we record lectures to be reviewed when students want, and to allow them to stop, rewind, reflect, take notes etc? Novelists, journalists, movie makers, bloggers, wiki contributors and almost everyone else on the planet distribute material to be available to audiences – all, apart from learning professionals!

6. Course v action
The timing of courses is often dislocated from the opportunity to put what you’ve learnt into practice. Induction courses that start weeks after you’ve joined, IT courses long before the software is available and so on. The time of a course is often not immediately before its practical application, introducing a period of forgetting or skills decay.

7. No spaced practice
The ‘sheep-dip’ experience, is standard in the vast majority of courses. It completely ignores the need for spaced-practice over time, denying reinforcement and retention. To be blunt - it simply means we forget most of what is taught on courses.

8. Attention and learning
Psychological attention is a necessary condition for most meaningful learning. By tying learning to specific times it is unlikely to be congruent with periods of optimal attention. Chinese schoolchildren have a nap after lunch to combat this problem. We heavily timetable ineffective, post-prandial periods of learning.

9. Time to attend
Courses and lectures demand ‘attendance’, thus wasting huge amounts of time, money and effort in just getting there. A ridiculous amount of time and money is spent on simply getting to the starting point and getting back – this can be up to 50% of a give training budget.

10. Time wasted
Within a course, people are always dropping out, cognitively. Classroom studies in the UK and US show that children spend as much as 50-60% just waiting on things to happen in fixed timetabled classrooms. Actual cognitive engagement and efficient learning, in classrooms, conferences and lecture halls, is surprisingly low.

Time is truly tyrannical in learning. Timeshift is the answer.