Sunday 25 September 2011
Just some thoughts on the topic!
In this entry I am writing down some of the thoughts I have following two things that I have paid attention to this week. The first is the TEDxLondon event on the theme ‘Education Revolution’. The second is Carol Vorderman’s report to the UK government on the state of mathematics education in the UK (BTW this is interesting reading wherever you live and work).
As in most cases with blogs, I suspect that the primary beneficiary of this exercise will be me! Articulating thoughts, reactions and emotions in to coherent statements takes me far too long, but can be satisfying. Importantly, I reserve the right to change my mind in the future based on subsequent thoughts and reactions!
The current State of Education
I have a great fear that those who speak so clearly, well and influentially on the current state of education are not familiar enough with it and thus not qualified enough to do so. Whilst this does not invalidate their arguments it does begin to undermine them. Far too many sweeping statements are made about the terrible things that happen in current education. Most are very careful not to blame teachers, but rather government and micro management, but all tend to imply that teachers follow enforced strategies blindly.... most teachers, from my experience, are educators and capable of taking directives, standards and tests etc in their stride, whilst remembering that their primary role is to provide an education for their students. As such, what happens in classrooms is seldom the blind delivery of someone else’s plan. Maybe I am lucky, but that has been my experience of teachers to date. For interest you can read here about our philosophy on creating 'mathematical experiences'.
Sage on the stage
Much is spoken of how the ‘Sage on the Stage’ idea is outmoded and it is time for change. This relates to what I have said above. I ask, who is teaching like that? There is no way I could ‘lecture’ for the 19 hours a week I spend with my classes. Apart from being pretty dull for all of us, I would not have the energy. I just don’t think this is happening. One of my colleagues, @russelltarr, pointed out the irony of the format of TED events in this context and I was reminded of this from Jeff Jarvis on the same topic. It is not rocket science, but worth remembering that variety is a huge tool in sustaining engagement and interest. This is as true of a group of adults as it is students. Sometimes I enjoy listening to the sage on the stage – sometimes I enjoy trying to be it, but this makes up a small proportion of what happens.
I am increasingly leaning towards evolution in this debate. Again, we could easily get caught up in semantics here, but I think I have achieved some clarity on this point. Education – that which happens in schools – has a constant need to ‘evolve’. From my experience it does so all the time. If it didn’t, my job would be easy but dull. Constant reflection, openness and willingness to engage with new ideas and the views of others are key ingredients. How individuals are judged by the wider world as a result of their ‘education’ is quite possibly in need of a revolution. This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that what happens in schools evolves despite the stranglehold exam boards have on the notion of ‘terminal assessment’. Many courses offer a very sound philosophical basis and then use a horribly blunt assessment tool that does match that philosophy. For example, while schools are embracing technology, we still seem light years away from technology being used in assessment. Mathematics education and technology are deeply interwoven, but students still sit terminal exams without a computer. Revolution is required at that end to allow the natural evolution to happen in schools.
Success and Failure
Related to the above is a need to revise perceptions of success and failure. It is true that success in most schools is still measured mostly by academic achievement and this really does need to change. I believe that lots of schools do a fabulous job of providing a broad range of opportunities for students to succeed but still there are lots of students who leave schools as very able, broad, caring and considerate people with little to show in the way of ‘Official success’. Sure exam results open doors, but being a successful person is about so much more and I would like to see teacher references for students carry a lot more weight than they do at present. I could tell you more about my students than any set of exam results.
Play Vs Work
A colleague tweeted during the TedxLondon event that ‘School leaders need to learn not to see playing and learning as mutually exclusive’ and I could not agree more. I do subscribe to the point of view that ‘play’ is a fantastic way to learn but want to be careful not to imagine it as the only or the best way of learning. It is important here not to get caught up in semantics and I think the word play can be defined very broadly, but on its own can easily be misinterpreted. I much prefer engagement as a term and I base this on my own experiences as a learner. On the one hand we can see that students will be more likely to engage when what they are doing is not perceived as work. On the other hand would it not be better to change the perception of ‘work’?
There is far too much to discuss here to even think about adding a ‘paragraph’ that sums it up, so I will try and do it in a sentence. Technology it seems is generally considered, toylike, frivolous, flashy, dangerous and unnecessary etc until proven otherwise. This needs to be reversed!
For example - If you are a player in the ‘twittersphere’ then you will not get this impression because of the obvious bias of those most likely to engage with each other about education through social media, but Facebook and Twitter are still dirty words in most educational establishments. I am not unaware of the risks, but it is unbelievable to me that we take the ‘communication tools of choice’ for most of our students and brand them too dangerous and frivolous to use for education.
As suggested already, there is so much to discuss here regarding hardware, software, access and philosophy, but the world around us will change and move on and schools and education simply cannot afford to be left behind.
The Vorderman report does talk about the differing cultural importance of mathematics in different countries and concedes that we can’t just take the methods used in other places and expect them to work. It would be a lot to expect that the report offers suggestions for how we can change the cultural perception of mathematics, but I feel the point is rather glossed over. I can’t speak for other subjects but I feel strongly that the general understanding and perception of mathematics as a subject is often misguided and its cultural value is very low in the UK. These two things are of great significance to the future of mathematics education.
Talking and Doing…
I am in danger of finishing this piece ironically. I have been prompted to write this by both the TEDxLondon event and the the Vorderman report on the state of mathematics education. Whilst this has been very good in helping me reflect on some of these issues, I can't help but feel that so much is spoken and written about what needs to change in education, whilst most teachers are in the practice of simply doing it! On that note I am going to stop writing and do some planning.....