Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Perhaps Education isn't that broken....

There are a number of debates circulating around education, many of which focus on what's wrong with the current system; some suggest alternatives. Quite a few of these have got me thinking, so this post is yet another (somewhat garbled and at times contradictory) attempt at thinking aloud.

I must admit, I haven't been involved/engaged with the debate (or is it a movement) on the Purpose of Education as much as I would have liked. Having said that, I think there's a mutually exclusive relationship between being involved in teaching and educational technology, and the debate on the 'Purpose of Education'. I think to this end we consider, research and reflect upon many intertwined concepts on a daily basis;
  • what we are trying to achieve
  • what we want our students to achieve
  • methods for how these should be achieved
  • how we get, and become better at getting, students from A to B (if indeed that is the purpose of education)
  • how we assess and credit these achievements
  • and how in doing so, we help others (students, teachers, etc) do the same. 
I won't go into each of these here, but two fairly recent blog posts have got me thinking (both of which I believe are almost sub-debates of the wider question of 'purpose').

The purpose and future of the text book has been murmuring for a while. Audrey Watters post picks up on a few interesting things, but is generally critical of the fundamental concept of the text book. Whilst I don't see a problem with an entity that brings together information to support discussion and learning around a particular topic, I agree with Audrey in that;
'Somewhere along the way, "textbook" became "curriculum" -- and under today's testing regime, that all became wrapped up in "assessment."'
I suppose it's a subjective point as to whether a course of study should be centered around a single source such as a textbook, but that would surely depend upon specific learning outcomes. If a book is sufficiently aligned, (and of course of sufficient rigour) then is there a problem, and more to the point, any different than having multiple current sources from the web? Although I am in favour of encouraging students to search, find, review and share relevant content, I equally think providing a foundation layer to that higher level of working is no bad thing.

Audrey obviously hints, as do others, at the problems related to assessment and the methods of accreditation i.e. how do we recognise and reward learning? Much criticism has been thrown at the current model of accreditation, with the concept of Badges as a potential solution - something I'm not too keen on for formal education. Again I'm by no means an expert on this discussion, so read up for yourself, but I can't see how this less formal approach can replace existing models effectively. The Mozilla blog suggests;
"Open Badges will let you gather badges from any site on the internet, combining them into a story about what you know and what you’ve achieved. There is a real chance to create learning that works more like the web."
Whilst this sounds exciting, I think we still need the academic rigour and formal accreditation in our education system, which is measurable and somewhat tangible for employers.  I stumbled across a post recently by Ted Curran questioning badges;
“How can an employer believe that you’ve mastered content if there’s no accredited institution willing to put their reputation on the line to say that you did”?
I don't disagree, but delving into OpenBadges.org site further, it's more apparent that this might be an option for lifelong learning (CPD) out-with the degree classifications of HE. I have long thought the range of CPD courses on offer need to be benchmarked, so perhaps badges could be a way of doing so? Certainly, I don't believe anybody and everybody could offer up badges with no benchmarking or comparisons to ensure what Provider A offers is of an equal rigour to that of Provider B, otherwise the badges will quickly become meaningless. Furthermore, (and playing Devil's Advocate a little) do we really need to bloat our CV with dozens of badges?

On a side note: I really don't like the metaphor  - badges have wormed their way into a particular genre of fashion, and I don't like it. They are also something generally worn by children (and I picture them worn by Mods & Rockers as well - but that's before my time). Needless to say, I am neither! A certificate will do me fine, thank you. Herein lies a separate problem - metaphors have to be relevant and not patronising to be accepted! Where do Badges come in relation to this?

So where do these ramblings lead to?

The purpose of education; is it really to teach children who the Kings and Queens of the United Kingdom were and in what order? Or is it to develop skills to enable responsive, adaptability and reflective practice, and to better understand the world in which we live? Or is it a bit of both? I won't pretend I know the answers here, as there are far greater minds grappling with these problems and still yet to find the solutions.

Doug Belshaw interviewed David Preston recently, who suggests the purpose is about 'leading people to a deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them, through inspiring them to learn', and touches on how education currently focuses on economies of scale, measurable assessment, and efficiency.

Whilst this all this is very inspirational, how do we shape things on the ground?

(I think) I think that learning 'facts and figures' (and the definitive) are important, but the approaches we employ to support pupils/students needs to be more holistic and diverse. The textbook can still be part of the future of education (in paper or digital versions), as we need to teach students the definitive things (I think) - however we should do so whilst developing the problem solving and adaptability skills we eulogise. Nevertheless, with the focus of coursework/exams assessing specific things (skills, knowledge, understanding, etc);

  • Is there always a temptation to just give learners the information (in any format), rather than building a pathway for students to find that information themselves? 
  • Which is more efficient (in terms of ease of teaching and/or effective learning)
  • And how many teaching staff actually value the latter over the former?

One thing I do believe, is that packing students together into massive classes, and getting them sitting in a massive lecture theatre, is not the way we should go. This is strategic decision to be made by Faculty, and a difficult one where efficiency savings are at the heart of daily business.

Perhaps initiatives such as the Flipped Classroom (something I've already blogged about) attempts to combine the 'information giving' with the 'problem solving'? Could initiatives like this be the future?

To conclude....

Many say this is broken, but is it? Perhaps our Education system isn't broken at all, but rather the tools and techniques used (and importantly, those in control of those) are the real flaws in the system? With this in mind, I think about those students that have genuinely had an amazing experience in education - it wasn't broken for them. And I think about initiatives here at MMU and the annual teaching awards (were students recognise the good work being carried out not only by individual lecturers and supervisors, but by whole programmes). The teachers/lecturers have employed approaches that stretch and challenge. Corollary, the bad experiences we often hear about centre around limited support, didactic and inflexible teaching.

So just to throw the thought out there; rather than complain about the 'system', perhaps we should better prepare those responsible for supporting the development of learners in order to make education more personalised, enjoyable and meaningful for everyone.

Over to you...

Book image via Microsoft Clip Art
Badges image via Mozilla

Creative Commons License
This work by Peter Reed is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.


  1. For the time being - and noting that education is far from perfect- everyone who tells you that "education is broken" should be burnt with fire.

    Harsh maybe, but it could be the only way to stop this infection from spreading.

    1. Hi David,

      thanks for the comment.
      I'm glad I'm not alone in thinking 'education is not broken'. I do recognise that there are many things that need improving: some are strategical, but many can be improved by staff on the ground, working with students on a daily basis - that is who can/will make education a positive experience for students.

      Would love to hear comments on some of the points I made re text books, badges, etc.....

  2. We're starting a movement - the "education isn't that broken" revolution. I blogged about this too: http://nogoodreason.typepad.co.uk/no_good_reason/2012/04/education-the-language-of-change.html
    There are people whose income and/or professional identity depends on convincing everyone that education is broken and, hey, they happen to have the solution.