It’s always quite good fun, a little optimistic and potentially depressing to get to the end of the year and start making resolutions for, and predictions about, the year ahead. As 2012 came to a close, we have learned that the Mayan calendar wasn’t as accurate as they thought it was, that China will have a new leader, but the US won’t and that the UK is a pretty good host nation when it comes to global sporting events, but its leaders make really horrible decisions when it comes to education policy.
It’s likely to be embarrassing for all but the most cutting-edge of techies to start making predictions over what will be the hot property of 2013, but the most probable headlines include ongoing battles between Apple and Android, Apple and Google, Apple and Microsoft, rumors about devices that will never see the light of day, or never existed in the first place, and the ongoing challenges of integrating technology into schools.
The English Baccalaureate
Over recent months, educators in the UK have received news of a fast-approaching deadline that is potentially as disastrous for the education system as the looming fiscal cliff is for the US economy. Michael Gove has revealed his new National Curriculum reforms and they centre upon the scrapping of GCSEs (national exams taken by all students at the age of 16), and replacing them with the EBacc (English Baccalaureate). Whilst the coming and going of national exams is nothing new in the UK, the implications of this move are significantly more terrifying than what has preceded it.
Until the summer of 2012, GCSE pass rates had gone up every year in its 24 year history, leading to complaints about falling standards and easier exams. The reaction to this in 2012 was to be more brutal with the marking than in previous years and punish this year’s cohort in order to silence the critics of an exam system in its death throes.
Michael Gove, the Education Secretary has reacted to this by replacing GCSEs with a system that removes the creative arts and technology-based subjects from the equation. Subjects like Art, Music and Design and Technology will not count under the new EBacc system. They are not rigorous enough. There will be no coursework in English any more, but there will be lab-work in Science, because experiments are a core part of studying science (unlike essay-writing and analysis in English of course).
The End Of An Era
Artists of all varieties up and down the country have reacted badly to this decision, but little coverage has been given to the fact that technology and computing aren’t making the cut either. As far as I can see, the payoff for this decision is that ICT should be embedded across the whole curriculum. The problem with this of course is it heralds an end to the already dwindling heritage of programmers and coders learning their trade in a formal setting.
But there’s a more immediate and frustrating problem with this setup; it simply ignores the fact that we’re in the 21st Century which is a place that is built upon smart technology. We need to be giving students at least the option to participate in learning about this stuff. We want them to leave school being literate and numerate, but digital literacy is becoming just as important.
So at ‘opposite’ ends of the spectrum, the arts and technology are being squeezed out; schools are not likely to use up funding on subjects that aren’t going to count towards their results and so students will have less options about what they learn and probably as a result, how they learn. The combination of art, music, DT and ICT teachers offer a real plethora of learning styles that will begin to disappear. And, arguably, all the creativity, in its many different guises, is being removed from the curriculum.
Looking at the bigger picture though, there is a more sinister and depressing message being sent loud and clear to teachers and students alike; exams are still the center of the universe as far as formal education goes.
No one was surprised that Michael Gove took the approach that he did, but it is still a sad sight to behold that ‘education reform’ is nothing of the sort. There is nothing progressive here. Nothing new. Nothing exciting.
Except for one thing.
There is one small glimmer of hope that is being misapplied, but represents something potentially ground-breaking.
The Curiously Innovative Idea
In the new EBacc system, Gove has outlined that it is likely less students will be (academically?) able to sit the exams. This means they could leave school at 16 with no qualifications (or at least no pieces of paper saying that they have passed exams); this is pretty much the worst thing you can imagine in terms of a sign of failure in this country. However, in this new system, instead of leaving with no qualifications, these students will leave with a detailed report of their achievements, written by the teachers that have taught them. This will then be passed on to potential employers, or higher education institutions, who may give them the chance to sit the exams at a later date.
Imagine that. A report, written by people that know you, outlining what you have achieved. Not, a piece of paper that was produced by people that don’t know you, but are very well equipped to gauge how much you crammed into your head and then regurgitated on a given day.
Quite the trailblazer this Mr Gove. It’s just a crying shame that he has reserved this idea for those deemed to have ‘failed’ in the system.
On the other hand, it may just be the thing that saves them?
When I heard of this, I immediately thought of iTunes U, of MOOCs, of Khan Academy and of the growing number of places one can go to get an education without getting a piece of paper at the end of it. People that sign up to take these courses are doing it to better themselves. They can give a detailed report of what they have learnt without the need to sit an exam. They have been focused on learning for its own sake, not learning to an exam.
Technology has enabled like-minded academics to setup this situation and like-minded people to pursue this course of action. It’s quite inspiring and potentially life-changing on a global scale. Access to the great minds of our generation, for free, anywhere, anytime. And not to gain a piece of paper, but to gain knowledge and to learn, to pursue an interest, to better yourself, to improve your career prospects. These are all noble reasons for taking this path. Far more noble than ‘there is a test at the end.’
Needle In A Haystack
The moral of this story is that sometimes the great ideas are buried away amidst a heap of stuff you wish had never made its way into the world. It is highly unlikely that Gove will realise his missed opportunity, and even if he does see it, he will choose to overlook it, because ultimately we live in a society (and I mean this in the global as well as local sense) that demands quantifiable results. Pieces of paper with numbers on them will always hold more sway with policy-makers than essays and pictures that have to be interpreted and discerned.
Perhaps this will not always be true. Perhaps this global education phenomena of ‘free learning’ will transform the way we do things. But sadly, if I had to make one prediction for 2013, it would be that at least one of these massive open online courses starts awarding ‘credit’ so that students can get a piece of paper when they’re done. I entirely support the sentiment behind this – education for all. It is absolutely noble and in the current climate, the only obvious route to take.
It’s just a shame that it is a noble principle built upon a bad system.
2013 is unlikely be the year when education changes forever, but maybe it is the year when you become just a little more disruptive. There are teachers willing to be different, there are learners who are willing to learn, there’s technology helping and linking all of these people together in ways that were unthinkable even 10 years ago. So now is the time to use this impetus to push the innovation and disruption to a new level. Do something you have never done before. Forget about teaching to the test, flip your classroom, let them use mobile/cell phones in your lesson or just rearrange the desks so that there not in straight lines. Do something that is unexpected. There are hundreds of people out there who have thousands of great teaching ideas that don’t involve exams, that don’t want to belittle creativity, who want learning to be the best it can be.
So, let’s make 2013 the year that we don’t just join the conversation about education, but actively try to make a change.
Adam Webster is from the UK and joins Edudemic on a regular basis to offer his perspective on what’s happening in the education arena in the UK. To learn more about Adam, check out his blog at Cageless Thinking.