Time to Rethink Learning?

bw_teacher_pupil_blackboardIt is often said that we live in a time of great change. It seems that pretty much every week a new technological innovation is launched that we are promised will transform our lives. It is true that many of these new developments do indeed have a profound impact on our lives.

Back in 1997, when I was sitting my A’ Levels, the world wide web, at least in the understanding of the general public, was very much in its infancy. Some organisations, including the BBC, were promoting their new web sites to those who were lucky enough to have an internet-enabled PC. Generally such a computer would be equipped with a 56K modem that emitted strange noises whilst dialing, took several minutes to load a simple website, and prevented anyone else from using the phone.

During my time in the Sixth Form I was given my first email address (simon.lucas@reigram.demon.co.uk) – but knew of no-one else whom I could contact.

Also whilst in the Sixth Form, I was given permission to use my father’s mobile phone whilst undertaking my Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme hikes. This massive, brick shaped piece of technology, complete with pull-out aerial, was frequently commented on, since mobile phones were still something of a rarity. Signal was generally poor, and out in the Surrey countryside, it proved very difficult to make calls.

Technology has progressed rapidly

Since those days, technology has progressed rapidly. Websites have become extraordinarily common place, with around 644 million online in March 2012. It’s not just the number of sites that has seen a dramatic increase, however. Usability has also seen a marked improvement. Back in 1997, the BBC website was next to useless. Now, in 2012, on the same website, we can catch up with our favourite television shows, watch what is currently being broadcast live, and much more. We can also use the internet to watch films, buy books, do our grocery shopping, play games, manage our finances, find our next home, check out holiday destinations, and more. This is largely a consequence of the huge improvement in the speed – and quality – of the internet connections to our homes. Gone (thank goodness) are the slow, dial up modems of old, replaced by high speed connections of up to 40 Mbs, an astonishing 700+ times faster than the speeds we were getting in the late 1990s.

Mobile phone technology has also undergone a series of rapid transformations since 1997, beginning with the adoption of digital technology, then 2G phones, followed shortly by 3G fully internet enabled phones, and now the current adoption of 4G ultra fast internet phones. The mobile phones of today have little in common with the phones of 1997, however; the Apple iPhone and Google’s Android have turned simple call-and-text devices into fully fledged computers. The phones we carry with us today enable us to check our email, surf the net, take photographs, record video, listen to music, track our exercise, get directions when driving, read books. The list is almost endless.

Email has also seen significant improvement, with the likes of GMail, Hotmail, and more recently Outlook.com offering pretty much unlimited storage and all kinds of useful tools to help us cope with the deluge of email we all seem to be subject to these days. Email is now the tip of the social iceberg, however. What no one could have foreseen in 1997 was the development of social networks, most noticeably Facebook and Twitter. Facebook enables us to communicate with friends in a way that has revolutionised how humans interact. As of October 2012, this giant behemoth of the internet reached over 1 billion monthly active users. Twitter, the social network that is frequently derided as the pointless realm of narcissists, had also managed to clock up 500 million users by February 2012 (media bistro.com).

The impact of these developments on our lives has been profound. In the fifteen years since I left school in 1997 the world has changed, if not beyond all recognition, in significant ways that have impacted on the lives of us all. The way we work has been transformed. The way we spend our free time has changed hugely. The way we interact has been totally revolutionised. Even if you’re one of the increasingly rare people who does not have an internet connection, is not a Facebook user, and has no interest in acquiring a mobile phone, the changes that have been ushered in during the course of the last decade and a half will have impacted on your life. Election campaigns have been helped – or hindered – by social networking. Government policies have been amended as a consequence of online petitions. Revolutions and riots have been organised through Twitter. Our world, our society, our species, our personal identity is changing, for better or for worse, as a direct result of these changes.

Those of us who work in education have seen profound changes in the lives of those whom we teach. Many of our pupils own mobile phones. Significant numbers have their own Facebook or Twitter accounts (despite Facebook’s policy of limiting account registration to those over 13, many younger children are registered on the site). One of the most common evening activities, amongst those I teach at least, is to talk over Skype. Some teachers will hear our pupils bandying around names and phrases that we are simply not familiar with, names like Minecraft, World of Warcraft, and others which I can’t remember because they just don’t mean anything to me at all.

These are children for whom life is very, very different to those of us who were in their place a decade or two ago. These are also children who will go on to live in a world that we cannot even begin to imagine.

We need to see major change in the world of education

Our schools have tried to tackle these changes in different ways. Devices that are seen as a potential distraction to learning, such as mobile phones, are frequently banned in schools, as are handheld gaming devices, and frequently e-readers like Kindles. Websites like Facebook are usually blocked by our schools’ internet filters.

Schools have tried to keep trace of the huge technological changes by increasing the number of computers available in labs, and sometimes by introducing class sets of laptops or tablets. Classrooms are being fitted out with expensive interactive whiteboards and digital projectors.

It is my experience, however, as a teacher of eight years, that schools are simply not changing fast enough. One of the most significant reasons for this is that we simply have not stopped to rethink just what the role and function of our schools should be in this new, rapidly developing age. I’m certainly not one of those people who will accuse our schools of being stuck in a nineteenth-century Dickensian model, but it is still frequently the case that education is about sticking an adult in front of a group of children and telling them lots of “stuff” that they need to know in order to pass exams, which are supposed to show future employers how clever and capable they are. The means of conveying this “stuff” may have got flashier and more glitzy, but teachers are still expected to communicate a body of knowledge to our charges.

It is my belief that this has to change. We need to see major transformations occurring in the world of education, in the same way that every other aspect of our society has been transformed. What is needed, though, is not just the adoption of more technology, but a comprehensive review of what it means to educate and be educated. We need to look beyond just our schools and look at what underpins our entire education system. What is required is a major rethink of learning itself. What is learning? What does it mean to learn? What do we need to learn? How do we learn? What is the impact of our changing world on what and how we learn?

I don’t claim to have any of the answers to these questions, but I hope through this project to attempt to rethink learning.