Monday, August 15, 2011

7 ways education contributes to rioting?

Many riots take place during the summer months when the rioters are not at school or college. They have time on their hands, are often bored and don’t have to get up for anything the next morning.

The education system, therefore, becomes a contributory factor in social unrest. It is the only area of human endeavour that sticks to a 19th century agricultural calendar and curriculum, which has several downsides:

  1. Facilities lie idle in schools for months on end – sports facilities, theatres, classrooms – as they are mothballed during long holidays.
  2. Kids find themselves with little to do, especially te poor, who can’t afford holidays and travelling.
  3. The cost of holidays is pushed beyond many poor parents because travel companies push up prices during the school holidays, leaving and poor to amuse themselves on the streets.
  4. The cost of education is artificially high because the capital and maintenance budget is not spent wisely. For months of the year these buildings are largely empty.
  5. Summer is a time for forgetting. We know that the long summer hols set back students, especially those from poorer background with less home support in learning. This in turn leads to low achievement and disaffection.
  6. Pushing irrelevant educational content, such as the more esoteric portions of the maths curriculum, literary criticism and Latin, is a recipe for further disaffection with schools.
  7. The educational apartheid and failure to give vocational learning the status it deserves leads to perceived failure by those who do not have an academic bent, again leading to disaffection.

Now we know that there’s a need for better education and training. Surely we could find a way to add a fourth semester to school and colleges, to make better use of the assets, reduce the cost per student and get on with solving some of the problems in our society. I’ve already blogged a good example of how this could be achieved through practical, vocational, learning opportunities that sweat existing, unused facilities.

Isn’t it also ironic that the rioters shop of choice is JB Sports and their loot of choice sportswear and the irony that these riots took place in the shadow of the Olympic build. The rhetoric is all about participation in sport, yet the youth clubs in these areas are being shut down. This has been a lost opportunity. We could have used the Olympics as a means to create tens of thousands of apprenticeships and encouraged participation in sport through local initiatives. My kids have been training all summer in Tae Kwon do. It’s kept them fit and occupied. Note that this has nothing to do with school and PE – the PE teachers are all on holiday and the school facilities locked up. In fact the classes normally run in my two nearest schools have stopped because the schools are closed! This is madness.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Vorderman on maths – reactionary TV presenter, no maths degree, debt & property scammer advises us on maths!

We’ve had an endless stream of ‘I’m a celebrity, let me fix your schools’ types this year; Jamie Oliver, Toby Young, Joanna Lumley, and now, god help us, Carol Vorderman. (Interesting to note that this Conservative supporter wouldn't be allowed to teach maths, as Gove doesn't want teachers with anything less than a 2.2 - she has a third.)

Vorderman – a few unsavoury facts

Just a few words about Vorderman: a) She doesn’t have a maths degree, she has a third class degree in Engineering, b) She acted as a spokesperson for the rogue debt consolidation company First Plus, forced to cut the contract after criticism from the debt charity Credit Action c) She fronted a property company that collapsed leaving many with unfinished properties abroad which they had paid for, d) Sacked from Channel 4 after being seen as a money-grabbing lightweight on £1 million a year, e) After a disastrous appearance on question time, where she spouted extreme right-wing views, Dimbleby said in the Times, It lasted an hour, this felt like more to me.” f) she also has a long history of being partisan on educational politics and attacking the Labour Party.

So let’s imagine the following conversation at Tory Party headquarters, who commissioned the report when they were in opposition; “Suggestions to sort out maths in schools? How about Carol Vorderman? Does he have a maths degree? Well no, and we’ll have to hide that fact that she’s encouraged dodgy debt management, fronted a failed property scam and spouts reactionary nonsense whenever possible. But, she does have one redeeming feature. What’s that? She’s ‘rear of the year’. Call her.”

To be fair, apart from Carol, the team is academically sound, and has made some interesting observations and recommendations.


They conclude, that the maths curriculum is a catastrophic, irrelevant mess, geared towards higher advanced maths at the expense of functional maths. I couldn’t agree more. Teaching 14 year olds how to use the quadratic formula and surds is just plain stupid. Roger Schank often asks his academic audiences whether any of them can remember the quadratic formula, and he rarely, if ever, gets a correct answer. Why worry then that, “Only 15% of students take mathematics, in some form, beyond GCSE” as the current GCSE is hopelessly geared towards high-level, irrelevant, abstract maths. I think 15% is reasonable, if not a little high. And if “Nearly half of all students ‘fail’ GCSE Mathematics, why worry, as it’s a flawed, overly-academic and partly irrelevant qualification.

The GCSE curriculum is loaded with esoteric algebra, trigonometry, geometry and number theory that 99% of learners will never, ever use in their entire working lives. Note that this is at the expense of functional maths in two senses, 1) it squeezes practical maths out of the curriculum, 2) it is a massive demotivator, reinforcing the idea among millions of children that ‘they can’t do maths’.

The suggestion that we have a mainstream Maths GCSE that focuses on functional numeracy is therefore wise. This is what I had at school in Scotland many moons ago. I did an O-level in Arithmetic (practical) and another in Maths (theoretical). Makes sense, although I’d reframe Arithmetic as ‘Practical Maths’. Employers aren’t complaining that people don’t have ‘maths’ skills, they’re complaining because they don’t have basic ‘functional numeracy’.


At one end of the spectrum the team are spot on – primary school teaching. The teaching of maths at this level is woeful; mostly because the vast majority of teachers have very low numeracy skills, and partly because of poor teaching methods. In the same way that whole word teaching had a catastrophic impact on literacy; ill-informed, half-baked, non-integrated and inconsistent approaches to numeracy teaching have also been catastrophic. There is the recommendation that the teaching be rooted in the real world, through practical tasks – something that’s been recommended for decades but been studiously ignored in schools.

Almost all primary teachers stopped maths at 16

The recommendation of a minimum B pass in GCSE in maths before you’re allowed to teach the subject sounds like a bad joke until you realise that our children are being taught by largely innumerate primary school teachers. It claims that, “Almost all of those on primary PGCE courses gave up studying mathematics at age 16. So, by the time they taught their first classes, they had not studied mathematics to any meaningful level for at least six years.” Only about 2% of primary school teachers have a degree in science or any STEM subject.

Most maths not taught by maths teachers!

Another shocker is the fact that in secondary schools, “24% of all children in secondary schools are not taught by specialist mathematics teachers”. Read that again. Most maths is not taught by maths teachers! However, the team have fallen into the trap of seeing the solution to bad schooling as yet more schooling. Forcing young people to study maths until they are 18 is just plain lunacy. If you haven’t got basic, functional numeracy into your head after 11 consecutive years of maths, another two years isn’t going to matter and the idea of ‘maths citizenship’ is just weird.


The report points out 1) the people teaching maths are by and large amateurs, 2) the curriculum is too esoteric, 3) we need two separate maths qualifications. I agree with all of these findings but we’re chasing moonbeams here. First, the educational establishment is so wedded to dated PGCE recruitment and curriculum practices that it is almost impossible to reform without radical restructuring. You have to get teacher training out of the Universities where it reinforces the old academic model and change the methods of recruitment. Secondly, you have to break the back of the gold standard, A-level mindset, where University entrance is the primary goal of all schooling and everything else is classed as failure. It ain’t going to happen.

Download full report here.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Education at its very best - Brighton Rocks!

Rockshop – education at its very best

Last night I saw the fruits of what I regard as an ideal educational experience, run during the school holidays, yet none of the participants or observers would have seen it as ‘educational’ in any sense. Here’s what happens. Seventy to eighty kids attend a five day event called ‘Rockshop’ run by Herbie Flowers, who played with the likes of Lou Reed and David Bowie. He has several tutors who ‘tut’.

Goal driven

On Monday morning they have a goal: write some songs and perform them live, to a paying audience, on Friday night.

Learn by doing

The tutors don’t deliver formal lectures or lessons, they simply facilitate the process, helping where and when they can. The whole point is to learn by doing. The kids learn together, from each other and from the tutors, as they write, refine, practice and perform real songs.

Work with strangers

What’s great is the fact that many of these kids work with people they’ve never met before, which teaches them social, communication and work skills. They learn with and from other people who are not in their normal peer group. They make new friends, in some cases I’m sure, lifelong friends.

Good social mix

There’s kids from a range of social backgrounds; private schools, state schools and kids with special needs who have found they have a talent for paying an instrument, and the whole group clearly support each other (give or take some teenage ‘attitude’!).

Peer learning

There’s classically trained violinists, singer song writers, mouth organists, jazz fans, drummers, base players, guitarists, keyboard players and brass players. And it’s cool if you’re not as good as the others – because they all know they’re there to learn, not to judge. They’re showing each other chords, base lines and twinning up on stage so the strongest can help smooth out the weakest. It’s all good.


The goal brings focus, so forget about lack of concentration and attention. They’re full on, 9-5.30, then evenings at home. Many even popped out to busk at lunchtime!


There’s no need for formal assessment as it’s all about real performance. This is what brings out the best in these teenagers is that the pressure comes not from the exam but something they care deeply about, their own performance and competence. And boy did they respond.

Family and friends

Friday night came and a sell-out audience, largely the friends and relatives of the performers, was waiting eagerly – no expectations then! I was particularly impressed by the number of young people in the audience who were there to see and support their friends. My lad had his parents, grandparents, two cousins and a friend watching – that’s pressure. But it was the whole family thing that made it work. Suddenly it was cool to have worked hard and practised. It was cool to learn.

The quality of the songs was outstanding both lyrically and in musical composition. We had jazz, soulful ballads, a sophisticated live, looped composition, rock and folk. And the finale, with all of the kids on the stage rocking out with the audience on their feet, was great. The kids had busked at lunchtime and gave the cash to Herbie and he promised to use it to subsidise the tuckshop!

Share it

But that’s not all. All the sessions and loads of photos will/have been uploaded to YouTube and Flickr. So the show goes on and performers, their family and friends can enjoy what they’ve achieved. It’s also archived for future use.


For some kids, learning is best done out of the confines of school and exams, by professionals with real stature. Herbie’s one of those people, as is my son’s drum tutor Phil and their Tae Kwon Do master, Howard. None of these people have teaching qualifications, but they’re among the best teachers I know. These people have enriched my children’s lives and deserve all the support they can get.

But what really fascinates me is the way in which institutional language and approaches are almost completely absent. There’s no talk of ’learners’ and ‘learning’. No one sees this as a course with lessons, sitting at desks and bells. There’s no ‘teachers’ just tutors who, as Herbie says ‘Tut don’t teach’. And there’s no written exam, just pure performance where everyone walks away with an experience they’ll remember for the rest of their lives, having grown as people, in terms of confidence and competence.

I have to declare an interest here as I’m the Deputy Chair of the Brighton Dome and Festival (a Concert Hall, two additional theatres and England’s largest annual arts Festival). Our wonderful Educational Director, Pippa Smith, supports this event which is run every year. There needs to be more of this during the summer months.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

George Siemens - if social media goes so does connectivism

So George Siemens has lost interest in social media as “there is no there there” (plagiarising Gertrude Stein). Now I’m not an uncritical zealot when it comes to social media and have spoken out against the hype, but to claim there’s no substance at all to social media is wrong.

First he makes the general statement, “Social media=emotions”. I assume he means that social media only results in the emotional outpourings from the participants. So when I get invites to speak, write, exchange views, follow up links to useful blog pieces/articles/academic papers, read reviews and then go to movies/theatre, share photographs, rediscover old friends and meet up, keep in touch with distant relatives – it’s just a well of emotional mush? What George fails to understand is the fact that the networked world is causally connected to the real world. Real things happen in the real world because we communicate through these networks.

Siemens use of Facebook and Twitter seems to have been limited to, “attending to my emotive needs of being connected to people when I’m traveling and whining”. A bad workman blames his tools and if he sees Facebook and Twitter as ‘posting only’ media, forgetting that there’s groups, messaging and other features that are widely used for practical purposes, that’s his loss.

Connectivism not really there?

I should say from the start that I never bought Connectivism, as it muddles up primitive epistemology, dated social psychology and pedagogy to produce a nexus of thinly connected ideas around an abstract noun. Not for the first time have such vague, unsubstantiated ideas gained currency among educators. For me, the real problem is duplicity. Surely he's thrown out his connectivist baby with the bathwater of abandoned social media. So much for the idea of knowledge existing in the world of real activity by real people. Surely that also means 750 million on Facebook and hundreds of millions of learners on Twitter and other social media. And so much for the whole idea of creating a network for learning – unless, of course, that must mean George’s blog, online courses and speaking engagements. In a stroke Siemens has banished the largest and most potent networks on the planet to the dead zone, and with it connectivism.


So what’s his solution? “The substance needs to exist somewhere else (an academic profile, journal articles, blogs, online courses” says George. He means, of course, ‘the academy’, namely academia and academics. George’s problem is to imagine that the academy is the focus of all intellectual and important activity. The conceit is the idea that if it ain’t about institutional learning it ain’t worth it. It’s an academic conceit that we all want to be lifelong learners taking their courses, attending their lectures, signing up for their online courses and hanging on their every word. Most of us couldn’t wait to get out of school and college, and wouldn’t dream of going back. Not leaving school at all is fine, but it doesn’t give you the right to look down upon others just because they don’t write academic articles and aren’t part of those networks. After nearly 30 years in the learning game, I truly believe that little has emerged from academia in terms of innovation, pedagogy and good practice. Indeed they themselves seem stuck in a primitive pedagogy that depends on lectures (which they will defend to the death). Time to move on.

Social media and politics

He ridicules Jeff Jarvis’s comments on the political power of the hashtag but the University of Athabasca ain’t Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen or Syria. Academics like Siemens can afford to disconnect because, to caricature Kissinger, “the stakes are so small.” “The notion of the Arab Spring being about social media is similarly misguided” says Siemens. Well, one can sit in some University somewhere and make these generalisations but YouTube, Twitter and Facebook have, and continue, to play a serious causal role in these revolutions. It's something I'm convinced of after travelling and speaking to young people in these countries. People are dying for their rights and using these media to achieve real political change and it's an insult for ill-informed academics to reduce this to an off-hand comment about it being 'misguided'.


Let me end with a real story about Facebook. Jan Kaufman, a learning expert, had a stroke last year, and we watched with astonishment as she at first typed garbled posts, then over the following year got better by drawing nourishment from her friends on Facebook. She was inspirational and genuinely thinks that social media contributed to her recovery. We, in turn, learnt loads about what it really means to have a stroke, hospital life, claiming benefits and recovering cognitive skills. If George wants to dismiss this as useless ‘emotion’, he’s making a big mistake. It was a genuine learning experience for me, Jan and many of her friends. Social networks are, for him, “void of substance”. I fear, however, that it is Siemen’s arguments that are void of substance.