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November 2021

"We need to tear down the education system and rebuild it, so it suits everyone." (Melanie Sykes)
Before retiring from paid work I was involved in training and supporting educators in the use of technology to enhance learning. An important issue was to ensure that technology was designed and used in such a way that it did not disadvantage people with disabilities and special needs. One way to promote this was to point out that if one ensured that the technology was accessible to everyone then this potentially benefited everyone, not just those with particular needs. This is because making the tools and materials of learning more accessible increases the flexibility with which each individual can interact with these resources.

I was reminded of this when I read a report of a recent interview Melanie Sykes gave to the Guardian. Sykes said:

 "… I now know the education system wasn’t set up in a way that I was able to function there. It crowbars you into a certain way of thinking and being, and if you don’t fit the bill you get left behind. That’s why we need to tear down the education system and rebuild it, so it suits everyone… Learning shouldn’t be just sitting in a classroom and being forced to learn algebra or French when your brain doesn’t work like that. What a waste of your childhood. I can’t read a number that’s over five digits, and there’s no way that doing an hour of maths every day for five years would have changed that.”

Although this was said in the context of Sykes' diagnosis of autism, I suggest that the principle I outlined in my first paragraph also applies here. The lack of flexibility in the curriculum, the "crowbarring into a certain way of thinking and being", does not only disadvantage those with autism, but potentially disadvantages just about everyone. The (allegedly) neurotypical brain might, to quote Sykes again, "not be typical at all. So the system that supports those types of brains isn’t necessarily what should be the norm.”

But the reality is that the way our education system works does reinforce the illusion of the neurotypical brain. So it is little wonder that "if you don’t fit the bill you get left behind." To give but one example, consider the following, from the UK Government's statutory guidance for the National curriculum in England: mathematics programmes of study:

"The expectation is that the majority of pupils will move through the programmes of study at broadly the same pace."

This statement is just nonsense. It is evident to anyone with experience of how young people learn that the majority of pupils most certainly do NOT - in any meaningful way -"move through the programmes of study at broadly the same pace." We all have very, very different ways of relating to the world, and our education system should surely be rebuilt to both acknowledge and celebrate this.

Image: : Demolition of Netherhall Lower School - 23 by John Sutton, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Why a classroom is like a stagecoach

CoachesWhenever a radically different and powerful new technology emerges, we first use it to create things that look very similar to those made with the technology that it has replaced. Only later, when more confidence in the new technology has developed, do we give the new technology its own shape and form. And only then can we fully realise the potential of the new technology.

Here are three examples:

  1. The first railway carriages looked just like horse-drawn stagecoaches (but with different wheels). A few years later we saw the development of much longer bogie carriages that looked nothing like stagecoaches and enabled trains to travel at much higher speeds.
  2. The first concrete viaduct (at Glenfinnan on the West Highland Railway) had the same shape as a brick or stone viaduct. Only later did engineers develop new 'archless' shapes that made much bigger and lighter bridges possible.
  3. The first mobile phones looked like conventional phones without a cable. Today's mobile phones look nothing at all like traditional phones and have far more capabilities.

It is the same with education. Digital technology, in particular the Internet, represents a radical and powerful step forward in the tools available for learning. But we are still at the stage of using digital technology to do something that looks very similar to traditional classroom education. We have yet to develop or implement digitally enhanced education that has its own shape and form, and can therefore realise its huge potential.

This issue was touched on in a 'big idea' article Should we leave the classroom behind? by Laura Spinney in last Saturday's Guardian newspaper. The starting point for the article was an exploration of how education has changed during the pandemic. Spinney acknowledges that "education was adapting to the digital world long before Covid" but makes the point that "the pandemic has given learning a huge shove towards the virtual." She points out, though, that in spite of learning going online "it tended to stick to pre-existing timetables", a classic example of a new technology that has not yet developed its own shape and form, but is just trying to imitate the look of the old technology it is replacing. One of the most depressing educational stories I heard during the pandemic was of a school that insisted that its pupils wore their school uniform while they were at home taking part in Zoom-based lessons. Surely that's rather like insisting that the carriages for trains going through the Channel Tunnel have to look like stagecoaches!

In the Guardian article Spinney quotes Professor Yong Zhao of the University of Kansas: "This is a time for schools and systems to reimagine education without schooling or classrooms." Professor Zhao and Dr Jim Watterston have co-authored a paper that emphasises the importance of creativity, critical thinking and entrepreneurship rather than information retention. And they call for giving students more control of what and how they learn.

Of course it will take time for the new form and shape of education to develop, but I feel certain that future generations will look back on the disruption of the pandemic as being a turning point, a key event in bringing about systems of learning suitable for the digital world. And the yet to emerge world of fully functional digital education will not, of course, just involve individuals sitting in front of computers. On the contrary there will be an increased appreciation of the importance of the social aspect of human learning. And we will see a synthesis of technological innovation with social learning environments that are much more effective than conventional classrooms. We may be sure that, to quote from the final paragraph of Spinney's article "it seems unlikely that the classroom will ever look the same again".

Images: : (i) public domain (ii) by Draco2008 licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (iii) by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0