Once again, Mr Gove, Secretary of State for Education in England, gave the opening keynote at the start of Bett 2014. This was significant for two reasons.
First, the last time he spoke at the event it was to announce that ICT was a spoilt brand, in his opinion (and that of others) unfit for purpose. He took the radical step of disapplying the ICT Programme of Study with immediate effect and then said, in effect, to the industry and education people who had been complaining about it: “OK, you have two years to come up with something better.”
Two years later, there is a growing number of “Master Trainers” of Computing (the target is 600), a thriving Computing at Schools (CAS) community of 9,000 members and, I like to think, the beginning of moves for “ordinary” teachers to take the new Computing Programme of Study out of the clutches of the geeks. I say this not because of the existence of those Master Teachers per se, but because of the level of activity on the resources side of CAS.
The second reason that Mr Gove’s appearance was significant is that it represented an acknowledgement of the importance of Bett. Indeed, Mr Gove visited Bett on the Saturday, with his children, as did Elizabeth Truss, the Under-Secretary of State for Education.
After his talk, which you can read on the DfE website, Mr Gove answered two questions, the first of which was mine. I asked him:
“What do you envisage a school-leaver of five years’ time will look like, having been through your reforms – not only those in Computing, but more widely?”
After spending a moment or two checking that he was clear about what I was asking, ie about what characteristics or attributes the youngster would have, he answered as follows:
“I think the most important thing is to make sure that anyone leaving school has the capacity in essence to decide for themselves what their own future is going to be. One of the things about most of human history has been that our fate has been determined for us often by where we were born, which community or class we were born into. Now, thanks to the power of education and the greater power of technology, opportunities are available to us not simply to do the job our forefathers have done or the jobs that are available in our geographical community but to strike out and decide for ourselves.
I’d like to see students who have the confidence, the knowledge base and the character, the grit, the endurance to be able to take advantage of all those opportunities and the changes we are making I hope will ensure that children will have the knowledge necessary to succeed in the world of work but also the competence capital necessary in order to be able to construct for themselves a life for the future which is their own rather than something imposed on them they can so that they can become authors of their own life story.”
I thought it was interesting that Mr Gove talked about character and grit. These were terms that cropped up more than once duration the Education World Forum, the event for overseas Ministers of Education, which preceded Bett.
For example, a new report by Michael Fullan and Maria Langworthy, called Towards a New End: New Pedagogies for Deep Learning, six essential skills are enumerated. These, known as the “Six Cs”, include “Character”, which is defined as comprising honesty, self-regulation and responsibility, perseverance, empathy for contributing to the safety and benefit of others, self-confidence, personal health and well-being, career and life skills.
I have to say, I like the idea of “grit”. It’s easy to think that all you have to do is create a half-decent app, get bought up by Google, and become a millionaire overnight. Life is rarely like that, of course. Although I’m prone to quoting Woody Allen’s observation, that 80% of success is turning up, it’s also usually the case that the other 20% is pure hard graft and persistence.
Interestingly, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfield, in an article entitled What drives success?, having described the three character traits that appear to lead to success in the USA, write:
“The way to develop this package of qualities — not that it’s easy, or that everyone would want to — is through grit. It requires turning the ability to work hard, to persevere and to overcome adversity into a source of personal superiority. This kind of superiority complex isn’t ethnically or religiously exclusive. It’s the pride a person takes in his own strength of will.”
Or, as Joe Cocker expressed it in his own inimitable style in a song called “Hard Knocks”:
“Can’t bust through the ceiling without feeling the burn,
And I ain’t got nothing that I didn’t earn.”
Perhaps this is stretching a point, but one could regard coding as a kind of microcosm of self-determination. After all, it involves causing something to happen through a combination of imagination, skill and, when things don’t work out as they should, tenacity in locating the problem.
I think that, whatever one might think of the Computing Programme of Study (I’m coming to like it myself, not least because it is, after all, a minimum specification that gives a lot of scope for customisation, and still includes the essential skills associated with “digital literacy”), it’s hard to argue with the lofty aims Mr Gove expressed in his response.
I should like to thank Russell Prue for his assistance with this article. I recorded the Q & A with Mr Gove at Bett, but then discovered that the acoustics were such that I couldn't understand what was being said. I asked Russell if he could help, and within an hour or so he had cleaned up the recording sufficiently for us to be able to transcribe it. Russell was very active at Bett, broadcasting throughout the show. You can listen to all of those broadcasts at Toshiba Radio.