Are you ready to revolt? No? Well, neither am I…

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Picture of a cute sad child
Picture of a sad looking child

Revolution in education has often been a popular topic among celebrity keynote speakers in the conference circuit. What they have to say about the way in which most countries approach the education of their children can be summarised as follows:

  • Children are prisoners in educational facilities first designed in the 19th century which has remained largely unchanged for the past 150 years.
  • Children are disadvantaged by restrictive curriculums that hinder creativity.
  • Children have to unlearn later on in life what they learnt at school.

When you listen to them it’s very hard to disagree with anything they say: all those snappy alliterations timed perfectly to appear alongside eye catching visuals, designed to make you go wow, I wish I thought of that; all those truths we all knew anyway but they managed to deliver in shiny new packaging, with a nice bow and everything; all those clever analogies that simplify their message down to a manageable size so I can understand it…

Clearly these keynote speakers know their stuff and are way cleverer than I am. That’s why they’re out there getting paid to talk the talk and I’m here getting all my books and resources ready for the new academic year.

They have vision, they are corporate consultants who are dabbling in education, they see what is wrong with things and find ways to deliver their findings to the rest of us in a way we can understand: simple analogies, trendy buzzwords, a picture of a sad looking child…

Sometimes, however, I’m left wondering when was the last time these people actually set foot in a classroom? I say this because, although they are undoubtedly intelligent visionaries, they often appear to me lack that most basic of qualities needed to actually effect the change they so long for: being in touch with reality.

In the real world we have to work within infrastructural constraints: I cannot go to my head teacher and say ‘I’ll spend the last two terms teaching my pupils to learn, the Spanish end of year exams are meaningless anyway’; similarly my head teacher cannot go to the education minister and say ‘next year we are devising our own creative curriculum and dumping Maths and Physics’; and, most importantly, the education minister cannot go to the voters and say ‘from now on your children will be sent home to play because they will learn more that way’. Let’s face it, this will remain the case as long as Patsy and Joe down the road have a say on who’s elected minister (no offence intended to Patsy or Joe).

In the real world you have to be able to work with whomever is there, you have to make implementable suggestions that, step by step, can lead to real change. Pleasing crowds does not make change happen, you have to be a people’s person with a clear idea of what has to be done and who, crucially, knows how to get it done by communicating effectively with those with whom you must collaborate. I don’t think the you’ve got it all wrong approach will go down well with my head teacher.

As I say, I don’t doubt the virtues of what they are extolling, I just wish they were better at coming up with practical solutions, instead of pie in the sky revolutionary talk that might bring about change education in the long term (and I’m thinking really, really long term here… another 150 years I reckon) but will do nothing to effect meaningful change in the medium to short term.

This is the reality in which we live. Let’s stick to what we’re good at. We’re good at evolving, not revolting… unless you’re French or Russian, of course.

What do you think?

Picture from Flickr

José Picardo

José is Assistant Principal at Surbiton High School and a Fellow at Naace. He is interested in improving education and the way technology can be used to enhance and transform teaching and learning. José has been curating Box of Tricks since 2007 and holds a MA in ICT and Education.

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  • http://www.nstoneit.com/ Daniel

    In some ways I agree, in some ways I don’t. What I want is concrete ideas for changing a classroom which keynote speakers don’t always give. That’s why a read lots of edubloggers who write about what they actually do in the realities of the classroom.

    On the other hand it’s the constraints that need to change and the people who give the keynotes are more likely to be heard by decision and policy makers than us lowly teachers. I’ve just been reading papert’s book “The Children’s machine”. He argues that much ICT in schools fails because we are using it with old teaching systems when in reality the whole system needs revolutionising. Idealistic or realistic? Who knows?

  • http://www.nstoneit.com Daniel

    In some ways I agree, in some ways I don’t. What I want is concrete ideas for changing a classroom which keynote speakers don’t always give. That’s why a read lots of edubloggers who write about what they actually do in the realities of the classroom.

    On the other hand it’s the constraints that need to change and the people who give the keynotes are more likely to be heard by decision and policy makers than us lowly teachers. I’ve just been reading papert’s book “The Children’s machine”. He argues that much ICT in schools fails because we are using it with old teaching systems when in reality the whole system needs revolutionising. Idealistic or realistic? Who knows?

  • Guest

    @Daniel. Thanks for being kind and polite :)

    You are proving my point though. Old Seymour started advocating radical change almost 60 years ago. John Dewey before him started almost a century ago. Celebrity speakers nowadays are only reading the likes of Dewey and Papert and going what a good idea! I could say that!

    Although there have been attempts to implement some of their ideas, it hasn’t been met with a great deal of success.

    I believe the reason for it is that they are advocating too much too soon without clear implementation strategies.

    Small manageable steps the likes of me can understand…. remember the rest of us are most definitely not great thinkers.

  • http://www.boxoftricks.net José Picardo

    @Daniel. Thanks for being kind and polite :)

    You are proving my point though. Old Seymour started advocating radical change almost 60 years ago. John Dewey before him started almost a century ago. Celebrity speakers nowadays are only reading the likes of Dewey and Papert and going what a good idea! I could say that!

    Although there have been attempts to implement some of their ideas, it hasn’t been met with a great deal of success.

    I believe the reason for it is that they are advocating too much too soon without clear implementation strategies.

    Small manageable steps the likes of me can understand…. remember the rest of us are most definitely not great thinkers.

  • http://themobilelearner.wordpress.com/ Rob

    Hi José,

    Thank you for reminding all of us that implementing changes in education is not always easy. There are many barriers, both physical and psychological, and overcoming them is not as easy as it is sometimes made out to be by speakers. However, I have to agree with Daniel’s comment. That we are still trying to implement changes suggested by Dewey and Papert shows not how progressive education is but how resistant to change the system is.

    Your frustration is understandable. We hear about the wonderful possibilities but the realities often make reaching those possibilities difficult. However, I feel that those realities are more the result of the attitude of those in the system. I have been in education for 9 years and 7 have been spent in the classroom and the past two as an educational consultant. I’ve seen how people take the valid frustration you feel and use it as an excuse not to change. I don’t just mean teachers here – also administration.

    There is that famous line: We have to be the change that we want to see. Even a little is better than nothing – every little bit counts. Implementing a little also acts as an example for others. Keep up the good work – it’s hard work but the final results are really worth it!

    Take Care,

    Rob

  • http://themobilelearner.wordpress.com Rob

    Hi José,

    Thank you for reminding all of us that implementing changes in education is not always easy. There are many barriers, both physical and psychological, and overcoming them is not as easy as it is sometimes made out to be by speakers. However, I have to agree with Daniel’s comment. That we are still trying to implement changes suggested by Dewey and Papert shows not how progressive education is but how resistant to change the system is.

    Your frustration is understandable. We hear about the wonderful possibilities but the realities often make reaching those possibilities difficult. However, I feel that those realities are more the result of the attitude of those in the system. I have been in education for 9 years and 7 have been spent in the classroom and the past two as an educational consultant. I’ve seen how people take the valid frustration you feel and use it as an excuse not to change. I don’t just mean teachers here – also administration.

    There is that famous line: We have to be the change that we want to see. Even a little is better than nothing – every little bit counts. Implementing a little also acts as an example for others. Keep up the good work – it’s hard work but the final results are really worth it!

    Take Care,

    Rob

  • Guest

    @Rob Thank you for your comment. You are absolutely right. Unfortunately the default position for most systems or institutions is stop. It takes a lot of effort to get things off the ground and even more sustained effort to keep the momentum going.

    That is why it’s so important, as you point out, to lead by example. Which is why I get (mildly) annoyed when a celeb speaker talks the talk, rouses the crowd but then they often fall short on the doing bit.

    Fortunately there is a growing number of teachers, like us, who are leading by example, making the little incremental changes needed to effect real transformation.

    I suspect though that it is the these very celeb speaker who will claim all the glory when change begins to be noticed. Nobody will remember the arguments we had with the IT guys at school, the long discussions with our head teachers or all the evangelising we did in the staff room at break.

    Life is so unfair! ;)

  • http://www.boxoftricks.net José Picardo

    @Rob Thank you for your comment. You are absolutely right. Unfortunately the default position for most systems or institutions is stop. It takes a lot of effort to get things off the ground and even more sustained effort to keep the momentum going.

    That is why it’s so important, as you point out, to lead by example. Which is why I get (mildly) annoyed when a celeb speaker talks the talk, rouses the crowd but then they often fall short on the doing bit.

    Fortunately there is a growing number of teachers, like us, who are leading by example, making the little incremental changes needed to effect real transformation.

    I suspect though that it is the these very celeb speaker who will claim all the glory when change begins to be noticed. Nobody will remember the arguments we had with the IT guys at school, the long discussions with our head teachers or all the evangelising we did in the staff room at break.

    Life is so unfair! ;)

  • Ntinos

    If we go back at the beginning of the twentieth century and take a look at the first public schools of industrial Britain, we will discover that these schools were actually formed in order to baby sit the offspring of the working class. The long working hours gave school teachers the opportunity to teach whatever would be helpful for the working class to learn. Public schools have evolved since then; the basic principles though, the core of public education remains not at all altered. The sons and daughters of today’s “working class” attend public schools. As with all social institutions, the public school’s role is not to foil society’s status quo, but to empower it. Revolutionizing teaching would revolutionize learning. Giving public school students the qualifications to manipulate and understand the toothed wheels of the bureaucratic/administrating engine, would lead to a radical redistribution of power. Which elite wants that? Nevertheless, education is a cohesive institution; as with all social institutions of such functionality, it needs to be conservative and pass down the social construction that has helped society survive all this time. I believe that public schools will never be the place for revolutionary ideas to evolve, simply because that is not their role in society. So, Jose let speakers speak; they have their own role to play…

  • Ntinos

    If we go back at the beginning of the twentieth century and take a look at the first public schools of industrial Britain, we will discover that these schools were actually formed in order to baby sit the offspring of the working class. The long working hours gave school teachers the opportunity to teach whatever would be helpful for the working class to learn. Public schools have evolved since then; the basic principles though, the core of public education remains not at all altered. The sons and daughters of today’s “working class” attend public schools. As with all social institutions, the public school’s role is not to foil society’s status quo, but to empower it. Revolutionizing teaching would revolutionize learning. Giving public school students the qualifications to manipulate and understand the toothed wheels of the bureaucratic/administrating engine, would lead to a radical redistribution of power. Which elite wants that? Nevertheless, education is a cohesive institution; as with all social institutions of such functionality, it needs to be conservative and pass down the social construction that has helped society survive all this time. I believe that public schools will never be the place for revolutionary ideas to evolve, simply because that is not their role in society. So, Jose let speakers speak; they have their own role to play…

  • Guest

    @NTinos You are, of course, right in saying that our schooling reflects our society and it’s only natural for any organism to resist any change it may perceive as detrimental or pernicious.

    The individuals within the establishment, however, can and do imagine how things could be done differently, dare I say better. In fact, there are many teachers, who, like myself, are trying to effect small changes in the way we teach and facilitate learning. The minutiae of what we do is not often discussed in big keynote speeches; they are, probably rightly, concerned with the big stuff, the philosophy of education, rather than the practicalities of it. They leave the latter to the likes of us teachers who have then got to implement new policies born out of fanciful ideas, rather than reality.

    Every so often a new forward looking government attempts to implement those ideas they heard at big keynote speeches that more closely resonate with their wider policies and invariably do a botched job of it, effectively setting back whatever had been achieved thus far, often ignoring it as well.

    My concern is that these speakers are putting forward a view of education that cannot be implemented realistically in the here and now, overshadowing the efforts of teachers whose small, cumulative changes are making a difference.

    All of which takes me to your statement “I believe that public schools will never be the place for revolutionary ideas to evolve”. I have to respectfully disagree. Should we all just sit back and be content with our lot then? I honestly could not bring myself to going to work everyday if I didn’t believe that, however small and insignificant, I was helping to make a difference.

    I agree that these celebrity speakers have a role to play. Undoubtedly. I agree that their views matter, since it is they to whom politicians listen, what with their lofty statements, emotive speeches and beautiful metaphors… who wouldn’t be taken in? who could ever disagree with their noble intentions?

    I don’t. I just wish they cut down on the rhetoric a bit and make helpful, accomplishable suggestions for a change.

    I just wish they all listened to me instead ;)

  • http://www.boxoftricks.net José Picardo

    @NTinos You are, of course, right in saying that our schooling reflects our society and it’s only natural for any organism to resist any change it may perceive as detrimental or pernicious.

    The individuals within the establishment, however, can and do imagine how things could be done differently, dare I say better. In fact, there are many teachers, who, like myself, are trying to effect small changes in the way we teach and facilitate learning. The minutiae of what we do is not often discussed in big keynote speeches; they are, probably rightly, concerned with the big stuff, the philosophy of education, rather than the practicalities of it. They leave the latter to the likes of us teachers who have then got to implement new policies born out of fanciful ideas, rather than reality.

    Every so often a new forward looking government attempts to implement those ideas they heard at big keynote speeches that more closely resonate with their wider policies and invariably do a botched job of it, effectively setting back whatever had been achieved thus far, often ignoring it as well.

    My concern is that these speakers are putting forward a view of education that cannot be implemented realistically in the here and now, overshadowing the efforts of teachers whose small, cumulative changes are making a difference.

    All of which takes me to your statement “I believe that public schools will never be the place for revolutionary ideas to evolve”. I have to respectfully disagree. Should we all just sit back and be content with our lot then? I honestly could not bring myself to going to work everyday if I didn’t believe that, however small and insignificant, I was helping to make a difference.

    I agree that these celebrity speakers have a role to play. Undoubtedly. I agree that their views matter, since it is they to whom politicians listen, what with their lofty statements, emotive speeches and beautiful metaphors… who wouldn’t be taken in? who could ever disagree with their noble intentions?

    I don’t. I just wish they cut down on the rhetoric a bit and make helpful, accomplishable suggestions for a change.

    I just wish they all listened to me instead ;)

  • learningcoach

    Revolutions happen by degree as part of a greater movement. Even the conference luminaries do little more than give voice to the trends behind a groundswell. The revolution of our time, I believe, is both inevitable and a case in point.

    The revolution of our time is the rise of the autonomous learner. We have come full circle from a time before formal education, where the curious independently learnt because they were passionately driven to it. Today, all the shared knowledge in the world is available to anyone with the three keys of learning: literacy, an internet-linked computer and the drive to learn. Our role in the revolution is to light the flame, give a little guidance and watch a new world emerge.

  • learningcoach

    Revolutions happen by degree as part of a greater movement. Even the conference luminaries do little more than give voice to the trends behind a groundswell. The revolution of our time, I believe, is both inevitable and a case in point.

    The revolution of our time is the rise of the autonomous learner. We have come full circle from a time before formal education, where the curious independently learnt because they were passionately driven to it. Today, all the shared knowledge in the world is available to anyone with the three keys of learning: literacy, an internet-linked computer and the drive to learn. Our role in the revolution is to light the flame, give a little guidance and watch a new world emerge.

  • Guest

    @learningcoach What you say makes an awful lot of sense. Two things though:

    Firstly, if a revolution happens by degree, is it a revolution?

    And secondly, is this (r)evolution taking place because, despite or regardless of these luminaries?

    Perhaps one third thing, I don’t know about you, but my colleagues and pupils certainly need more than “a little” guidance ;)

  • http://www.boxoftricks.net José Picardo

    @learningcoach What you say makes an awful lot of sense. Two things though:

    Firstly, if a revolution happens by degree, is it a revolution?

    And secondly, is this (r)evolution taking place because, despite or regardless of these luminaries?

    Perhaps one third thing, I don’t know about you, but my colleagues and pupils certainly need more than “a little” guidance ;)

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