Sunday, May 24, 2015

7 reasons why I'm not surpised that Lego is failing and sacking 1400 staff...

I have twin boys, well not so much boys as men now, so had to clean out their lairs. A shocking discovery was the massive amount of expensive, polluting plastic we had bought. But it’s not just the unsustainable waste, it’s the claims that surround the corporation’s educational PR, the simplistic but ultimately hollow promises of the ‘LEGO’ corporation. 
1. Abrickadabra
Let me start by saying that I think the word ‘creative’ is the most overused and certainly one of the most abused words in education. With LEGO it reaches new levels of hyperbole. Place pre-designed blocks one by one on top of each other, or worse build pre-designed models in a pre-set order, add little pre-designed figures and ‘abrickadabra’, the false promise of creativity is fulfilled.
Most modern LEGO comes in the form of inflexible pieces that have to be used in a pre-set way, even left and right or orientated, as they are figures, vehicles, whatever. LEGO has moved away from reusable bricks to building pre-set, usually branded, models. I can’t see how this is in any way ‘creative’. If anything, their approach limits imagination. As a builder you’re a factory worker assembling the ‘product’.
2. Playing around
Granted, old-school, brick LEGO does allow for some imaginative play but let’s not turn this into some great breakthrough in learning and education. I’d much rather my kids built dens, climbed trees and played sport. Encourage some risk taking - take apart a washing machine, play with fire, throw a spear and make things with a pocket knife. Playing with blocks is OK but it’s predictable play with not enough freedom to express yourself, learn something new and push the boundaries.
3. Pollution
It was Greenpeace, who last year forced LEGO to abandon their stupid and disastrous partnership with Shell Oil (what were they thinking). The now famous video ‘LEGO: Everything is not awesome’. Then, there’s the 4.8 million pieces of LEGO pieces lost at sea in the Tokio Express, that are still being washed up on beaches today. Read this story. Let’s keep it simple, LEGO doesn’t biodegrade., it pollutes our planet.
4. You’re being used
You, as a parent, you may also be polluting the minds of your children and paying for the privilege. With LEGO, you effectively pay to extend the marketing of other franchised brands, such as Star Wars or Harry Potter. LEGO has cleverly manipulated you into being a marketing machine for others. You are being manipulated, not into stimulating the imagination of your child but making him or her a pawn in their viral marketing game. They design you buy and reproduce their design,
5. Daily Mail!
No surprise that LEGO did a deal with the Daily Mail to distribute free mini-LEGO toys (redeemable at WH Smith and ToysRUs, so that you’ll be pressed ganged into buying more than you intend or need). That’s exactly the parent demographic I’d be hitting, Parents who don’t know shit but are desperate to get their little Johnnies and Jennies ahead in the game. The good news is that it a con.
6. Bricks not clicks
They’ve been clever in holding back the digital tide, by making a movie and some maker stuff. Mindstorms, the LEGO packs that teach programming, robotics etc. sort of annoy me. Here’s why.  Nothing wrong with the idea but by this point the LEGO blocks have become somewhat irrelevant. You’re an expert in plastic blocks one minute then an education expert in coding etc. the next. That’s just jumping on the bandwagon.
7. Expensive
Let me deliver this straight up. Your product is just too damn expensive., sometimes insanely expensive. As a parent you’re being conned into paying top dollar for some cheap plastic. The blocks are made from thermoplastic, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, which is very strong but it’s basically plastic made from oil, so the price of oil largely determines the operational profit. strong, So why the And don’t get me started on Legoland. Never have I experienced a more dispiriting, fake, branded and fake experience.
Toy manufacturers need to sell toys to children and it helps of they can convince parents of their education worth. With LEGO you have to suspend belief in green policy, sustainability and evidence-based education to buy into their claims, which are clearly part of a clever marketing strategy. Let’s be clear, this is the insidious side of privatisation in education, fooling parents and bribing teachers into shifting product. Hooking parents and kids into buying over-priced plastic on the wrong assumption that it’s ‘educational’.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Education not the panacea for all economic problems

Whenever league tables are announced, cue the current OECD table, outrageous claims are made linking education to economic health and growth. Yet the evidence that education, in particular Higher Education, is the key driver of economic growth is dubious. The often unquestioned claim is that GDP and other measures of productivity and economic growth will rise with absolute certainty, if only we invested more in education. This view is extolled largely by educationalists, not economists.
Harvard’s Lant Prichart, formerly of the World Bank, did the data crunching and in a now famous article ‘Where has all the education gone?’ found little evidence between education and higher economic growth. Cambridge economist, Ha-Jon Chang refutes the idea that  ‘more education in itself is not going to make a country richer’ and there are plenty of counter examples.
So let’s look at the top eight performers in the latest OECD list; Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Finland, Estonia, Switzerland – there’s some interesting evidence on these.
Taiwan (5) had an appalling literacy rate in 1960 at 54%, much lower than the Philippines at 72%. South Korea (3) had a literacy rate of 71%, much lower than many countries that failed to deliver economic growth, such as Argentina and most of the Eastern block. Education was not the primary driver behind the Asian economic miracle. It was much more complicated, based on entrepreneurship, the development of manufacturing processes, culturally compliant labour forces and Government policies supporting the development of small and large businesses. It is more likely that increased educational performance, which is far more recent than the economic miracles, are a product of growth, rather than the primary driver.
China is a fascinating example of a high growth economy, which can hardly claim to have been driven by education, as almost everything was closed down or destroyed in the cultural revolution and subsequent growth largely down to political reform, government planning and the encouragement of entrepreneurial activity.
The US is (28) but is the strongest economy in the world, fed by a thirst from entrepreneurialism and innovation. It always seems to pop up somewhere in the middle of these tables. But should they worry? I think not.
Another interesting case is Switzerland, in there at number 8.  It is a high performing economy, with major companies and good productivity, yet that grew at a time when Switzerland had one of the lowest Higher Education enrolment rates in the world. Until 1996 it had half the enrolment of the OECD average (16% to OECD average of 34%). It has risen since but is still way lower than many other European countries.
Let’s put aside the fact that Estonia (8) has just been identified as the worst performing economy in the Eurozone, in recession. Finland (7) is also going through a period of severe economic trouble, as its paper market collapsed (internet the cause) at the same time as it’s powerhouse company Nokia and the Russian economy, its largest trading partner, tanked.
Conversely, Greece has a huge rate of enrolment in Higher Education but is a bankrupt country where the banks and government coffers are all but empty and economic growth that most economists agree, will never be enough to pay the national debt. Italy, Portugal and Spain have similar issues. Youth and graduate unemployment have soared in line with increased enrolment in Higher Education.
Way down the bottom are Qatar and Saudi Arabia. These are strange beasts that buck the trend. The children of nationals in these countries receive a very expensive education yet problems remain with quality and motivation. In Qatar, a country I know well, the issue is not education but the malaise of excessive wealth that saps the aspiration of young people.
For nearly 25 years the literacy rate of Sub-Saharan African countries rose, in some cases spectacularly, yet income in the region fell by 0.3%. Some African countries, like Ethiopia, have been on a building spree, with universities sprouting like weeds. Yet this has led to economic strains, difficulties in maintaining quality of students and teachers, as well as a lack of clear evidence for increased prosperity. I’m in Addis Ababa next week arguing that what Africa needs, is not more Universities, but more vocational learning, embedded in the local economies.
Note that this is not an attack on education as a social good. Education is clearly not just about economic prosperity and many argue, rightly, that education has a much wider role than economic growth. What it looks at  is the claims that it also inexorably linked to economic growth.
Education wants its cake, wants to eat it and wants to claim that it made the cake as well. But there is a dangerous illusion here. I heard it described well by the President of Namibia in 2013, who called it the ‘spectre of hallucination’, the idea that more is always good and that more schooling, more participation in Higher Education, is always good. He thought this was as sure a sign as any that something has gone wrong. He’s right. This is the language of booms and bubbles. In some countries, the US and my own, the UK, the student debt problem may be approaching that of the housing bubble.
Pritchett L. (2001) Where has all the education gone?  The World Bank Economic Review, vol. 13 no. 3.

Ha-Jon Chang (2010) 23 Things they don’t tell you about capitalism. Penguin.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Deficit model in education: a dangerous conceit?

If only we filled our minds up with even more knowledge, even more skills, GDP will dog-leg upwards, productivity will soar and all will be well. The conceit of education is that the answer to bad schooling is always more schooling. The glass is always half empty, even when the data suggests it is close to the brim. We always seem to have deep 'deficits' and 'divides'; digital divide, digital skills, maths, 21st C skills, qualifications, bias in algorithms, even happiness!
It is easy to see why the ‘deficit’ model of education has taken root  - it’s a means to an end – always a demand for more money and more research. The problem with the deficit model, is that it has an unexpected consequence. Your enemies pounce upon the same arguments to promote fiercer regulation and control on education, as you have already defined yourself as having created those deficits, you find yourself being branded as the blob, where standards have slipped and some stern discipline is needed to reduce the deficit which you admit is a massive problem. In the current climate, if you promote the deficit what you get is, not increased investment, but austerity. The exaggerated deficit model becomes the rod for education’s own back.
1. Digital divide
The most obvious exaggerated deficit is the digital divide, where, no matter how positive the data on mobile penetration, broadband take-up, massive use of Wikipedia, YouTube and social media is presented – there’s always someone in the audience whining on about the relatively small number of people who are ‘disadvantaged’. Yet when I speak to these people, the elderly, the disinterested and the downright skeptical, they don’t feel disadvantaged at all. They choose to live without this stuff and that’s fine by them and fine by me. Even those who want, but can’t afford, to get online invariably have a library, community centre or other way to access if they make the effort. I’m not saying that there is no digital divide, only that it is alluringly alliterative and not so much a divide as a vanishing problem.
2. Digital skills deficit
Again, the deficit model suggests that even the young lack the digital skills they really need. Digital literacy, the phantom that launched a thousand grant applications, is bandied about, as if it were a chronic disease. In fact, it is a phantom limb, a largely imaginary appendage that allows armies of adults to sell their services in reducing the so-called deficit. In truth, schools are ill-equipped to deal with digital skills, as the deficit, if it exists, is more prevalent among the teachers than the learners. Sure there’s some work to be done on digital safety but let’s not brand it as some huge deficit.
3. Maths deficits
Wherever we turn the maths Taliban are there, demanding more maths. The graduate baristas in Brighton don’t even have to work out the change as the till does it for them. Yet we need more algebra, quadratic equations and surds. You will be forced to take and retake GCSE Maths, even though most of it will be of absolutely no use to you in your later life. Maths teachers are the last people I’d turn to for help and advice in the real world. The illusory maths deficit is the leaning tower of PISAs awful legacy, branding education as a failure and wiping out huge swathes of useful knowledge and skills in favour of illusory benefits.
4. 21st C skills deficits
It’s become a weary PowerPoint cliché – 21st C skills. We need to teach collaboration, communication, creativity, critical skills. Yet, the learners already communicate, collaborate and create using tech, every five minutes or so. We come along and claim they have a skills deficit (21st C skills) and want to teach this stuff, usually in a classroom, where all of the tech is banned. I’m hugely amused at this conceit; that we adults, especially in education, think we always have the skills we want to teach. In my experience, it’s schools, colleges and Universities that need to be dragged into the 21st century, not their users.
5. Qualifications deficits
If only more people had more certificates, more degrees, more paper qualifications, we’d live in a utopian paradise of massive productivity and wealth. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. As more and more people get bits of paper, those bits of paper become commoditized and worth less. In fact, the massification of Higher Education may have led to even more inequality, acting as a sorting mechanism in the job market, rather than being related in any meaningful way to the economic growth.
6. Therapeutic deficits
The weird assumption that all learners and employees are mentally deficient and in need of therapeutic help from educators and HR types has taken hold, resulting in mindfulness, wellness and happiness jargon being bandied about like ant-depression tablets. Well meaning but naive types crow on about the assumed emotional deficit in us all (the glass is not half empty but completely empty) and demand that it be reduced through half-baked, new age fads.
7. Algorithmic deficits
The inevitable, first reaction by eductaors to the use of AI in learning is to attack it on the basis of bias, even though that attack is, typically, biased - conformation and negativity biases. Sure there can be bias in data and execution but all humans and all teachers are biased. These biases have been well studies in education, in particular on bias in assessment and in the way teachers cue girsls towards certain subject choices. The mantra that 'All algorithms are biased" is as sure a sign of weak, deficit thinking that I can think of.
Meanwhile - real deficits ignored
Every year there’s recognition of vocational skills’ deficits. Every year there’s educational and political intent to reduce those deficits. Yet, every year we demote, diminish and destroy whatever vocational skills delivery we have left in our system. This is a deficit of education’s making. Our political class largely comes from two Universities, the reports are written by abstract academics, with no real understanding of the mess they’ve created – endless bodies, changes, fiddling and procrastination. Apprenticeships is but one of a long list of messy failures. Massive amounts of financial resources, especially from public sources, are being spent on the wrong things, peripheral, exaggerated deficits, as opposed to real and valuable education.

Deficit models demand calls for reducing the deficit. But where the deficit is exaggerated it creates a climate of distrust, where politicians dismiss the deficit mongers or worse, turn their own arguments back on them, to ridicule and diminish them even further. What has worried me recently is education’s tendency to turn the deficit definition of education into something far worse – the pathological definition of education, where our emotional well-being and health is a target for schooling. When education is seen as a cure and cognitive deficiency a disease, we need to worry.