I remember my introduction to Astronomy was an artist’s impression of the solar system which hung modestly in the corridor outside my classroom. It was a large poster with jagged crumple lines which traversed it like a lightning strike, revealing the white paper beneath the printed layer and culminating in a big tear in one of its corners which someone, long ago, had tried to fix with sticky tape.
When it came to the solar system, I remember my teacher was only interested in making me recite the names of all the planets in order, according to their distance from the Sun. Mercury was first and Pluto, which in those days was a fully fledged planet, was last. If it weren’t for that old poster, my interest in our Solar System would have dissipated immediately after the test.
In his book The Good Teacher, Professor Alex Moore explores the importance of reflection and reflexivity in good teaching practice. Moore divides teachers into those who place emphasis on being vs those who focus on becoming.
In his view – applied to the teaching profession - being is static and finite, whereas becoming is fluid, infinite and ever-developing. I like to think of being as the end of a journey and of becoming as the journey itself.
Whilst Professor Moore’s remarks were made in the context of describing the dominant discourses within teaching, it struck me that our education system as a whole generally places a huge emphasis on being, promoting an old-fashioned concept of knowledge, that is to say: knowing static and finite facts, rather than on becoming.
Tests, examinations and certifications subconsciously encourage us to be satisfied with what we know and discourage many of us from continuing the journey. We all have had pupils who have asked Do I need to know that? or Will that be in the exam?
Innovation is defined as making changes in something established by introducing new methods, ideas or products. The very definition of innovation allows us to glean what problems an innovator might encounter as they strive to do things differently.
Trying to change the way things have always been done provides would-be innovators first of all with a political challenge, for persuading colleagues that change is both necessary and beneficial is no easy task.
Every single educational institution is governed and shaped by macro- and micro-politics. Innovators will find hurdles in both spheres, but it is the micro-politicking that takes place in the staff room, among colleagues, that worries me the most.
Clay Shirky captures the essence of social networking rather succinctly: social networks facilitate the creation of groups and the exploration of “new ways of gathering together and getting things done”.
Theories about socio-cultural situated learning have deep reaching consequences in the appliance of social networking as the principal means of communication, collaboration and cooperation in an educational setting, not just for individual students, but also for the whole school community. Interaction between individuals, teachers and students, co-operating in a community lies at the heart of social cognitive learning theory.
The importance of community to learning is always implied but rarely stated as a significant context in education. We all understand at an implicit level that interaction between members of the school community deepens their understanding of each other and leads to learning.
So, is a social network a substitute for community? Would the use of social networking be detrimental to the wider school community? The answer to both questions is no. Of course not. If the concept of community were not important for learning, schools and universities would have little reason to exist. The critical role of interaction in learning is reinforced by the addition of social networking to the school community, not undermined. Therefore, the addition of the social learning network augments the learning community rather than provides an alternative to it, resulting in the overall enhancement of the learning environment. It also – very tantalisingly – points towards how teaching and learning within this environment can be transformed into previously inconceivable practice, not simply enhancing it.
Research suggests that individuals join social networks to associate with others of like interest or vocation, or who know more, or who would like to learn similar things. This contrasts sharply with schools’ imposition of learning management systems on their students. Some educators have pointed out that many students tend to avoid using the school-managed virtual learning environments because they either find it difficult to use or irrelevant to their daily learning needs. It would appear then that a loose network of willing participants is better able to guarantee the commitment and engagement of the vast majority of our students.
Digital textbooks are to textbooks what the iPhone was to phones. Five years ago, making phone calls and sending text messages was just about all I could imagine that I could do with my mobile phone. Then along came devices like the iPhone and the game changed: phone calls and text messages gave way to email, social networking, internet browsing and just about anything else you could find an app for.
When I say digital text books, I am not referring to Amazon Kindles. Useful as they are, I am certain Kindles will end up, sooner rather than later, in a cupboard alongside the electronic typewriter, the fax machine and the floppy disk. The reason why I think this is the case is that Kindles are intermediate devices that have been developed to suit already existing content.
South Korea has announced recently that, by 2015, all the information that would once have been in paper textbooks will be delivered on screens. These digital textbooks will be available on computers, tablets, smartphones and even internet-capable TVs. Note how here the emphasis is on the content and not on the device: they want the content to be suitable for the devices, not the other way round.
As a Spanish national living in the UK, it has always struck me as curious how the British often speak about Europe and the Europeans as if they themselves weren’t in Europe or, indeed, Europeans.
But Brits are not alone in this – when you think about it, everyone does it: we all seem to be hardwired to find that which is different and other, even in the face of overwhelming similarity. It seems to be the natural thing to do.
It would appear we have evolved to reason by juxtaposing concepts and establishing dichotomies. And it makes sense too. From an evolutionary point of view, dichotomies and juxtapositions help us to quickly and effectively differentiate between danger and safety, friend and foe, right and wrong, thus ensuring our survival and, along with it, this adversarial approach to problem solving and reasoning.
Such dichotomies and juxtapositions can clearly sometimes be helpful when it comes to explaining and understanding the world in which we live, but they often lock us into pointless debates and arguments that do nothing to widen our understanding of teaching and learning and improve the nature of the education we provide our children.