We don’t need no education

So sang Pink Floyd in 1979 on their Christmas number 1 single Another Brick in the Wall Part 2 from their album The Wall.   It was a protest against rigid, didactic education. 

Inputs and outputs

During my secondary school years in the first half of that decade I encountered such rigidity epitomised in History by one teacher whirling into the classroom, black gown trailing in his wake and, without a murmur of greeting, embarking upon 45 minutes of dictation while marching up and down between the desks.  When the bell went at the end of the lesson, he reached a full-stop at the end of a paragraph and whirled back out of the room.  He had had a good cardiac work-out; we were left with writer’s cramp. 

Conversely, in chemistry, a young, newly qualified teacher, Mr Cowan, would spend the first few minutes reviewing the previous night’s episode of Monty Python then condense 45 minutes of teaching into 35.  Throwing ever larger pieces of sodium or potassium into a water bath (no screen or goggles) was his pedagogical “piece du resistance”.

In which subject I got the higher GCSE, I can’t remember, but I do recall the very distinctive teaching styles and know which I preferred.  Articles like this recent one from The Economist about the periodic table still catch my attention, see https://www.economist.com/science-and-technology/2019/02/28/the-periodic-table-is-150-years-old-this-week, although I won’t pretend to understand the part about “Spdfg orbitals”. 

“We don’t enjoy learning”

In 2017, M&C Saatchi issued a report called Risk, Realism and Ritalin, which can be found at http://mcsaatchitransform.com/src/assets/pdfs/MCTRANSFORM_RRR.pdf.  A key finding, page 16, is post-millennials “are losing the joy of learning”, the implication of which is not yet fully understood.  This doesn’t surprise me as education has been boiled down to its elemental outputs of exam-marks, at the expense of outcomes such as crafting creativity.  Stories abound about schools jettisoning pupils who may drag down their performance and with it their league table position.  This from The Times on April 1st says much about this divisive culling, see https://www.thetimes.co.uk/past-six-days/2019-04-01/times2/kate-clanchy-i-know-whats-wrong-with-our-schools-tclgmqprc.  I don’t regard this to be an April fool joke. 

Why has this forget-everything-else attention been glued to exam grades?  Where is the attention on developing social skills, creative thinking, problem solving, team-working collaboration skills, self-esteem etc.?  Most articles seem to home in on our needing to emulate Singapore in the PISA rankings.  Why do we want to be like a quasi-totalitarian city state?  It would seem Singapore is waking up to the shortcomings of mass-production, exam factory education, see these from The Economist in August 2018, this is an editorial piece, https://www.economist.com/leaders/2018/08/30/what-other-countries-can-learn-from-singapores-schools, and this a broader article, https://www.economist.com/asia/2018/08/30/it-has-the-worlds-best-schools-but-singapore-wants-better.

Ike – assault and battery

Most of my education was “chalk-and-talk” but, every once in a while, I encountered someone whose “behaviour” brought the subject to life.  They had panache, they filled the room and drew you with them making the lesson fun, enjoyable and you left having learnt something.  Their awareness of their pupils’ mood, be that inattention or understanding or participation, was razor sharp.  This would now be regarded as their “emotional intelligence”. 

Whether in education or corporate learning, these behavioural characteristics are the flint sparks to light the fire of a perseverant educational experience.  I have seen articles describing teachers as catalysts to the education “reaction”.  Yet, if I recall Mr Cowan correctly after he’d concluded his rendition of the Dead Parrot sketch or lurched around the lab doing a silly walk, catalysts are inert and don’t change during a reaction.  I prefer to see both teacher and learner change through their interaction. 

As an aside, my school’s Reverend manifested his emotional intelligence in an entirely different yet unique manner; through his munificent, religious faith, he lobbed board dusters at inattentive pupils (and rarely missed because he was an adept cricket player).  To plagiarise Eisenhower’s famous quote about leadership, “You do not teach (lead) by hitting people over the head. That’s assault, not teaching (leadership).” Furthermore, if you consider teaching to be at the apogee of the leadership challenge another of Eisenhower’s quotes is apposite, “Leadership (teaching) is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because she wants to do it.”

Virtual worlds education

How can we revitalise the dullness of so much contemporary e-learning in both academic and corporate settings?  How can fresh colour and invigorating life be brought in that will dispel the dismal finding of M&C Saatchi’s report? 

As a personal view, my association with US firm, Chant Newall Development Group (CNDG), www.cndg.info, brings me into contact with what is possible.  Its extensive and successful work with universities in Florida has produced an innovative approach to teaching a variety of subjects, mainly STEM.  By designing, developing and managing virtual worlds students and teachers complete their work together in a variety of simulations.  For instance;

  • In Biology, the class in its entirety “travels” to a simulation of the Roswell alien crash landing site to collect DNA samples for analysis. 
  • In Chemistry, the class accesses a CSI lab to use contemporary forensic techniques to investigate a gruesome sex-assault and murder that took place in the university’s host city in the 1980s. 
  • In Environmental Science, the class “visits” Antarctica to take ice-core samples to investigate atmospheric conditions thousands of years ago. 

You can learn more on this video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mDCoJxYv-I0Listen carefully to what the professional educators have to say about working in these spaces or places and note what they say about the social skills their students acquire.  If you were an employer in the upcoming 3rd decade of the 21st century, wouldn’t you be wanting to employ such people? The likes of Mike Hobday at IBM (see https://www.linkedin.com/in/mike-hobday/) cite judgement, creativity, innovation and emotional intelligence as the core competences of the modern workplace? 

These virtual places (and let’s adhere to that term rather than technology because when that is used it becomes a hammer looking for a nail to thwack) facilitate effective and joyful learning (and clearly makes teaching more enjoyable, too).  I see far too much e-learning as a two-dimensional commodity, i.e. read / listen / watch this.  There is no fun quotient, nothing magnetic to pull you back into the “classroom” to re-take an exercise / re-play a game through which your assimilation of knowledge content is deepened and, crucially, ability to apply it increased. 

What’s sauce for education is sauce for corporate L&D

This approach is not limited to academic education but can be applied to corporate L&D.  Why incur high financial and environmental costs moving people from A, B and C to a central location at X to attend a course?  Modularise it and deliver the learning virtually.  Suddenly, it becomes easy to create learning cohorts from across your geographic reach without anyone needing to physically travel.  Ok, in a class involving someone in California, the UK, South Africa and India, in the physical world some poor soul will be wearing their PJs and slippers due to the time difference!  Virtual learning hasn’t transcended time as well as space. 

“Do you want to do some scenario planning or disaster contingency planning?  Come in here and we can make it virtually real!”

Socratic pedagogy involves debate and discussion, not being dictated to in History (“thought control” in Roger Water’s lyrics?).  The power of technology can be harnessed to the adept skills and behaviours of teaching excellence to create astonishing places in which minds, young and old across the arc of lifelong learning, are stimulated, challenged and expanded.  Testing and examination becomes the icing on truly tasty experiential learning cake. 

Importantly, no-one is left “Comfortably Numb”. 

Disclaimer: the views expressed in this article are mine and mine alone.  They do not reflect those of CNDG, which I mention. Also, I respect the brilliance of Gerald Scarfe in the image featured at the beginning of this piece.

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