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Time to shake things up?

In the final blog of this series, we consider the education dilemma behind the digital revolution.

Many of us cherish fond memories of dodging flying chalk stubs at the back of the classroom, but sadly those days have been consigned to the history books. Blackboards were replaced by whiteboards and marker pens, only for those to be outmuscled, in their turn, by the interactive whiteboard. Learning styles have changed radically over the last century and it may be that we are now on the cusp of a complete educational paradigm shift.

Previously in this series, we touched on how the Government is implementing its Digital Strategy in the education sector, but flagged concerns about how teachers, tutors and training providers are themselves able to keep abreast of the rapid and constant technological change both inside and outside the classroom. While teachers may have the latest cutting-edge technology available, it is another thing entirely for them to be able to use it deeply and intuitively and get the most from both the technology and their students, such is the ferocity of digital change.

A more profound aspect of this situation could be the possibility that our whole approach to education is no longer fit for purpose. It is hard enough for digital specialists to keep up with change never mind educationalists with subjects to teach. For understandable reasons, technology has left the education sector struggling to know which way to go and how fast.

To meet this unprecedented challenge we need a radical shake-up of traditional teaching – in all subjects. Up to now, this revolutionary idea has only ever been discussed in whispers, so fantastic and challenging is the concept of a complete overhaul to the traditional education paradigm.

Acknowledging that a major overhaul to the education sector is necessary, particularly from secondary school upwards, is the first step towards change. It’s not just a case of re-training teachers, improving CPD, and changing some technology in the classroom. We need a revolution in the way we define and implement education.

The buzz-word in industry is “agility” and few would call our current approaches to education “agile”. We use dedicated, trained subject teachers, in buildings which are largely detached from the outside world. Children are isolated from the external world for six or seven hours a day and are taught by people who have dedicated themselves to their subjects but have a narrower understanding of the breakneck speed of change in industry and commerce.

The dilemma is particularly pressing given the UK’s need to develop a high-tech, digitally-based economy. How can we educate our young people deeply and flexibly through a system relying on narrow subject specialisms and silo-like educational institutions? We are still too firmly wedded to the idea of buildings and full-time teachers who, for understandable reasons, cannot keep up easily with the complexities of the outside world.

So why not bring the outside world into schools and colleges on a paid basis? Why not supplement our hard-pressed subject-specialists with external knowledge and skill? If we need digital expertise in schools, do what a company would do: Buy it in. There’s no reason why schools and colleges should not become more flexible and open – supplementing their subject specialists with paid auxiliary tutors on a much more extensive scale than hitherto.

A radical suggestion, but one which would replace the current cumbersome classroom/teacher situation with a more open, agile, and enterprising approach. Universities have used “visiting lecturers” for decades – why shouldn’t schools and colleges do the same?

Not only does this approach go a long way towards solving the problem of teachers struggling to keep up to speed with technological developments and the complex interlinkages between subjects and sectors, it also offers employers a chance to pass on relevant industry skills, and prepares youngsters for real-world careers. There is no reason (apart from budgets) why bringing in experts from industry and commerce to give lectures and teaching programs should not become far more commonplace.

In all this, though, we must maintain balance. Technology can easily stifle creativity and encroach on periods of quiet and reflection which are so important for learning and development. For all the importance of digital skills, it is essential that softer skills such as communication and logical thinking are not forgotten.

Two things are absolutely certain: technology will continue to change our lives in unforeseeable ways, and its advance will be relentless and often unpredictable. The digital revolution takes no prisoners, and the education sector must change radically, and soon. British businesses are having to reinvent themselves. Schools, colleges and training providers must follow suit.

We are not talking about a few new computers, tablets, online courses, and some CPD. The next paradigm shift in education will see it entirely transformed. We need a new vocabulary of change including terms like “agile curricula”, “visiting teachers and tutors”, “mandatory CPD”, “smart assessments”, “flexible upskilling”, and so on.

“Change or Die” has been a standard refrain in business for many years. You heard it here first – it’s now coming to every school, college and university in the country.


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