What young people can do, and 7 implications of that

What do the Cambridge Primary Review, the 14-19 Diploma and walking down Piccadilly have in common?

In the evening of 19 October 2009 I attended the launch of the Cambridge Review of the Primary Curriculum, at the Royal Society of Arts. What the report brings out is the fact that there is much that children know, understand and can do. This will not be news to anyone who believes that children are (or could and should be) active agents in their own education as opposed to empty vessels into which a teacher pours knowledge. Anyone who believes that teaching is more than merely following a script written by a third party, which is about as creative as painting-by-numbers, knows this.

Indeed, my own small-scale research (please see References), and the research which Miles Berry and I undertook (ditto), shows this to be the case. So hearing it emphasised at such a meeting and in such a robust publication was most welcome.

It was interesting to learn, for example, that when asked what makes a good teacher, the children came up with the same answers instantly as academic researchers take eons to discover! The teacher must know their stuff, make learning fun, and tell the class in advance what they will be covering.

(I intend to write a separate article about the Cambridge Review, but I'd like to go on record now as saying I think it's a seminal piece of work, and likely to prove the modern-day equivalent of the Plowden Report (and no doubt suffer the same fate). I haven't read the final bit about ICT thoroughly yet, but was impressed enough by the statement, at the launch, that ICT was seen as fundamental a type of literacy as oracy or numeracy, and not merely as an instrument for achieving something else, to say that perhaps I was wrong when I said the educational ICT community should reject the ICT aspects of the report. But, as I say, I will write more when I have read more)

The following day I attended a Westminster Forum on the subject of Diplomas and Apprenticeships, as I have already mentioned. There are two dangers in education. One is that conference organisers too often fail to include young people as an integral part of the programme. Another is that good ideas like the Functional Skills and the Personal Learning and Thinking Skills will end up as just more sets of tickboxes for teachers to complete.

I am delighted to say that my worse fears on both counts were allayed at the seminar. Not only did the organisers have the good sense to include a talk by a young person, the school had the good sense to choose an excellent spokesperson!

Victoria is undertaking the Advanced Diploma in Engineering, and was one of the most articulate speakers I've heard. In her allotted five minutes she managed to convey vividly the benefits and challenges of the Diploma, and what doing it has meant for her personally.

She also said, in response to a question of mine, that her teacher's ability to teach the course improved dramatically after s/he had attended an Inside The Workplace event as part of their professional development!

Victoria was accompanied by a friend, who sat in the front row giving her moral support, and who was also prepared to assist in answering questions. In speaking to their teacher I found out that preparing for, taking part in and attending such events was all part of the school's approach to teaching Functional Skills and the Personal Learning and Thinking Skills.

Finally, whilst walking down Piccadilly writing the draft for this article in my head, I was brought back to the here and now by a girl asking me if I knew where Regents Street was. I replied that I did, and that it would be easier for me to take her there than to try to give directions (and before you leap to any conclusions, I should mention that she was accompanied by her mother!). We got chatting, and it turns out that the reason she was in London was to attend St James's Palace, where she was presented with her Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award by Prince Philip, the Duke himself. Just listening to the catalogue of what she had done in order to achieve the award was enough to make me feel exhausted!

So what do these three episodes have in common? I think the obvious conclusion is that young people know and can do an awful lot, given the right set of circumstances. So, as far as ICT is concerned, what are the 'right circumstances'? I would suggest the following:

  1. Start from the premise that the young person in front of you knows a lot, but is keen to know more.
  2. Provide a real challenge, as far as possible, not a made up, and therefore irrelevant, one.
  3. If audience is involved, let it be a real and important audience. Victoria sat next to, and was spoken to by, Tim Boswell, MP. That's more than a lot of adults have done. And it's so much more meaningful than having an 'audience' of several thousand unknown people on YouTube in my opinion.
  4. Build the teaching and learning of Functional Skills, Personal Learning and Thinking Skills and other kinds of skill into the work itself, not as some kind of artificial add-on.
  5. Make learning enjoyable.
  6. Treat the young people as adults, as far as possible. At least, treat them with respect: the ideas and opinions and scenarios they come up with may pleasantly surprise you.
  7. Make sure you and your colleagues obtain relevant and enjoyable professional development.

'Digital literacy' is a red herring

There was an article in my newspapaer recently which reported that Professor Alan Smithers told a conference that the new Diploma would not be acceptable as an entry qualification to university. Nothing remarkable in that, you might say, except that unless I happened to enter a parallel universe I was at the same conference, and had a completely different impression of what was said.

The conference, organised by the Westminster Education Forum, was concerned with 14-19 education, specifically Diplomas and Apprenticeships. Eight people gave a talk about the Diploma, and all of these, with the exception of Professor Smithers, were extremely positive. One even said, in contradiction to the impression given by the newspaper report, that 85% of UK Higher Education Institutes are accepting the Diploma as an entry qualification (other things being equal, as is always the case anyway).

So was Professor Smithers unduly negative? Well actually, no. All he said was that before schools recommend that their students take the Diploma, they should make sure that it would be acceptable as an entry into their chosen career or higher education path, as he feared that 'A' levels, being derived directly from university entrance examinations, would be more likely to be acceptable.

What this indicates to me is that to some extent the current emphasis on teaching students to be digitally literate misses the point. We need to teach them to be media literate, and to have good research skills.

We also need to teach them that even 'factual' reports are subject to bias brought about by what the reporter actually sees and hears, and how they interpret and internalise that information. And if the report is for, or funded by, a third party, there is that party's bias to throw into the mix as well.

As is often the case, there is nothing new in any of this. There is a Sufi saying which says:

When a pickpocket sees a Holy Man, he sees only his pockets.

There is also the ages old story of the blind men trying to determine what an elephant is. And there is the famous optical illusion in which a picture shows either a witch or a beautiful woman, depending on how you look at it. (At the end of this post I've included a video update of this, with a nice twist at the end.)

Just as cyber-bullying and e-safety are actually subsets of a bigger picture, so is digital literacy. Given that many adults, including teachers, take it for granted that young people are born digitally literate there is a real danger that we will take younsters' word for it when they tell us they know all about internet literacy. It seems to me that, to do the best job we can, we need to get back to basics and even go so far as to leave anything digital out of the picture entirely until students understand these principles in a general sense first.