Tackling the biggest problems in our schools: where to begin?

Education is in a tricky place across the world right now. Budgets are being squeezed, teachers are leaving in droves, and all the while the pressure increases to be more like Finland or Singapore, to get further up the PISA rankings, and to produce a flexible, creative workforce that can compete with the best in the world. That’s a tough call for even the best schools and universities.

We are firmly in the era of the flat earth, and jobs for life are long gone. The rise of the digital entrepreneur has already caused a shift in the expectations millennials have for themselves. Now that their peers are earning millions through monetized YouTube vlogs, billionaires are created before the age of 30, and the gig economy has brought both immense freedom and challenge to the jobs market, kids no longer trust that a good degree is all they need to set them apart. They expect more, and we have to work with them discover what more looks like.

It is into this disrupted, disruptive space that we need to seriously consider how we reshape our schools, to not only make them places where we nurture the skills needed for the new millennium, but to ensure they’re economically sustainable. The current model is broken: we need only to look at the funding crisis in UK schools – with Principals having to cut the school day, reduce spending on resources, or ask for parental donations – to realise that we cannot go on in this way much longer before the whole system falls apart.

There has been some tinkering around the edges in the last 20 years. Plaza learning, interactive whiteboards, tablet computers: innovations that promised much but continue to deliver little. The problem is that we’re still working inside the old paradigm, with its set of expectations and norms. Ken Robinson’s RSA keynote, made famous through both its message and its brilliant animation, has been viewed almost 15 million times in the last 6 years, yet his words of warning have been all but ignored in our scramble for a place in the PISA Premiere League.

There is no other sector like it: imagine a traditional operating theatre introducing a new laser surgery tool without training surgeons to use it or creating systems that ensure its success. Yet that’s what we have done in our schools, by introducing open plan spaces and tablets to teachers who have no idea how to adapt their pedagogy to suit. Laser surgery works because the surgical ecosystem has changed: new operating theatres, new techniques, and up-to-date training. We need this same change of ecosystem to happen in our schools.

The time is right for sustainable, intelligent disruption: neither at the whim of the hardware manufacturers who know that getting their devices into schools creates consumer habits that are hard to break, nor at the whim of politicians, who are by nature short-termist. We need to look forensically at what genuinely works, what has been tried and tested over generations, and think about how we can innovate in such a way that enhances this excellence rather than throwing it away for an over-reliance on machines and AI to do the thinking for us. As Uschi Schreiber suggests, we need to invest ‘in culture as much as machines.’ There will be an increasingly important place for IT in the disrupted school, but it has to be subservient to, or at least augment, certain core principles.

In my opinion, these principles are:

  1. that we still want our children to be taught by knowledgeable, energetic and likeable teachers;
  2. that pupils and teachers need to be in a good place when they interact: to feel healthy, calm and happy (I’ve explored this in a previous LinkedIn post);
  3. that curricula, pedagogy, assessment, spaces and IT need to support these positive exchanges;
  4. that pupils need to learn how to use and control information – to play with it, mash it up, repurpose it – not just to memorise it to answer questions they could just as easily find through a Google search;
  5. that it is the role of leadership at all levels – both system and local – to ensure the above occurs: leadership succeeds or fails based on how well it supports these powerful teaching and learning interactions, as well how effectively it provides a fit-for-purpose pipeline of teachers into the profession.

What these principles foreground is the essential humanity of the learning process: that the best learning continues to happen when the exchange of knowledge and skills occurs in a safe space with a high degree of trust. We can bring in personalised learning through bespoke online courses, but this potentially removes one of the most important aspects of being human: learning from people we respect who have been there, seen it, and have the t-shirt and scars to prove it. Human beings, in fact. So much research has been done into the importance of trust in learning. We simply cannot have the same degree of trust in a machine, however efficient that machine might be.

However, if we want these human-focused principles to be at the core of every school, we have to face three harsh facts. First of all, there is a lot less money in education than there used to be. Secondly, there are more children to teach with proportionately fewer decent teachers to teach them. Finally, neither of these facts is going to change. Once we accept this, we can stop raging against the dying of the light and work with what we’ve got. We don’t have much choice.

Let’s take the first of those 5 points above. I don’t think anyone can argue that we want our kids to have great teachers. But if we have fewer teachers like this, how can we get them in front of as many students as possible? One suggestion is to remove the things that take teachers away from the classroom. They include marking, preparation and reporting. Increasingly, tech has shown itself capable of significantly reducing teacher workload. Using digital forms of assessment, creating online courses that take the place of both schemes of work and lesson plans (both ESSA Academy in Bolton and Stephen Perse in Cambridge have used iTunes U innovatively to this end), having parent portals where parents can see their child’s progress at any time: by using readily available tools like this we can increase the number of hours our good teachers are in the classroom and not stuck in the staffroom going through thirty soiled exercise books with a green pen.

Taking this further, another more controversial option is to extend the number of children any one excellent teacher directly interacts with by increasing class size. The average secondary school teacher, in a maintained school or academy, might interact with 5-6 classes of 25-30 students per week. That’s something in the region of 100-150 students. If it’s a private or international school with a much lower staff/student ratio that number will be considerably smaller. Is this a good use of our best teachers? Teacher cost amounts to anything from 50% to 80% of a school’s budget. If you were to compare this to how many industries measure productivity, schools fall way short – and that’s not even including the 13 weeks-plus of holidays teachers receive.

Why then should teachers only have 20-30 in a class? Why not 40? 50? 60? 100? Our immediate response to this is to imagine one person trying to control that many students on their own. But what if the learning space was divided into zones, with a large zone for direct input, and smaller zones for smaller group and individual work – and each of these zones with a skilled, intelligent and enthusiastic graduate trainee attached to it and prudent use of tech to augment the teacher’s input? Straight away you have the best of all worlds: a brilliant teacher leading the learning, supported by a combination of innovative tech and talented young trainees who are learning through observing and supporting – and all at a significantly reduced cost. And what if we extended the reach of this amazing teacher to 1000, 10,000, 100,000 students? Many teachers are experiencing that right now through creating YouTube screencasts and writing Kindle eBooks. Mr Bruff, the most popular English teacher online, currently has over 100,000 subscribers and over 17 million views of his GCSE and A level revision videos. Before Youtube he’d have impacted on around 100 or so students per year. Now it’s in the millions. Why not work to train our best teachers to create an effective online presence for themselves? This increases the impact of their teaching, enhances their personal brand as experts, and improves the school’s reputation.

We haven’t even touched on the most obvious impact that digital technology will have on the world of education in the future. Removing the classroom and even the school entirely. Schools are a product of the 19th century, places where order and structure were a necessary part of ‘the way things were’. But now we have immensely flexible working patterns, where we can work anywhere in the world, across time zones and with groups of people that gather to solve problems and then disband when the work is completed. Where sites like Innocentive allow the crowdsourcing of innovation. Where our children are just as likely to look to YouTube for the answer as to their teacher. Where more and more parents are deciding to home school their children right through to age 18. Should our education system not be moving in that direction too, giving students in-time access to expertise all over the world, and the chance to work with groups of peers both face to face and virtually? After all, this is the world they will be entering. Many of them are already there.

If we can focus on what really matters – getting the maximum number of kids interacting with the people who will inspire and enthuse them, giving them the tools to work with the right teams for the job, and using tech in such a way that it amplifies what we have done well for years – then we are at least heading in the right direction. As I said, I no longer think we have a choice.

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