Heritage School

Today I visited the wonderful Heritage School in Cambridge. There’s so much I’d like to say about the school, had we but world enough and time, but will limit myself to these select quotations from their website for now. The school is a tremendous example of how it is possible to be original and innovative without necessarily feeling the need to “embrace the new”.

Far too often learning is seen as a means to an end – good exam results – rather than an end in itself. At Heritage we understand that good exam results are necessary for progression, but we will never let the legitimate demands of our exam system obscure the central purpose of education: preparing young people for life.

At Heritage our Infants and Juniors go on a Nature Walk once per fortnight. Its purpose is to encourage detailed observation and identification of ‘ordinary’ natural phenomena such as local wildlife, flowers, plants and trees. We are privileged to have easy access to the Cambridge University Botanical Gardens. Students keep a Nature Notebook where what was observed is identified, described and painted using water colours. Nature Study encourages children to have ‘seeing eyes’. Charlotte Mason wrote: ‘Eyes and No Eyes go for a walk. No Eyes comes home bored. He has seen nothing, been interested in nothing, while Eyes is all agog to discuss a hundred things that interest him.’

Picture Study encourages a similar attention to observation and investigation. It involves looking with concentrated attention at a reproduction of a great painting once each week. The painting is then turned over and its details are described from memory. In this way children will get to know a great artist and his work each term. This greatly increases their pleasure and engagement when they can see the original in a London museum, for example, or a 10 minute walk away at the Fitzwilliam Museum.

In June each year we have a ‘Screen Free Week’ to encourage families to think about the amount of time that is spent on screens and to make extra time for other life enhancing activities, including reading.

Children and the Use of Technology

(I published this piece on the Keystone blog a few months ago, and reprint it below.)

One topic often discussed in my conversations with parents is the impact of technology on family life.

Context – how common is technology in children’s lives?

The pervasiveness of technology in children’s lives is undisputed. The Connected Kids Report last year showed that children aged 5 – 16 spend an average of six and a half hours a day in front of a screen, compared with around three hours in 1995. (UK adults spend even more time). Smartphone and tablet ownership amongst children is at an all-time high; did you know that more than one in 10 children aged 3 – 4 now have their own tablet (11%, up from 3% in 2013)?

Few areas of modern life are technology-free and teenagers in particular perceive themselves to be at a social disadvantage if they do not have a smartphone. Combine this peer pressure with an educational environment ever more in thrall to the use of technology in the classroom (the growth of BETT even during the years I have been running Keystone has been staggering) and the occasional concerned voice raised in opposition to this omnipresent technology is, if heard, rarely listened to.

What is wrong with technology?

Technological improvements have liberated and enriched whole areas of human activity in ways that the most visionary alchemist of yore could never have predicted. Few of its critics fail to recognise these contributions. Nonetheless, there are three particular concerns that parents have as they see the relationship their children have with technology.

  1. Social media – a shallow form of communication. Perhaps the most popular form of technology in children’s lives is social media, particularly Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. One of the most eloquent critics of the impact of social media on children’s social development is Sherry Turkle, whose books Reclaiming Conversation and Alone Together are well worth reading for parents who want to explore the issue further. She points to the fact that children have started to prefer digital communication over in-person / face-to-face communication, in part because it is easier to control. Children, especially in their teenage years when many are so nervous about how they are perceived, prefer to present more perfected selves via digital means rather than face the messiness, stumbles and mistakes of real-world, real-time communication. Of course, though, it is exactly this older form of face-to-face communication that is so important to the development of the self, and the development of such attributes as empathy. A 2011 University of Michigan scan of studies of American college students found a 40-per-cent decrease in empathy in the past four decades, with the steepest declines appearing in the past 10 years. These figures lead Professor McGilchrist to comment last year that smartphones were making children “borderline autistic” – though this was critiqued well in BigThink. But Turkle is surely persuasive when she says: “The predictability and ‘friction-free’ nature of virtual worlds is compelling to children, but it doesn’t teach them about relationships — conversations do.”
  2. Modern technology is distracting. A completely obvious point, you will say – butthis article by technology scholar Clay Shirky made me see just what a problem distraction has become, even for extremely able NYU undergraduates. In it Shirky reminds us how bad humans are at multi-tasking; draws our attention to the sinister pact made between smartphone Operating Systems and app companies to ensnare children’s attention neurochemically; and – perhaps most interestingly – shows that even students who do not bring smartphones to lessons can be distracted by the “secondary smoke” of a neighbour’s phone.  In my own experience of watching teenagers, I so often see evidence of that cruel tug placed on children by an unread message or status update, to the extent that some seem almost powerless to resist.
  3. Modern technology mediates and diminishes experience and perception. In a related concern, such technology has begun to invade experience to such an extent that children’s perception of their childhoods is in danger of being dulled, alienated and diminished. This is, of course, equally a problem for adults, and Turkle’s work is full of sad – but all-too-recognisable – stories of, for instance, the parent who reads his emails while giving his son a bath or who finishes a text as she greets her child at the school gates. Our relationships have started to slip into what researchers call an “absent presence.” We live in what Nicholas Carr calls The Shallows. In one telling statistic, although 82 per cent of adults acknowledge that using your phone during an in-person conversation hurts that interaction, 89 per cent keep doing it anyway. In my own experience, I fear that even technology use that is focused on the child (e.g. using your smartphone to record your child’s sports match or play) acts as a barrier between parent and experience – thereby draining it of some of its meaning.

What can parents do?

If the above three concerns strike you as plausible (and I’d love to hear from you whether they do or don’t), here are a few suggestions from the literature on what could be done in response – some easier to implement than others…

  1. Be strong. One of the most interesting comments I read in Turkle’s work is that children both longed for more conversations with their parents and peers (saying they turned to their own devices because others were similarly plugged in) and appreciated the liberation from them when firm rules were put in place. Even Steve Jobs, amongst other technology entrepreneurs, was firm in the limits he placed on his children’s technology use. As in many areas of bringing up children, parents should help children delay gratification and resist temptation in the secure knowledge that “they know better.”
  2. Model a healthy relationship with technology. As Turkle has pointed out, if a child sees their parent obsessed with a “shiny object” from the moment they’re born, they will want one for themselves as soon as they have the words to ask for it. “In parental slang, it has become known as the ‘passback,’ passing back the iPhone to quiet your toddler in the rear seat of the car.” Turkle recommends cultivating “sacred spaces” in family life, such as the kitchen, the dinner table and – a surprise for me – the car, in which no technology is allowed and conversation (even messy grunts and half-articulations) is fostered. If you need a hand, a friend from New Zealand points out that there are now apps to stop you overusing apps! The novelist Zadie Smith used a site called Freedom to help her avoid distraction and finish her novel.
  3. Encourage the experience of solitude and hands-on activity. Turkle convincingly points to studies showing that it is “only when we are alone with our thoughts — not reacting to external stimuli — that we engage that part of the brain’s basic infrastructure devoted to building up a sense of our stable autobiographical past.” Some schools have built in wilderness / craft experience, such as Australia’s Timbertop programme or the UK’s Forest Schools, into adolescent education. However, most parents will find that simply encouraging their children to get out into the natural world or pursue quiet individual activities like modeling clay and sketching will help to achieve the same goals: slow children down and counteract the distractibility of technology. Turkle again: “When you watch children play with them, you see how the physicality of the materials offer a resistance that gives children time to think, to use their imaginations, to make up their own worlds. ”
  4. Interrogate the school’s policy on technology use. If you have found any of the above convincing, send some of the articles and books mentioned to your school. What is their policy on smartphone and tablet use? If they agree with the three problems mentioned above, how do they help their pupils overcome them?

James Paul Gee

I recently came across James Paul Gee through David Smith. He is exactly what I was looking for: an eloquent champion of the beneficial role of computer games in learning.

You can see him in two great talks here and here. Wikipedia entry here.

Three points that resonated:

  • “School is all manual and no game.” A Professor of linguistics before becoming interested in gaming, JPG argues for the existence of “situated meaning”. Anything we read, he says, makes much more sense if we can relate it to an experience, image, idea, action or argument we’ve already had. (His comparison is with computer game manuals – they only become useful after you’ve played the game for a bit). Most children do not connect with textbooks not because they can’t make sense of the phonics [aside: I had the enriching pleasure to see Margaret Snowling talk about phonics last week] but because the books’ specialist language doesn’t connect with anything out of which children can make meaning.
  • Assessment. As JPG says, you don’t need to test a player who has completed the most difficult level of Halo on his Halo-playing skills: the assessment is built into the game. His argument is that there must be some means of mimicking this design when designing, for instance, algebra-learning courses. Would it not be possible for students to only qualify for a more challenging level once they defeated the last, in a way that was built into the whole learning process – and without the endless annual trauma of exams.
  • Problem-solving. In just a few comments, JPG brings a breath of fresh air to the turgid knowledge vs. skills debate currently boring the UK. Facts about Science/ French vocab items/ History dates are putting so many children off because, despite teachers’ vigorous assertions to the contrary, they can’t see them as tools. In well-designed games, knowledge is realized as tools. To quote JPG more fully:

“School is locked into content-fetish. It’s all about facts. Biology is the 1200 facts somebody in Biology discovered. Memorise 1100 and get ’em on paper – you pass Biology. [But] Biology, Physics, Chemistry ARE NOT FACTS; they are problems to be solved. And Biologists, Chemists and Physicists use facts as tools to solve these problems, and once they’ve used them again and again, they can’t be forgotten.”

I have one criticism so far:

  • This is a little unfair, as I have only got about fifty pages through it, but I can’t understand JPG’s unbridled support for Marc Prensky’s Don’t Bother Me Mom I’m Learning. The splurge of exclamation marks (+15 per page in some parts) is off-putting; the lack of footnotes unsettling. The hysterically partisan style (chapters are titled with scammy phrases like “But Wait – What About All That Bad Stuff I Hear About In The Press”) is what really put me off, though. Once I’ve finished the book, I hope to post more, but I get the feeling that this stuff is only going to convince the massively-sceptical wider population if its approach is cautious and substantiated with sound, academic arguments.

Video Games and Children: first salvo

I’m going to start fondly at home: with dysTalk.

Last October, Tom Maher gave a talk for us on Video Games and Children. It was an elegant and convincing argument against their use from the perspective of a teacher, and shall form a perfect opening for our debate.

His allegations:

1. They take up children’s time and make them exhausted.

2. They affect children’s capacity to learn by encouraging in them a desire for “immediate response.” The assumption is that because children can change screen when they’re bored gaming – and can’t when bored in class – they are less likely to have the resilience of attention needed to stick at trickier topics/subjects.

His suggestions are moderate – and surely sensible:

1. A more comprehensive debate with the industry, a la the film industry and the junk food industry.

2. More awareness for parents as to the issues; and that computer games be brought out of the bedroom and into a family room.

A Fresh Start

With the optimism of the summer and a new academic year, this blog is going to see some changes.

  • 4 posts a week,
  • A bit more direction

I’ve felt myself lurch ever closer to the ‘club bore’ on matters of education; this blog (rather than the ears of bored friends) shall become by receptacle instead. Education is shaping up to be one of the key battlegrounds ahead of the election next year. I intend this to be a personal archive for my own reference – and I hope a fertile resource for people coming at this stuff fresh.

I’m going to stick to FIVE broad threads to keep the focus even tighter.

  1. Good Teaching and Curricula: to include the debate between subject-based “Chalk and Talk” teaching championed by the Conservative Party vs. competency/skills-based learning.
  2. Discipline: taking in behavioural management, drug policy, corporal punishment debates etc.
  3. Selectivity: grammar schools, streaming etc.
  4. Motivation/self-esteem: how far are schools implicated in this?
  5. Impact of computer games/internet use on children and their receptiveness to learning/ their outlook in life. This might be renamed, as I want it to take in the ADHD/Ritalin debate.

Though I am very ready to be persuaded, here is my pithy-as-possible starting position for each:

1. Good Teaching: Matthew Taylor seems spot on here: it’s a false dichotomy. As Guy Claxton has shown, we shouldn’t have to choose between The Tudors or Media Studies.

2. Discipline: the debate has a larger significance. Should schools should be run on utilitarian principles (prioritizing the experience of the many even if that means failing the few)? I want to learn more about Steve Heppell’s Not School.

3. Selectivity seems part of the same debate. At the moment, I am very much pro-selectivity. As a classroom teacher, I didn’t see my weaker students benefiting from the strongest – nor vice versa. I’m ready to be proved wrong.

4. I quote Prof. Claxton in complete agreement: “Too often children see school as posing another set of challenges, rather than as an opportunity to develop the sorts of resources needed to deal with those challenges.”

5. Hmmmm.. a change of mind every day..