The future of education? It looks fun

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With rapid advancements in classroom technology and increasing numbers of teachers sharing innovations across the web, who knows what teaching and learning will look like in ten years' time? Get a glimpse with Alex Jones, as he investigates some of the many exciting movements going on around the world.


The school in the sky
Slumdog Millionaire is one of the most famous movies of recent years. A multi-Oscar winning production, it told the uplifting story of a teenage orphan from the slums of Mumbai who won the Indian version of the quiz show, 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?'.

The story of the film is a fascinating one, not least because no one – not the game show host, nor the police – could understand how 18-year-old Jamal has amassed the knowledge to correctly answer a series of challenging questions. How can an uneducated kid from the streets, with no schooling to speak of, do so well?

The plot didn't actually use quite as much artistic licence as one might expect. The script for the 2008 movie was adapted from the 2005 novel, Q&A, and the inspiration for that came from a real-life educational project of a few years before. 

"I was inspired by the Hole in the Wall project, where a computer with an internet connection was put in a Delhi slum," the author, Vikas Swarup, has been quoted as saying.

The Hole in the Wall (HIW) project began in 1999, and was a fascinating study into how children can learn, completely unprompted, and driven by curiosity and a natural desire to explore. The brain behind it was Sugata Mitra – described in an article by the Telegraph as an 'educational radical', and currently Professor of Educational Technology at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University.

Mitra won the TED Prize in 2013 for his Build a School in the Cloud project and recounted the birth of HIW in his talk

"I used to teach people how to write computer programs in New Delhi, and right next to where I used to work, there was a slum," he said. "And I used to think, how on Earth are those kids ever going to learn to write computer programs?

"I made a hole in the boundary wall of the slum next to my office and stuck a computer inside it, just to see what would happen if I gave a computer to children who never would have one, didn't know any English and didn't know what the Internet was. The children came running in. It was three feet off the ground, and they said, 'What is this?' and I said, 'Yeah, it's... I don't know'. And they said, 'Can we touch it?'. I said, 'If you wish to.'"

On returning eight hours later, he found the children browsing and teaching each other to browse. He did the same in the remote village a few hundred miles away from Delhi, and after a couple of months discovered that those children, upon realising that the computer operated only in the English language, had taught themselves to understand English in order to use it.

Those early studies have been the catalyst for Mitra's subsequent work and research. He has focused on building what he calls Self Organised Learning Environments - internet access driving collaboration and leading to encouragement and admiration.

A Self-Organised Learning Environment (known as a SOLE) can exist anywhere there is a computer, an internet connection, and pupils who can access it and are ready to learn. Someone – a teacher or educator – asks what is called a Big Question, and then it's over to the children to explore, discuss and figure it out. 

Big Questions aren't those with easy, yes or no answers. They are designed to make children think deeply. Examples from the School in the Cloud website (launched in March 2014 and available to any educator in the world) include: 

  • How does the ocean ecosystem work?
  • How do people get phobias?
  • If our brain helps us learn from our mistakes, why do some people do it again?
  • How do living things know when to stop growing?
  • What is a family?
  • What would happen if everyone started working without a salary?

Could this be the future of learning? It's certainly Mitra's plan. He wants to support children all over the world to tap into their wonder and their ability to work together.

The future of curriculum?
Finland has long been recognised for the quality of its education system – ranking highly according to the nations assessed by the OECD. However, a recent decline in results (in 2003, Finland ranked 2nd in PISA tests; by 2012, they had fallen to 12th), the Finns are poised to undergo change.

According to this article by the Independent, 'Finland is about to embark on one of the most radical education reform programmes ever undertaken by a nation state - scrapping traditional "teaching by subject" in favour of "teaching by topic"'.

Finland plan to phase out traditional subject-specific lessons and replace these with what they call 'phenomenon' teaching, which is essentially teaching by topic. This might translate into tuition relating to positions in the hospitality industry, where pupils are coached on elements of maths, languages – to help to serve foreign customers – and communication skills.

In addition to this – and mirroring parts of Mitra's theories – there will be a more collaborative approach in the classroom, with students working together in small groups to solve problems instead of sitting before a teacher.

It's not quite a case of scrapping subjects entirely, however. Under the new reforms, schools will schedule periods for phenomenon-based teaching, looking at broader topics such as climate change or Finnish independence which incorporate a wide range of subject areas and skills. It could end up looking similar to the USA's (and increasingly, the UK's) project-based learning movement.

The priority of the new strategy is to make learning relevant to the real world. As this excellent piece by Pasi Sahlberg reveals, educators in Finland believe schools should teach what young people need in their lives.

What's going on in the UK?
Inevitably, the educational system in the UK falls under scrutiny whenever a fellow European nation instigates changes to its National Curriculum. While a report last year revealed that the UK has the second best education in Europe, developments and adaptations in the learning environment continue – many facilitated by advancements in classroom technology.

This article by the BBC discussed the idea of the 'flipped' classroom, which is not only gaining popularity in US schools but also being experimented with by a number of teachers in the UK. 

As the name suggests, the 'flipped' classroom turns the traditional teaching model entirely on its head. This article from Creative Teaching and Learning magazine explains how it works: 'In the flipped learning model, students complete the knowledge and understanding aspects of a learning journey outside of class time. This could be via websites, blogs, online encyclopaedias and videos specifically created for them by their own teachers, which they watch or explore at home prior to the lesson. They are then ready to apply, analyse and evaluate the concepts inside the classroom.'

This approach endorses the theory of teachers facilitating and overseeing lessons, witnessing children working and interacting, rather than issuing instructions from the front of the room – the age-old 'chalk and talk' method.

Since September 2014, all primary and secondary school pupils in England have been learning coding skills for the first time, as part of the government's new computing curriculum. The Raspberry Pi – an affordable and accessible programmable computer for children – has become a staple ingredient in schools up and down the country. This simple and low-cost computer was created by a group of colleagues at the University of Cambridge and aims to make programming fun.

The Raspberry Pi is essentially a credit-card sized circuit board that plugs into a TV and a keyboard. Since its launch, the Raspberry Pi has been used to make:

  • a drone boat
  • a robot slave
  • a weather station
  • a rocket launcher
  • a radio
  • an arcade game
  • a baby monitor; and more!

Tapping further into the capabilities of technology is Classcraft, a free online educational role-playing game that teachers and students play together in the classroom. It was founded by a high school physics teacher, Shawn Young, in 2013, who developed it to use 'play, engagement and collaboration to create a truly positive force in the classroom'. 

It has been described as 'gamifying' the classroom experience, and what pupils achieve in real life translates to online gaming performance. In the game, students work in teams and adopt one of three different character types - a Healer, a Mage or a Warrior. Each of these character types is designed for different types of students. Do well academically and the children earn points, which unlock powers, both within the game and out in the classroom.

The future of learning? It looks like fun.

Alex Jones is a freelance writer, passionate about current affairs and culture. His writing can be seen in many publications including the Huffington Post and The Daily Record.

Images: Buck@Flickr; Hole in the Wall Project; Jens Rotzsch

Creative Teaching & Learning
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