While on holiday over the last couple of weeks, I got the chance to do some reading. Some of what I read was directly related to education but most of it was not. Nonetheless, I saw connections to education in everything I read – the price of obsession.
The fallacy of learning at your own pace
In a recent edition of New Scientist (which I skimmed on the plane), Anant Agarwal, CEO of Coursera, the MOOC people, claimed that MOOCs have the ‘advantage’ that “You don’t have to drag students to a lecture at 8 am, they can learn at their own pace.” That might make sense for mature, part-time students who are trying to juggle the demands of work, family and education, but it makes no sense for the average 19-23 year old student. The idea that young students should be facilitated to learn at a self-determined pace is misguided. The reality is that as well as being a good in itself, education is a preparation for life and none of us can live life at pace entirely of our own choosing. Try telling your employer that you will get your work done when it suits you.
In his latest (somewhat depressing) book, “Last Train to Zona Verde”, Paul Theroux writes: “With so much contradictory information available [online], there is more reason to travel than ever before: to look closer, to dig deeper, to sort the authentic from the fake; to verify, to smell, to touch, to taste, to hear, and sometimes to suffer – importantly – the effects of this curiosity.” This resonated with me because I sometimes think we have sanitised education in the same way that the internet sanitises travel or TV sanitises sport. I think we actively and quite deliberately take the ‘suffering’ out of education by doing the thinking and hard graft for the students. Instead of encouraging the student to ‘extract’ knowledge, we provide lists of “key points” and “things you need to know”. At the same time we talk about the need to ‘teach’ students how to think!
Obsessing with structures
The Australian cricket team – the worst in many years – has been getting a hammering by England in the Ashes series. The response in Australia has been predictable – the “structure” of the domestic game is being blamed. It is amazing how often structures are blamed in all walks of life. We obsess about structures in sport, health and – especially – education. Often the real problems are a lot simpler – individuals not doing their job being the usual cause of failures. In the case of the demise of Australian Cricket, it is really just a natural variation in the quality of the players. At the moment, they have some very average players while 10 years ago they had a host of great players – just statistics really and not a reason to obsess about structures. Likewise, instead of worrying about structures, the Minister for Education and Skills should focus on much more basic issues like student ability and motivation.
Thinking inside the box
In the book “Brick by Brick – How LEGO Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry”, David Robertson tells the story of how Lego nearly went ‘down the tubes’ at the turn of the millennium but regrouped to achieve massive growth in the last 5-10 years. It has done this by innovating “inside the box”. It flirted with transformation but settled, very sensibly, on adaptation and evolution. I think the Lego experience provides a lesson for education. Before we get carried away with ideas we think are “transformational” – like online learning – we need to identify and hold on to some core principles of education – just like Lego realised that their little plastic bricks were what made them successful even in this digital age.