Reflections on Handheld Learning: Authenticity vs Karaoke, and Magnificent Failure vs Benign Success
I was saddened to learn of Malcolm McLaren's untimely death due to cancer. I wrote the following article after the Handheld Learning Conference in 2009, and have republished it as my tribute to him.
#HHL09 Malcolm McLaren is not, perhaps, the first person that would spring to mind in the context of education. Yet, as one of the keynotes at the Handheld Learning Conference 2009 he had much to say that was highly relevant - in an irrelevant sort of way.
Let me deal with that last comment first. I think that if there is one danger of conferences is that, if the organisers are not careful, the delegates end up in a kind of echo chamber in which all they are doing is, in effect, reinforcing what they all believe to be true anyway.
For me, this was no more apparent than in those sessions in which the presenter eulogised about the benefits of handheld devices.
That's why I came.
Go tell it to a bunch of people who haven't had the opportunity to think about it or find out about it yet!
What conferences need is at least one 'outsider' who does not know the rules and conventions, and who can therefore break them. Or, at least, challenge them. That's why a few years ago I booked a journalist called John Clare to speak at the Naace conference, a gathering of the sort of people who attended the Handheld Learning Conference. Clare, a sort of intellectual Luddite, had one or two people walk out of his lecture, and another person subsequently voicing the view that it's only a matter of time before Holocaust-deniers will be brought to the podium.
In other words, his talk was a huge success! It got people talking for days afterwards, and even grudgingly admitting that he might be right.
Thus it was that McLaren had people tweeting each other and anyone else who would listen, asking what the point of it all was. Well, I'll pull out a few key things he said, and give you my own take on it all. Whatever you may think, one cannot deny that the atmosphere in the room was electric. That was partly because, I think, it was pretty amazing to have such a cultural icon addressing us in person, despite his somewhat avuncular (or, in Steve Wheeler's phrase, affable grandfather) appearance. And also, possibly, because one dared not think what he might actually say.
McLaren described his schooling. To cut a long story short, by any usual measures he was an abject failure. However, McLaren believes that it is important to be a magnificent failure rather than a benign success.
Yet, in our modern society, that is hardly presented as an option. Rather, we live in a karaoke world in which we can revel in our own stupidity, in which we want instant success without working for it. We have lost (and this is my interpretation) the understanding of the truth behind the old show biz joke that it takes 20 years to achieve overnight success.
McLaren likes the idea of the flaneur, the observer who is at the centre of everything yet invisible to all. He spoke of the need to understand the artistic value of banality.
For me, McLaren put into words what I have been unable to, or at least not nearly so eloquently. For example, for a long time now I have been taking photos of 'boring' subjects. The way I see it, lots of people take photos of 'interesting' subjects; who is recording the boring everyday stuff? I also took a similar stance in an article about a video, in which I asked why everything has to be so interesting all the time.
So what does all this have to do with handheld learning? The key, I think, can be found in his comment that by working on his creative side, it helped him get along with himself; it helped him to find out who he was.
That is a very profound, and very moving, statement. We have fantastic technology now, technology that can liberate us in all sorts of ways. For example, as I mentioned in a recent article, technology has had some profound effects on our lifestyle over the past few decades. But what a missed opportunity if none of this stuff leads to, or contributes to, inner liberation. Look at the Attainment Targets for ICT in the National Curriculum, and you'll see that the higher the level, the greater the emphasis (either explicitly or implicitly) on efficiency and evaluation and all those kind of left-brain activities.
Why is there not an attainment target which encourages creativity, even if it leads to a solution that doesn't work?
McLaren finished by saying that the romantic pursuit of learning has died. The technology we have should be used to rediscover the idea of the flaneur, and art for art's sake, not a career.
He warned: don't take information for granted just because it's free. Don't become so reliant on technology that you don't know how to read a map, or spot a lie. Technology is not a replacement for applied learning.
I'm not sure how long McLaren spoke for. I believe he overran his allotted time. I, for one, could have listened to him for much longer.
This article was first published on 8th October 2009.