Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Lords debate on technology in education

Interesting short debate in the House of Lords last week on technology in education. Pity the Guardian gives a be-very-afraid Frankenstein monster slant to Susan Greenfield's contribution. Greenfield raises some important issues but she does work in accordance with a number of implicit assumptions e.g. that the knowledgeable teacher delivering education to the empty headed pupil' is the best approach and that multimedia technologies don't engage our deep intellectual or creative faculties. Neither is universally true.

Sure there are dangers if the technology is used inappropriately and superficially; and we have to understand what the technology can't do as well as what it can do. The naive belief that we can make any aspect education better by doing it with a computer is something that drives me to distraction regularly in my day job. You have to understand the technology for a start. The notion, however, that technology has somehow swallowed a golden age of book based education which turned out hordes of intellectually gifted masses with powerful critical thinking skills is hardly borne out by the qualities of our current cabinet ministers in those areas.

Greenfield is right to say "We must surely choose to adopt technology that will ensure that the classroom will fit the child, and buck the growing trend for technology to be used to make the 21st-century child fit the classroom...

and create an evidence base on which 21st-century education can be built." (rather than the government's 'let's make headlines' with another education initiative approach).

For those interested, the most sensible contributions to the debate were from Lord Stone and Baroness Morris at




Lord Stone:

" I left school in disgrace at the age of 16 with only five O-levels, one of them in woodwork, and I thought myself dim. Since then I have found a useful trait in my character. In school it was vilified, I was criticised for it throughout the first half of my life, and I only recently realised its benefits. That trait is to enjoy and embrace risk and, in doing so, to be creative...
Last September, Sir Paul Judge, in a lecture to the Royal Society of Arts, of which he is chair, said:

"Life is safer than it ever has been, but we seem less prepared to accept risk in anything we do. We need to make sensible decisions about what really is dangerous, formed on the basis of weighing up the facts, rather than on public hysteria. By making everything appear life-threatening, we are in danger of crying wolf once too often".

Sir Paul is so right. When people who profit from panic and chaos play on people's fears and insecurities it is damaging to our society. Much of the media is culpable.

There are legitimate ways of creating enterprise, building businesses and managing risk, but the current trend for interested parties to exaggerate risk and fan hysteria is having a long-term detrimental effect on our society. Misunderstanding risk can affect all fields: business, politics, medicine, the arts, media, sport, and of course technology and science. Science, in particular, is dependent on exploring the unknown and seeking to go beyond the boundaries of existing knowledge. Curiosity and risk go hand in hand. Developing science and technology curricula therefore needs to protect people's ability to seek answers using their creative instincts, unfettered by the confines of excessively risk-averse teaching methods.

In their future lives all students in any field of activity will find that risk-taking increases the probability that one will find something of value, despite the research costs. It creates the possibility of large gains in experience, capacity and knowledge. Those who do not take risks cannot expect these benefits. It is the same in artistic endeavour...

More and better science education, as promoted by the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield, is necessary not only for future scientists and technologists, but for everybody. Whether one enjoys taking risks or prefers to avoid them, we would do well to understand the concept of risk from an early age.

This can be taught through the sciences, but as Daniel Barenboim has been saying all this week about music and non-musicians, scientific thinking is important to all, including those who will not become scientists. How young people are helped to think about these issues will affect their well-being and the part that they play in society. It is vital that these points are considered in their education and in science teaching. Balancing risk must be part of the package. That means that we should learn something of numbers, probability, uncertainties, chaos, mechanics and even some of the newer quantum mechanics, or we will become risk-averse and waste our lives hiding from it.

In the end, education is about empowering young people to take control of their lives by encouraging them to take increasing responsibility for their actions...

To close, I bring to the attention of your Lordships an initiative by the RSA, which has established a Risk Commission. We will meet for the first time later this month. The objective of the commission is to examine past scares and future areas of potential risk by taking evidence from a diverse range of experts. From this

20 Apr 2006 : Column 1225

work, a set of guidelines aimed at enabling society to adopt a more rational approach to risk will be developed."

I didn't know about the Risk Commission. It's an important initiative.

Baroness Morris:

" First, that we need to use time, space and skills in a totally different way in our schools. Schools need to look different, they need to use time differently and they need to use space in a different way. They need to smell different and feel different. There is a lot of truth in the old saying that for some children what is wrong with education is the schools...

Secondly, I would like to make mention of a primary school I visited in Birmingham just before I stood down as a Member of Parliament. The research that they were linking into was teaching every one of their children as an individual and trying to develop for them a timetable which enabled each child to learn at the time of the day which suited them best in different subject areas and different disciplines. They even went further and had a classroom that had so many different seating arrangements that the teacher was able, with any one child, to place them in a space with a style of teaching and a time that would suit them best. That is what personalised learning should be. Personalised learning is a great idea and one of the things that we have to develop even more. What personalised learning should be at its best is not enabling individuals to access the present curriculum and the present style of learning more effectively, but to enable us to use what we know about learning to wrap around each individual child and his or her needs so that they can achieve their potential.

20 Apr 2006 : Column 1229

The third thing that this will tell us is that we have to learn to value those skills and styles of learning that we cannot measure...

It therefore falls to us to reshape our education system around the needs of children and, using that knowledge, to make sure that we can teach in a way that will enable every child to reach his or her potential. It is exciting and daunting, but it is a task that must be done."

We could transform the entire country within the space of a generation through appropriate approaches to education but the government and we as a society are far too fixated on things that don't matter, (like ridiculously short term, narrow, easy-to-measure targets), tinkering and interfering than on getting it done properly for me to have even the slightest hope that it might happen.

The importance of access to knowledge A2K in all of this just can't be overstated but I doubt any of the contributors to the debate (even the sensible ones) were even aware of the Yale conference.

No comments: