I recently gave a talk at an international gathering of educators in the beautiful city of Bologna, Italy. I, like many others involved in education, have been going through a period of introspection during the past couple of years. Here’s my take, courtesy of the fabulous translators at ADI.
“I want to start by asking your forgiveness for any impression that I give of pouring cold water on the genuinely exciting thoughts and ideas you have already heard and no doubt will hear more of, in the next day or so. I have spent two decades studying innovation, and if you gather one hundred wonderful inventors together there will be less than a handful that have deeply considered how to make their ideas stick and overcome resistance to change. And of all disciplines, education often feels the most resistant to change.
I hope you will forgive me, for building this provocation around some very personal experiences. We are living through extraordinary times and education cannot be immune to those experiences. So, this will be more like a short story than an academic paper……….”
On Feb 24th, Vladimir Putin’s army invaded Ukraine. It was a decisive moment, not just for the whole world, but also on a deeply personal level. My wife and I watched the horror of those early attacks on Kyiv, Bucha and Donetsk and told ourselves that we would not look away, and we would find a way to help. Over the next few days, events escalated alongside our own personal commitment. I happened to be appearing at the BETT Education Show in London and was fielding desperate calls and messages from refugees. I remember attending a session on designing refugee-based education programmes, while my phone was constantly vibrating with messages from desperate people trying to escape Mariupol. Suddenly, writing idea on post-it notes seemed pointless. so I made my excuses and, in tears of frustration, called my wife. To see how we could help.
By that evening, we’d been visited by a Ukrainian lawyer who was desperate to get her family out of Kyiv, and we’d contacted a humanitarian group in Poland, trying to match more families to hosts in our region. During that frantic week we were able to match over 20 families with eager hosts in the Harrogate area. At the same time frustrated UK sponsors on Facebook couldn’t understand why I was being inundated with requests, and they weren’t. British exceptionalism meant that unlike functioning democracies in the EU, the UK government (it’s hard to use that word when you look at what is going on in the UK currently) was denying entry to refugees without sponsorship. The refugees knew nothing about the official Govt website — which, in any case, made no attempt to match refugees to hosts. Hosts had to find their own families before they could offer shelter.
Ah, but I knew Avi, and all the Ukrainians knew Avi — or at least they knew his website ‘Ukraine take Shelter’. I’ll come back to Avi later, as he is central to my argument.
Within a few days, our first family arrived, and our lives changed forever. That family stayed for two months and now has rented accommodation nearby, and we are currently hosting a 19 yr-old art student, who is trying to start a new life in a strange country.
Next significant date: On June 17th, I was rushed into hospital in the worst pain I can ever remember. I had a strangulated gut, brought on by a parastomal hernia. The emergency surgery was followed by a period in intensive care, and a slow recovery. This gave us both plenty of time to reconsider our lives.
I’m nearly 70, and should probably have retired years ago. I have spent a lifetime working on ‘innovation’ projects in education. (I use air quotes because, as we all know, there’s nothing really new in education — only repackaging of moving parts.) I’ve worked with government funded organisations in several countries, trying to innovate at scale. I’ve also worked in the classroom and, for the past 20 years, trained teachers in pedagogical approaches. So, both top-down and bottom-up. Some of the initiatives that I led were predicted to have a shelf-life in the UK of 3–4 years, yet they spread new practices around the world and are still doing so 20 years later. Other projects that I led were prematurely abandoned by nervous foundations and governmental agencies, sadly proving Thomas Edison’s maxim that “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up.” A former Secretary of State for Education summed up the resistance I mentioned earlier when, after hearing a progress report from myself, said ‘Why are you using kids as guinea pigs? You see, that’s the problem with experiments in education — you can’t try them out on lab rats first…..
If I’m being brutally honest I’d have to ask myself — as I frequently did during those long nights on the recovery ward — what has actually changed as a result of my work, or the work of my colleagues? I sense that most people here would be part of the same church — stereotyped in the UK as ‘progressives’. With a conservative government in the UK that is in its 13th year in power, being labelled progressive is to be dismissed as a naive idealist.
The sense of frustration at the glacial pace of change has led me to increase the amount of school consultation and training that I did, with my wife and other colleagues like Valerie Hannon. And it has been hugely satisfying to work with the same schools for years, and watch how they have improved their communities and their students’ enjoyment of learning. My great friend and true education innovator, Larry Rosenstock, has always said that you can’t simply scale up a model, be it Kunskapskollen or Big Picture, as every school has to be different, because every community is different. However much we intuitively know this to be true, there are two challenges to Larry’s wisdom.
First: As much as these schools are wonderful, inspiring examples of what can be possible, they have to be measured against some ill-thought through, headline-grabbing idea of an Education Minister desperate to make a name for themselves. These ‘new’ ideas are often just old ideas rebranded, turning the structures of schooling upside down without having any noticeable impact upon a child’s learning. So, I freely admit: these beautiful exceptions (The New Roads, Agora, The High Tech Highs of this world) are just that — they’re the exceptions, and I have no idea how we convince the ministers and their advisers of the urgent need for many more of them.
My second challenge is more personal: the clock is ticking for all of us, and I for one don’t want to go to my grave wondering ‘Is that it? Is that all there is? Could we not have moved the debate on? Why are we still arguing about the purpose of education?’’
Imagine, for a moment, that, today, we were a gathering of vaccine researchers, geneticists, or tech entrepreneurs, reviewing the incredible advancements of the past 50 years? Would we be amazed at progress made, or would we be arguing for an ancient blood-letting technique as a cure for bubonic plague? Because many ‘back-to-basics’ education initiatives are their pedagogic equivalence.
I don’t want to depress us all, so let me share what’s given me hope during the past 5–10 years. A growing number of those tech entrepreneurs have moved into the education space, determined to shake things up. People like Christopher Pommerening, CEO of Learnlife, or Gwyn ap Hari, CEO of XP are typical: they bring a ‘start-up’ mentality to education design and, since they now have kids of their own, they bring an urgency and an impatience for change. And they’re not risk averse. I’ve been lucky enough to work with both Christopher and Gwyn, and we need lots more like them.
The second cause for hope is the incredible ingenuity and social enterprise shown by young people that I’ve met around the world. And here’s where I want to return to Avi Schiffmann. I first came across Avi (then just 17, and living in Seattle) when I was researching my book ‘The Power Of Us’. While the UK was trying, and failing, to create a Covid-tracking app at the start of the pandemic, costing the taxpayer several hundreds of millions of pounds. Avi created one — in 3 days — which has become the most used source of authoritative data in the world. For this achievement, Avi won the Webby Person Of The Year in 2021 (the web version of the Oscars).
‘Are we there yet?’
Avi is also an example, for me at least, about how I would know that education truly was being ‘transformed’. When I interviewed Avi, he was applying to various colleges in the USA and was pessimistic about his chances of being accepted with a GPA of 1.7. Although I suggested that he shouldn’t waste his time in a college that had such a narrow view of his talents, he was indeed rejected by a number of colleges before being accepted by Harvard!
In many countries, we are failing this new generation of ethically-driven, social activists because of curricula that are rigid, overblown and more suited to a time when young people were expected to conform and be factory-fodder. These young people are incredibly well networked and they’re not waiting. Initiatives like Redes de Tutoria in South America, show that each one can indeed teach one. Within 10 years I predict there will a high-level online learning platform, entirely managed by young people, with little need for professional educators.
I’m proud to advise the Mastery Transcript Consortium, which began life in the USA, but is being adopted in schools around the world. It’s trying to broaden the recognition of the skills, attitudes and knowledge that employers have been asking for over many years. I’ve championed the Mastery Transcript in both the UK and in Australia for years now. But it’s been surprisingly hard work,, not least because of parental and political suspicions of anything that challenges the dominance of standardised national testing.
So, here are some questions that a number of us have been asking for some time, seen through Avi’s eyes. I’ll know that real systemic change is starting to happen when these questions are even being considered by policy makers and education ministers everywhere:
- Why can’t Avi’s extra-curricular achievements be widely acknowledged and accredited by colleges and universities? The Rahaal initiative in Dubai seeks to do that, but they’re as yet, another beautiful exception,
- Avi described himself to me as ‘a terrible student’ on the basis of a curriculum that emphasised his weaknesses and failed to engage with his strengths? How can we fix that?Haven’t we personalised learning already?
- How do progessive educators mobilise parental voice -AND VISION — to demand an ‘education worth having’? (Because we have failed so far in communicating with them)
- Finally, in Avi Schiffmann’s first year at Harvard, he created the ‘Ukraine Take Shelter’ website that has found homes for tens of thousands of desperate refugees, including the two families that we’ve been able to house. Imagine if schools and colleges built their learning programmes around social enterprises, or improving their communities — isn’t that more significant than being able to recognise obscure grammatical constructions?
I am, by nature, an optimist — young people do that to you. Most educators start out as optimists too. Over time, it’s the systemic and cultural blockages to change that turn that can-do attitude into a passive, compliant ‘deliverer’ of content. Not lighting fires, just trying not to extinguish the flames our students bring.
If we want to see change happen — real sustainable change, that is — we have to think differently about how to prepare our communities for change, anticipating resistance, and working around the blockages. And we don’t have to look very far for inspiration — just up the road, in fact. The Regio Emillia ‘experiment’ is still going strong all around the world. The fact that it still seems radical, even now, speaks to the conservatism of our current climate. We can learn from its success in the way it insisted that parents and children co-constructed the pedagogy. We can aspire to see schools as the social glue that binds communities and people together like the Reggiani enjoy.
And finally, we can take inspiration from the fact that the first Reggio schools were built from the sale of tanks and military equipment after the last war that devastated Europe ended. When the current war is over, let us hope that we, as a global network of educators, can match the ambitions first seen in that town, 50 kilometres from here.