Tag Archives: education

“Why We Play”…

Pat Kane gathered an interesting panel for Edinburgh International Science Festival to discuss “Why We Play”: a biologist, a social scientist – and a games creator.

It was a fascinating discussion, raising lots of questions – perhaps most importantly, “what is play?” Not fully answered, if only because once you define it, it stops being play! – and giving many answers to the implicit question of why, but that’s fine – it was thought-provoking, and for me that was the point.

There are of course problems. Defining “play” seems difficult – it is one of those behaviours that we all recognise and understand the meaning of, but can’t really define. Patrick Bateson (a biologist, and hence something of a taxonomist too) laid out five characteristics of play:

  • it is intrinsically motivated – there is no or limited external reward
  • it has no immediate benefit
  • it is sensitive to wellbeing (to the extent, Bateson felt, of being an indicator of it)
  • it most common, but not exclusively so, among the young

But these don’t seem exclusive behaviours – unless one includes activities like reading and artistic endeavours in the definition (perfectly plausible – the discussion went on to discuss creativity, so maybe art is just another, “creative” form of play?). Maybe it is best not to get lost in semantics, though as Bateson pointed out, scientists (and, presumably, other academics) need to be able to define something to study it.

Mammals play (cats, anyone? Chimps, dolphins, you name it…); birds play (and learn from it); humans play. In mammals – including us – play can be social or directed at objects, as we (and other animals) learn to manipulate the world around us.

Obligatory cat photo: cats do it…

Bateson also highlighted that “play” is a homonym: as well as play itself, we play sports, playmusic and play in the theatre. We even play with data…

He also pointed out a difference – which I am not sure I really get – between rule-based play and “playful play”. Many games are structured – particularly in competitive play and sports – and the structure brings meaning to the game. Playing chess, for instance, relies on a very complex rule structure. If one could improvise chess moves, it wouldn’t be much of a game. But “playful play”, outside the strictures of games, is apparently linked with imagination and creativity.

Alex Fleetwood, a games designer who I saw speak a couple of years ago at TEDxOrenda, discussed how it is possible to use games – and play – to generate new ideas. People can use games to help them interpret and make sense of the world, and as new technologies come along – be it clocks, printing, or virtual reality – new games have come along to help us understand the technology; in turn, games can change the way we integrate this information and the way our brains work. (I couldn’t find any references for that contention!) Interestingly, many of the games Alex’s company, Hide and Seek, develop seem to use old technologies in novel ways to make us think differently about the world and explore new behaviours.

Wendy Russell took a rather more academic approach, though focussing on games and society. There are, she said, four kinds of games and play (with what I guess are Greek names…):

  • agoncompetitive games and sport
  • alea – games of chance
  • mimesismimicry, make-believe and play-acting (and, perhaps, even theatre?)
  • ilinx – dizzy play and disequilibrium

These form a continuum, she reckoned, from rigid, rule-bound games to turbulent, improvised anarchy – from order to disorder.

She pointed out that on of the things about play was its pointlessness; and if you try to impose a point, it threatens to become serious and – well, not fun. (Just think about how seriously people can take football matches!) All those people looking to “gamify” their processes, take note…

Those in power and in institutions like order and structure; those at the bottom of the pile like disorder, as a way to get away from their everyday lives. Society allows disorderly games, sometimes in a managed environment, so that people can let off steam: funfairs, carnivals, mardi gras, April Fool’s Day – all allow people to relax the usual conventions and escape for a while. The role of the fool and the jester do the same: the normal hierarchy is temporarily suspended.

British society is changing (or has changed!) the way we, and children, play. Parents seem to manage their children’s time much more closely, and seem scared to let children play outdoors, unattended; both adults and children can play more easily indoors, using modern technology, than outdoors, albeit socially. Russell said that architects are now trying to design space for play into new structures – perhaps just as interior designers are trying to build play-areas in workspaces.

The role of play in creativity was touched on by each of the speakers, but it seems hard to put a finger on it. Some creative processes tend towrds the anarchic – brainstorming sessions, for instance, where all ideas are equally valid and anyone can contribute. The burgeoning unconference movement (of which I am a strong advocate!) might also be seen as disorderly play, beyond the usual bound business strictures. Everyone felt that play – or a sense of play – is crucial to promoting creativity – without specifying how.

“A Just Scotland”?

Last month, just after discussing “caring capitalism“, I spent the day at an event organised by the STUC to consult on A Just Scotland.

The campaign describes this as a “more equal and socially just Scotland”. This is undeniably a worthy aim but it doesn’t actually say what it means by “just”: equal income, wealth, oropportunity? How would we know if we had got there – and can we ever get there?

I’ll admit to being right outside my comfort zone: whilst I had known that it was organised by the STUC, I hadn’t expected it to be quite so old-world (party) political. As an open meeting, covering such a broad, important topic, I had expected a wide range of views and stances. As it is, I was way to the right of just about everyone else there, and there was a somewhat lazy, unquestionning attitude from other attendees (not necessarily the organisers or those speaking from the platform) that everyone there was a socialist of one form or another.

For me, the objective of “a just Scotland” is way beyond politics. Though prompted by the desire to explore what Scotland could be like following a constitutional settlement on independence (or “devo max” or “devo plus” or – whatever!), and the STUC wanting to help shape political thinking, seeking a just Scotland is also way beyond independence: it ought to be a valid political goal whatever the outcome.

As well as old-school politics, the meeting also felt old-school: there were pre-prepared papers from the STUC, and then points from the floor – but little real discussion: the way the meeting and workshops were managed meant the audience could make their points but not really engage in dialogue with each other. I think a freer discussion might have prompted more debate – personally I’d have gone for an “unconference” format to fully explore the issues and come up with actions for engagement (though you would have expected me to say that). I’m a bit worried that by raising the topic and setting a political agenda: it is too easy to then leave it to politicians to deliver; if that had been a good idea, the STUC wouldn’t have needed to have a series of discussions to set the agenda, because politicians would have had social justice as an objective long ago. (I don’t think this is something one can just lay at the door of the coalition – nor even the 1980s, Thatcherite Conservative party: measured by the Gini coefficient, income inequality increased during the last Labour governments.)

Peter Kelly of Poverty Alliance ran through some frankly disturbing statistics on the impact of poverty, particularly on children. He said 20% of children live in low income households. (The Scottish Government’s figures show 15% of the population in “relative poverty”. Interesting, they also show the Gini coefficient for Scotland to be lower than Great Britain as a whole – meaning Scotland has a little less income inequality. I couldn’t find figures for child poverty on the Scottish Government’s site, despite a link saying they’d be there, but the End Child Poverty campaign shows 35% of families with children in Glasgow are on benefits, and whilst the average elsewhere in Scotland comes out at about 18%, the large population of Glasgow might give 20% across the nation. Of course, defining poverty is one of the ongoing difficulties.)

His main point was that these statistics are not fixed: they are the result of choices politicians – and their voters – make. Low pay has persisted for many years; the gap in education between those in poverty and those not lingers for years, with a youth unemployment rate of 12% pre-dating the recession. He saw these as issues of power and democracy – and addressing them would cut across reserved and devolved constitutional powers.

There were several comments from the floor. Most powerfully, I thought, was Andy Myles from Scottish Environment Link, an umbrella body for environmental NGOs, who said that climate change was more important than constitutional change: that is, in making decisions about Scotland, we should ask what it is we want: Scottish Environment Link have set out what they think [pdf], and they are hard to argue with.

Angus Reid read out his “Call For A Constitution” – and again, it is hard to argue with his goals. (This could be an issue: I agree we should have less poverty, more equality, better care for the environment, and everything… I want it all – but there are bound to be some conflicts: do we just leave it to the politicians to decide the priorities?)

These things are of course the nuts and bolts of politics. Someone else pointed out that the political choice people make in Scotland, whilst similar to north England, Wales and Northern Ireland, differ from those of south England, where much of the nation’s wealth is now concentrated.

There were two workshop sessions and several that sounded interesting, so I picked the two that were most closely attuned to my interests. First up was a discussion on the economy and fair taxation. There wasn’t actually much discussion about taxation – somewhat surprising given how much tax has been in the news recently – and a lot about the economy.

Economic arguments seem to be key in the debate about independence – and of course there are rarely clear answers in economics. STUC is calling for changes to the economic model to make it more just – moving to fair, progressive taxation and a distribution of wealth from the rich to the needy; but I couldn’t help thinking that much of the STUC’s thinking is rooted deeply in the old economic model of 20th century industrial orthodoxy – such as seeking to maximise employment. (The STUC’s job is of course to act for the benefit of its members – those employed, largely in the public sector.) As those present discussed way to reintroduce growth to the Scottish economy, I was once again struck by the thought that if radical change is needed, it won’t be obtained by working within the same old economic models which have clearly failed to deliver over the past fifty years.

In a world dominated by global markets, the options for Scotland – independent or otherwise – are limited. Someone pointed out that there is sufficient wealth in the world, but it is unequally distributed. Of course, in global terms, even the poor of Scotland are probably comparatively well off.

The Scottish government does have some limited tax raising powers: it could impose an additional 3% of income tax (the Scottish government held a consultation on local tax raising powers a few years ago – but using such powers might be political suicide), and it controls council tax (held static for several years – a potentially undemocratic, regressive move) and business rates. The Scotland Act 2012 will give the Scottish government more tax raising powers from 2015, although according to Jon Swinney of the SNP, this will only account for 15% of all taxes raised in Scotland. (The rest will be covered by VAT, corporation tax, national insurance and so on.)

There was much discussion of the the nature of currency post independence. There seem to be three options:

  • maintain sterling
  • join the euro
  • establish Scottish “punt”

The last of these seems unfeasible since it would have no value in global markets: transactions with other economies would probably be denominated in pounds, euros or dollars. But if an independent Scotland had sterling or the euro, it would have no control over money supply and interest rates (we have seen how well this has worked for the smaller economies of the euro over the last five years or so). Scotland would thus not control its economy – and not really be independent at all. (For me, this is the killer argument against independence. Economically, it just won’t work.)

The second workshop I attended was on education, participation and democracy. (The briefing paper is apparently missing from the website.) Education is already wholly devolved, and the Scottish education system has always been separate (and many would claim better) than its English counterpart. The Scottish Curriculum for Excellence (on which I worked several years ago) is designed to deliver learning outcomes appropriate for each learner, for ages from 3 to 18 years (ie pre-school to leaving secondary education) and across all abilities. The curriculum is built around “four capacities” – creating

  • successful learners
  • confident individuals
  • responsible citizens
  • effective contributors

All very laudable, and clearly forming the foundations for a just society, I’d say.

In the discussion, education was suggested as the bedrock of democratic participation, and this is certainly encompassed in the curriculum capacity of “responsible citizens”. But about of quarter of Scots have problems with literacy or numeracy (compared with 16% for England – I’m not sure if the same things are being measured, but it is a guide; for the UK as a whole, about 20% are functionally illiterate). That is quite a big difference, and the Scottish Government has long had a strategy to improve adult literacy. (It also questions Scotland’s apparently superior education system.)

Comparatively low levels of literacy may also hamper economic development – and certainly reduce the options for employment.

It was said that poverty reduces participation in democracy, with a lower turnout in elections in poorer regions than rich. The Electoral Reform Society found a link between social exclusion and political engagement [pdf] – with “near universal association between political participation [electoral and political] and socio-economic status” (p20).

The election for the Scottish Parliament of 2011 had a 50% turnout whilst the turnout in Scottish seats in the UK Parliamentary election of 2010 was 64% – quite a significant difference. The difference is consistent, too: the 2007 Scottish Parliamentary election had a turnout of 52% [pdf], the Scottish turnout in the 2005 general election was 61%. I believed devolution was meant to increase engagement, but apparently this hasn’t happened.

After the workshops, there was a debate between Ewan Hunter, representing the “Yes” campagin, and Kezia Dugdale MSP representing “Better Together” (as the “No” campaign has styled itself). Frankly, Dugdale knocked Hunter’s contribution into a cocked hat – but then she is a professional politician. Hunter failed to address the topic of day – that of a just Scotland – focussing instead on the arguments in favour of independence. He highlighted one of the major problems with the Yes campaign – that voters don’t actually know what they will be voting for: the details can’t be worked out until the vote has decided. Sterling or Euro? Inside the EU or not? In NATO or not? Let alone what the financial settlement with Westminster would be – I’m sure HM Treasury would be more than pleased to offload RBS and HBoS and their billions of pounds of debt.

Dugdale did address the issue of a just Scotland, highlighting the SNP had rejected proposals for a “living wage” (which, lets face it, even Tory London mayor Boris Johnson has signed up to – albeit on a voluntary basis). She proposed to devolve power down to give communities more say (the Scottish government consulted on the Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill during the summer). My only caveat to Dugdale’s contribution was that her party, Labour, were dominant in the Scottish parliament for two terms, and failed to address the issues of poverty and inequality raised by A Just Scotland.

It was an interesting, challenging day; at a fundamental level, I agree with the objectives of the campaign for A Just Scotland, and believe that they are bigger than political parties and the old arguments between right and left; and indeed bigger than the constitutional settlement. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, these issues should be addressed: how to do that is a much bigger question.

Changing Education: “Education for Uncertain Futures”

I have spent many months over the past few years working with public servants in the Scottish Government on change programmes in the education sector. I wasn’t designing or leading the change – there were pedagogues to do that – but I was responsible for programme management of some workstreams.

Change in the education sector is difficult. There are a lot of deep-rooted interest groups – parents, teachers, unions (surprisingly, learners rarely seem to get a look in…). The change happens in classrooms, far removed from the design and political drivers of change. There is a very long time lag – changing a school curriculum means changing the assessment and exam system. And the political pressures to tinker can be huge.

So changing education is difficult and complicated.

I was therefore really interested in a recent debate at the RSA entitled “Education for Uncertain Futures”. This was held to launch the output of an RSA project, “Building Agency in the Face of Uncertainty: a thinking tool for educators and education leaders”. I haven’t read the pamphlet – yet – but the debate was interesting and raised a lot of issues.

There were four speakers: Keri Facer, who was co-author of the pamphlet (sorry – thinking tool…); Patrick Hazlewood, a head teacher who has been doing some work with the RSA; Carolyn Usted, an educationalist and former inspector of schools; and Dougald Hine, an itinerant thinker (and co-founder of the Everything Unplugged meetup I sometimes go to). A varied bunch, each coming from a different perspective.

It made for an interesting talk, but there was a lack of cohesion in the views and issues discussed. This is what some of the contributors talked about, and some thoughts of my own they prompted. (There was an underlying assumption in the discussion that mainstream education is the way forward. It might not be; but it probably will be the system that most young people work through, so there seems little point in challenging that assumption. Maybe that’s another post!)

The education establishment, like other organisations, faces lots of uncertainty – economic, environmental, technological – but the feedback in the system may take years. Governments and educators are designing the education system in a fog of data: and the educational environment is changing much faster than the system can. The policies being implemented now are not just unlikely to work in the future – they’re unlikely to work today, because they’re based on data that is now outdated.

Beneath this uncertainty, though, is a continuity: the purpose of education remains the same (if we can agree what that is – there seems to be no overriding philosophy of why we educate; we may not even share a common language to discuss learning). The daily business of teaching remains (more or less) the same. Against the background of change and uncertainty, what teachers do and try to achieve remains pretty constant.

The curriculum and its objectives has changed little: the early 21st century curriculum would be recognised by teachers from the early 20th century, though the tools and practice may have changed considerably. Teachers aim to get measurable results – so they “teach to the test”, and always have done (because that is how they are assessed). Teaching is generally a linear, sequential process (though learning may be recursive). Generally, we teach what we know based on the past, not what we may think will be needed for the future (the one thing we can be certain of predictions of the future is that they will be wrong).

Change may be a constant, but the rate of change – particularly technology and the way we use it – has greatly accelerated. Young people – the primary consumers of the education system – are at the forefront of that change, ahead (maybe way ahead) of their parents and teachers. Their access to information and other resources is far superior to previous generations’. Helping people manage the vast amounts of information available now, sifting value from the chaff, would be useful.

One thing that the education system could do is prepare young people to cope with this rate of change: to enable them to live with uncertainty and ambiguity, to improvise in novel situations. Society may come to rely on these skills as institutions – banks or universities or governments – fail. The gap between those in power and influence and those without – consumers of it, perhaps – is changing too, in ways the powerful may not understand (the Arab spring illustrates this, and it could happen anywhere).

Allowing educators to improvise and experiment – removing the yoke of management by results from them – to see what works and what doesn’t in their situation (and every school may be different) might add a lot of value. Teachers are the people who have to manage the change and pass it on to their learners: providing learners with skills rather than answers would be a good start.

Social Media and education: “constructing real time education”

I went a long to the Constructing Real Time Education #140conf London May Meet Up last Wednesday.

My main interest was in training and development, but I spent many months as a programme manager for a government curriculum change programme for schools a few years ago, so the focus of the meet up on school-based education didn’t leave me disappointed. I had also been talking about the development and potential of Agile Learning – how online tools and resources could be used in both education and training – so there seemed to be a lot of congruence.

Using a panel format, there were four short talks on different aspects of technology and its influence on education. First up was Bob Pinkett, who wanted to make two main points – firstly about the built environment and the potential folly of the previous government’s focus on the private finance initiative (PFI) bequeathing large debts for new schools to future generations (I’m not clear on the new government’s plans for PFI), and secondly about the divisive nature of the trend towards greater specialisation and selection, and the consequential effects on the environment (specialisation and selection require larger catchment areas for schools, and hence increased transport needs – Bob estimated that school students travelling to schools some distance away from their homes costs London £1bn).

Graham Jones said that schools are much more than the built environment: learning in school is a social activity. He reckoned that using new media provided new opportunities for social learning outside schools and across large distances, and that these would change the way we think about education – and possibly even the way children think.

Terry Freedman described the possibilities and opportunities for teachers and their need to prepare for the future. Terry described how many young people are grasping the potential provided by the internet and setting themselves up as entrepreneurs whilst still at school – he told of a school student he had met who had taken clothes she designed in a school project and set up an e-business to market and sell them. There is a rapid adoption rate amongst young people – they are at home using new technologies – and teachers run the risk of getting left behind. Terry reckoned that the focus on targets and the push for measurable results – usually in exam league tables – means that teachers often don’t have the space to think: using technology to provide this could actually catalyse some change, too.

Last up was Pat Parslow, who works in learning and collaboration. He spoke about the need for teachers to grasp the social issues that arise in a changing society, and the danger of meeting historic rather than current – or future – needs: the education and legal frameworks are probably not best to meet tomorrow’s needs. Pat gave the apparently popular practice of “sexting” explicit pictures between adolescents as an example: this breaches laws which could lead to underage children being placed on the sex offenders register. Society – that’s us – need to allow both students and teachers the space to make mistakes, in both life and learning. As well as risks, though, the huge amount of “distributive knowledge” and other resources represent a vast resource. When you can watch or listen to lessons by the world’s experts, why would you not? One of the activities that Pat felt most useful was the development of a personal learning network using online tools as a support for learning. [I have been meaning to write about PLNs for a while – but I am not sure I quite understand what they are – there seem to be so many alternate definitions that I just got confused! I should resurrect that and give it another go!]

These four short, very different, talks gave us the introduction to the broad area for discussion; but it was the audience discussion itself that really took off and made the evening so valuable. The participants (by this point we weren’t an audience!) had a lot to discuss, and the debate moved around lots of different issues, including

  • the potential conflict arising from teachers’, managers’ and society’s desire to control and manage when social media and other tools push users towards freeing up learning, sharing and collaboration
  • teachers’ reward systems and the ability for students to rate their teachers – but of course students may not know who the good teachers really are until many years after they have left school (and exam results may also be inadequate indicators!)
  • the difference between learning and teaching; in the future, mentoring, curating or facilitating might be more appropriate verbs than “teaching”
  • the university system was set up 800 years ago and carries a lot of structural baggage – Graham pointed out that professors have “chairs” because historically they literally had a chair, whilst the reader – a lower ranked academic – read out the professor’s words to a possibly illiterate audience
  • the balance between the need to control to deliver whatever curriculum society thinks is necessary, mediated by management and bureaucracy, against the freedom the best teachers – “mavericks”, according to Pat – and their students need thrive
  • the fact that whatever we – a bunch of (let’s face it) middle aged, middle class men and women – think, young people are going to be out there trying these things out for themselves [it was telling that of course there weren’t any school students at the meetup to tell us what it was really like…]
  • they will also be able to do this wherever they are – the built environment of the school full of the classrooms in which learning takes place is probably a really outdated metaphor, because people can (and surely do) learn wherever they are, and, at least in developed nations with mobile communications, they can access this huge pool of resources and teachers

It was a wide-ranging, involving and exciting discussion, and we were rightly brought down to earth by the closing comments from a teacher who had for many years taught secondary pupils who were excluded from formal education for a variety of reasons. They were often illiterate – how would they benefit from this revolution in education? Even if they have ready access to the internet, they probably can’t read effectively and are not engaged in education – the future we had been painting involved self-motivated learners, and those who were left behind by today’s teaching methods would probably be further left behind by future methods, too.

All in all, it was a really good evening: challenging and engaging. But of course, there were as many questions unanswered as those that were tackled – we could have gone on and on. And whilst a self-selected group of interested people can discuss the wealth of issues surrounding education and the potential created by the internet, what can we actually do to bring about change in the education system? There was a desire to discuss this further, and someone threw out the challenge that if we really want to make a difference, we should bring Michael Gove along to another session and create some concrete plans. His ministerial email is ministers@education.gsi.gov.uk; now all we have to do is plan another meetup. Now that would be constructing the future of education!