Saturday, January 24, 2015

Boko Haram (Western Education is sinful) a look behind the slogan

Last year I was due to go to lecture and deliver workshops at the University of Nigeria. I got my yellow fever injection, malaria tablets, went through the rude and depressing process of getting my visa at the Nigerian Embassy in London. In the end, the trip was pulled. The University had received bomb threats from Boko Haram. These people wanted to blow ME to pieces. But why? Why is ‘education’ the target?
What’s with Boko Haram?
Boko Haram means ‘Western Education is sinful’. What does that mean or at least signify? Why have they targeted education in particular? Why the gender war? Surely education is a universal good? Well, we must look behind the horror to see what’s happening there, as education, in particular our model, is NOT seen as a universal good by all.
Higher Education
Let’s start at the top. The African elite send their kids to Western Universities, many of whom return (if they return at all) to continue the cycle of despotism and corruption that their parents used to enrich themselves. Note that much of the money laundering takes place right here in London by our own breed of university-educated lawyers and city accountants. This is relevant, as the resources that should have gone to northern Nigeria, have gone to a tiny elite both in Nigeria and here in the UK. Western Education at that level is as much a problem as a solution. It is corruption by the Nigerian Government, both in the power that now remains in the south, starving the north of resources, and in the north itself, particularly in Borno state, the poorest state in Nigeria, that has caused a loss of hope in the large numbers of young, employed youth. We have seen these viscious fundamentalist groups arise across Africa, some with Christianity at their heart - take Uganda's Lord's Reststance Army.
The answer to bad schooling is always more schooling. Just get every child into school and all will be well. Well – no. As a goal in itself, and it is a Millennium goal, it is not nearly enough. The problems occur when these kids leave school. School is not always relevant. The standard image of African kids, in colonial type uniforms, sitting in rows, with a chalk-board and teacher, is not what is needed. Africa, above all, has a form of schooling that is deeply colonial, defined by the academic systems in Britain and France.
In fact, it is a dated and inefficient system, with poorly trained teachers, limited and irrelevant curriculum, with massive teacher absenteeism. The experience is often an irrelevant ‘going through the motions’ process of rote learning, with little effort put into making it relevant to the lives of those children. Do they really get what they need to know in terms of their farms, health, energy needs? Does it give them what they need to be autonomous adults when they leave their schools?  No. Our model is a knowledge-based model and that’s what we export to them, often ignoring the cultural and practical context in which education is delivered.
Western schooling in itself is not a solution. Gordon Brown and the educational evangelists confuse the means with the ends. School is not an end in itself, it is a means to an end. Yet, so often in poorer countries, it is just an end. Children leave school. We all leave school, except educators and academics, who stay on to deliver more schooling. So let’s not see schooling, as if it were a universal, intrinsic, objective good-in-itself.
At the tail end of this educational colonialism in Africa are the pat solutions parachuted in by the technological evangelists such as Sugata Mitra (my critique) and Negroponte. Let’s not pretend that the solution here is a hopelessly utopian Rousseau-inspired idea that children will do it for themselves, if only we just parachute tablets into their villages and drill holes in their walls for computers. This is a disgraceful form of utopianism that promises technological salvation but it’s a con. The holes in the wall are now precisely that, empty holes, that leave a nasty legacy of failure. Believe me, I’ve seen them and spoken to the people whose lives were affected by this nonsense.
What’s missing?
Is it any wonder that many of the people on the receiving end of this patronising process feel resentment? I have no sympathy with Islamic religious education or fanaticism and it’s attitudes towards education and women, nor their form of education, which is based on recitation and rote learning.  But that also means I have little sympathy with faith-based education full stop – be it Jewish, Muslim or Christian. We are not without fault in out own country with a huge slug of Church of England bishops ensconced in our House of Lords and a rise in problematic faith schools. But let’s not export our idea of education to the rest of the world as if it were a silver bullet leading to the emancipation of women and growth in all economies.
Education does not in itself create jobs
Ha-Joon Chang and several other economists buck the orthodox trend among neo-liberal economists, who state that education is what makes countries richer. This is simply not true. In addition to education, you need a stable political system, and post-school infrastructure that creates jobs for young people when they leave school. Paper-pushing education can in fact hinder this process. 18th century Britain, 19th Century US and Germany, more recently South Korea, Taiwan and China, did not surge forward on the back of ‘education’. If anything, education was a by-product. They had a holistic view of government, policies, targeted spending and purpose. The failure in northern Nigeria is the presence of colonial type schooling in a world without hope. It promises everything and delivers precisely nothing.
It’s easy to Boko Harum them as lunatics but look beyond the headlines and you’ll see a general revulsion of Western interference and values. In many places our ‘schooling’ is received with suspicion and resentment, as it doesn’t change anything. In fact, it eats away at your existing culture, isolating children from the realities of that culture and economy, then spits them out at the end – into nothing. Is it any wonder that they turn to stable, ideological causes, whether it be fundamentalism or insurgency. In that context they have a purpose, a job, a community-they are respected. The vast majority of Boko Haram fighters are boys and young men who had nothing but see, in Boko Haram, something that gives their lives meaning, a gang, a place and a purpose. Education without employment doesn't give you this. Until we waken up and see contextualised education as the solution i.e. real practical, vocational skills, not just chalk and talk lessons to wooden benches, we’ll reap what we sow.


As I was writing this piece King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died. Let's not forget that it is the Saudi Wahhabi Salafist form of Islam that Boko Haram follow and that the first BOKO Haram leader, Yusuf, was given sanctuary in Saudi Arabia.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Why Finland is finished as role model in education

Everyone in education, from politicians to teachers it seems, is a fully paid up member of the Finland Fan Club. Finland has been portrayed as an educational paradise, topping or near topping the PISA tables, with a strong economy that makes it the envy of Europe. Big problem – it’s not true.
While educators fall for PISA envy, the truth may be somewhat different. While Finland had topped the PISA rankings in 2000, 2003, and 2006, and consistently ranked near the top in other years. In 2013 they were ranked 12th. There’s a clue in the recent maths league table on how to get success – be a small, racially homogeneous country that speaks only one language. Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, Korea, Macao, Lichtenstein all feature in the Top Ten. The fact is, the leaning Tower of PISA has always been a false indicator, for many reasons, and here's why. But let's get back to Finland.

PISA trap
There's plenty to admire in Finnish education but don't believe the hype - even they don't. One educational critique has come from an unlikely source, a working Finnish teacher. She’s a whistleblower who exploded some myths with her book Wake up school! Maarit Korhonen, who has been teaching for 30 years, has pushed the leaning tower of Finnish PISA results right over. Scathing about PISA, she claims that the Finnish system is not world-beating but remains myopic and old-fashioned. She claims that, far from being a high performing system, it has become a slave to the PISA madness, happy to score well in these narrow, academic measures, while leaving far too many learners behind. According to her analysis, 2 out of 3 children get substandard education in an overly academic curriculum sitting in rows of desks, working slavishly through a dated curriculum, using dated textbooks. High academic standards among teachers may only promote an even more extreme form of academic education on all children. Many report that the vocational path is weak and exaggerated, not at all a parallel path with any sort of equal status.
This is a PISA chart you will never see at conferences. It shows Finland near the bottom of the league table when they measured how happy students were at school. Not exactly the utopian picture that's often presented of a system where the children are nurtured rather than taught at rows of desks to a fixed curriculum. Young people's suicide rate is high by European standards and it is not clear that the education system has had huge advantages beyond school.
Weakest economy in Europe
Wouldn’t one expect a country that has topped the education league tables for years and years to have seen the benefit from such attainments? Yet Finland is expected to be the WEAKEST economy in Europe in 2015. They have already indicated this month that they will object strongly to any debt forgiveness in Greece, as they have plenty of fiscal problems themsleves, which may lead to serious consequences for the whole of Europe. The much heralded education system came at a price, huge, public sector expenditure and rising debt.
At the same time another major cause has been an over-reliance on one major company – Nokia, which contributed about a quarter of Finland’s economic growth between 1998 and 2007. But Nokia was destroyed by its competitors, with jobs and the jobs of sub-contractors melting quicker than snow. Nokia once had a 50% market share, it is now less than 3%. The iPhone killed off Nokia and the iPad killed off the paper industry. It’s core industry, the pulp and paper sector has shrunk dramatically with considerable job losses. Angry Birds alone cannot support a whole nation and even they have been laying off staff. On top of this has come Russia and the falling Rouble. This is catastrophic, as Russia is Finland’s largest trading partner and tourism from that country has also fallen. It’s been double trouble – high spending, low tax returns. Finland is the new Greece.
I saw Pasi Sahlberg give a talk called What if Finnish teachers taught in your schools? He posed a few fascinating questions to show that you must tackle improvements in your educational system holistically. It is not JUST about quality teachers, the mantra we so often hear. It comes as no surprise that Finland is flaunted as being the ideal by educationalists, because it sees teachers as the sole key to success. We may have to rethink this. If true, why then have they performed poorly in TIMMS? Teachers alone are not a sufficient condition for success. In fact, Strahlberg doubts that the Finnish system is easily transferable at all. 
Will they listen? No. Nicky Morgan, only this week reiterated the fact that PISA will be her key to heaven and used to measure the success of recent reforms. Rather than look for good evidence-based practices in education, politicians heads have been turned towards PISA, as if it were some utopian, objective benchmark. It's not that Finnish education is bad, it's just time to drop our membership of the Finland Fan Club and look at evidence beyond PISA.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

YouTube to deliver VR? Watch this 3D space

YouTube is to support 360 degree video. A small step for the internet but a huge step for 3D and eventually VR. It has its competitors, such as VCEMO, Littlstar and Vyuu but YouTube, I suspect, could crush them with ease.
Developers, distributors & devices
VR is a medium, not a gadget and needs an ecosystem of development, distribution and devices to create a rising tide. The devices are coming, with Oculus Rift leading the charge but lots of other cheaper and simpler options, including Gear VR. The games developers are building a critical mass of VR ready games for the oculus launch. 
In steps, YouTube and other streaming services will move into this space, from 2D to 3D. Note that this service is all about streamed 360 degree video, which is way short of full, head-tracked, 3D, Oculus-type experience. Although one would expect this to come in time.
First step
France’s Giroptic raised $1.4 million on Kickstarter for a full 3D 360 degree camera and this is the first to be supported by YouTube. But they will not want to be device-limited and support for market winners will come. This first move makes sense as these videos fall right into the expansion of Google’s Street View. This opens up the floodgates to the crowdsourcing of 3D, 360 degree content and its eventual use in true VR. What will people do with this stuff?
360 degree then 3D images of the real world, in terms of places and destinations, such as art galleries, museums and do on are an obvious first hit. Street View, travel destination stuff, cultural stuff, estate agent stuff. We’ll be able to sample it all.
Live performances
Live experiences, such as music concerts will quickly follow. Paul McCartney’s ‘Live and Let Die’ Performance is Jaunt VR’s first publically available, cinematic VR content. Filmed in front of 70,000 people you can stand anywhere you want, look and move around, in true VR and 360 degrees, just as if you were there for real. In addition, there’s true 3D or at least omnidirectional audio which reacts to your position as you move around. This video will be released for the Oculus and Gear VR. Other live events could include sports and theatre. Imagine being able to hover above the centre-spot and move around the field to watch football. It’s coming folks.
I've already given some examples and explained why VR is a medium not a gadget, supported by 7 strong learning principles. We also have some learning applications, such as Caspain Learning's Social Care and Construction training programmes (funded by Ufi). That leaves distribution.
Media are largely 2D – print, graphics, animation, video, film, TV and games. Yet, we live in and perceive a stereoscopic 3D world. It is only a matter of time before consumer technology brings experiences to our brains in 3D. We also live in a more open media world where content can be found, for free on the web. One would expect this to be true for VR content. And so it will be.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

One thing that could transform education - apprenticeships

How many Secretaries of State have been responsible for ‘vocational skills’ in the last three decades? Answer at foot of blog. The skills sector has been subjected to every half-baked whim and fancy for that period. It’s treated like an unwanted child, handed off into care then bounced around the system, itself dysfunctional, used and abused, until the next election comes along.
Remember - the majority of young people in the UK do NOT go to University. Yet a hugely disproportionate amount of energy, money and reflection go into HE. The rest is a mess which has led to generations of young people being left confused, misled, even abandoned. Not that there’s been a shortage of reports, quangos, programmes and qualifications.
No shortage of these. Anyone working in this field will receive dozens of these. All overwritten, few with any hard-headed solutions on parity of qualifications. Dearing, Beaumont, Cassel, Tomlinson, Leitch, Wolf and Richards. Whenever parity of qualifications is mentioned it gets burned by the civil service and politicians. Some, like the Wolf report, downright destructive (see my critique). She was truly a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Unfortunately, reports have recommendations, the two easy recommendations are 1) more research (delay tactic) and 2) a new organisation. This is lazy. Net result…. New organisations, quangos and programmes….
Here we go. MSC, Training Commission, Training Agency, Training & Enterprise councils, LSC, YPLA, SFA, EFA, Basic Skills Agency, LSIS, Industry Training Boards, Occupational Standards Councils, NTOs, SSCs, Industry Partnerships, Training Standards Council, Adult Learning Inspectorate, RDAs, now LEPs. The half-life of quangos is, I suspect, getting shorter and shorter. But let’s be honest none of these have really delivered. They’re poorly led, largely talking shops and even although they had meaty budgets, had no real teeth.
We’ve had programme after programme, all of which end up on the scrapheap; YTS, TOPS, YT, Apprenticeships (various), Traineeships, Train to gain, E2E, Skills for life, Adult Basic Skills, EMA, Employer Ownership of Skills. It goes on and on and on, tons of rebranding, confusion about future funding, and flaky delivery. 
On qualifications, we’ve had NVQs, GNVQs, AVCEs, Applied GCSEs, disastrous Diplomas and no end of specific qualifications in schools and colleges that have never really had the time or backing to get purchase with students, parents, teachers and employers. They’re either strangled shortly after birth or get attacked in a Herod-like report which calls for their abolition (Wolf again).
One word has survived through all of this and that is ‘apprenticeships’. Despite being literally destroyed in the 70s and 80s it has refused to go away. Expect, in the coming election, the word apprenticeship to be writ large in all manifestos. Expect also, confusion and the refusal to really promise these in the quality and number that is needed. Most apprenticeship schemes have hundreds, sometimes thousands of applicants for often just a handful of places. The demand is huge, supply paltry. Now is the time to act, with promises, backed up with real money and numbers. It need an ‘x-million’ apprenticeship campaign.
Political myopia
We have seen politicians across the board diminish, demote and demolish vocational learning. Our modern breed of politicos and civil servants have no contact with this side of life. They are products of high-end HE and see it all as rather down-market or ‘trade’. You know that things have gone into meltdown when a public-school, Oxford educated academic is Labour’s Education Secretary. Nevertheless, they are in a state of ignorance and we can fill this vacuum if we so wish.
To be fair, the sector itself is also to blame. It’s too tame, doesn’t lobby effectively and does too much talking, not enough stalking. The sector has to get more robust, fight its corner and be consistent in its demands; political, organisational and fiscal. The City&Guilds document (mercifully short) Sense & Instability is a good start.
My starting point would be a consistent and concrete input by all the main players in the sector, or as many as we can muster, on stable and meaningful qualifications, especially apprenticeships. This should include clear measures on career guidance and action in schools. Demand action on the ridiculous demand that GCSE maths be the gold standard in all apprenticeships and go for a functional maths qualification as an alternative. We need a clear single number on apprenticeships offered, a clear idea of what an apprenticeship should be, on length, structure and assessment (forget this stupid idea of end-point assessment as if it were the final exams in a degree) and clear routes for funding and employer involvement. Not easy as one needs employer engagement, good providers, accreditaion bodies and, above all - a flow of students. Who pays is the big issue but some sort of employer/public fuel mix is ideal. My preference is for a 'voucher' scheme that employers can get subsidised. Apply Occam’s razor, the minimum number of entities to reach your goal – and go for it. We also need to be innovative but innovation is not innovation unless it is sustainable. So we need a solid and stable platform that looks out over 5-10 years to build a sustainable system of vocational learning that is porous to and from the existing academic streams and offers REAL choices to every young person.