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Textbooks or tech books?

Published on 06/12/17

Given technology will be integral to the lives of young people, why not harness it in schools to model ways of using powerful devices for learning?

Thoughts from Tricia Kelleher, Principal of the Foundation

Back in the summer of 2014 I was invited to attend an international event hosted at the Googleplex in California. Unsurprisingly, given the location, the point of bringing together a range of people with different subject disciplines from across the world was to imagine a different future. I was really inspired by the people I met and the discussions I had. Yet I returned to my silo in Cambridge marking up my experience as one for the “scrapbook of memorable things that happen in life” and moved on.

By moving on, of course I mean returning to the expectations of school life. In education our lives are divided by terms punctuated by the beginning of another academic year. As such the pattern of a school life is metronomic in nature. Children duly progress through key stages from Early Years to Key Stage 5 and because of the unforgiving straight jacket of qualifications, the focus for young people as they move through school is on learning how to pass examinations. It is my very strong belief that education is trapped in this cycle. It is as if we are all doomed to repeat what we have done before for no other reason than we have done it before! Add to this the Goveian reform of our qualification framework, which in itself appears a retrograde step, and the relevance of what we call education to the future lives of our young people appears increasingly questionable.

Why do I say that? Because the world I glimpsed from the Googleplex is upon us. It is already bringing about extraordinary changes in our lives. Artificial Intelligence (AI), for example, is part of our every day lives with developments happening at such a pace we even have the Chancellor discussing the impact of driverless cars on our economy in the near future. Nearly every day national papers carry stories about a future incredibly different from today where whole swathes of jobs are automated or taken over by robots. We are indisputably living in revolutionary times.

Let us contrast this exciting extraordinary future with the thinking in education today. Only recently at an event hosted by the Policy Exchange think-tank, Nick Gibb, Minister for Education, hailed the reemergence of the textbook as the solution to delivering the National Curriculum in our schools. Where to begin unpacking this assertion? That may well be so at one level. I understand the importance of curation and offering a framework for teachers in their delivery of the curriculum. But this is not a preparation for life. I would argue that Mr Gibb and the DfE are not focussing on what the future will be but rather have defaulted to schooling of the past. Certainly when I was growing up in the sixties and seventies content was prized above all else and the examinations set by the university boards were about preparation for university. This approach to education today is little short of Luddite.

Surely as we educate our young people for their future we should be using digital tools to support their learning? Rather than talking about textbooks Mr Gibbs should be focussing on tech books. There are many digital platforms which would support an enriched interactive learning environment – by its very nature it can easily offer differentiation as well as adaptive testing. All the content that needs to be covered can be but in this learning eco system there are endless opportunities for creativity, collaboration and critical thinking. Given technology will be integral to the lives of young people, why not harness it in schools to model ways of using powerful devices for learning?

So how do I know? Because we, along with other schools in this country and across the world, are doing just this. Digital devices offer our learners and teachers another tool in their Toolkit which transform the learning environment within and beyond the classroom. Learning is mobile, learning is different and learning is relevant to our young people’s future. Educators must raise their focus from qualifications and data and see the future and understand what the future means for today.


Latest digital devices project day: Patterns and Symbols

Digital learning in action  at the Stephen Perse Foundation.