How do we decide in schools a strategy for a “preferred future” and avoid “cutting edge futurism”?

Class of 2018, it’s not the technology you build that will define you. It’s the teams you build and what people do with the technology you buildSheryl Sandberg

The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on the building the newSocrates

In my principal’s study in school, amongst the paintings I have a copy of a print by the artist Tom Freeman depicting the night of August 24th, 1814 when a force of British soldiers led by Major General Robert Ross burnt down the White House and the Capitol buildings in the War of 1812. Most students remember this event from the 1812 War especially Dolley Madison saving the portrait of George Washington from the White House just before the redcoats got there, and of course the story of the British arriving to find no President Madison only fine presidential wines and a delicious meal laid out which they promptly devoured before their arson act of revenge and cultural vandalism.  Students of this war also remember “Old Hickory” and the future 7th President, Andrew Jackson, defeating the British at the Battle of New Orleans just after the war had ended because news of the Treaty of Ghent hadn’t made it across the Atlantic in time. I looked at this painting this morning at my desk and normally it reminds me of when my colleagues in Virginia gave it to me as a gift; as an ironic present to take with me back home to the mother country. Today, I thought about the weekend’s furore of the G7 summit in Canada, where the richest nations were supposed to be planning the global future but instead President Trump, in a summit eve conversation with Prime Minister Trudeau, accused the Canadians of burning Washington DC in the War of 1812. Not one to let facts get in the way of a good tweet, many commentators made the same point about Trump’s poor grasp of historical facts and knowledge especially in someone who has made it as president and a president who cites historically “old Hickory”, another outsider to the White House, as his hero. The point was also made that Trump graduated from an Ivy League school, Pennsylvania, and should know that Canada was still part of the British Empire in 1812 and it was the British who burnt Washington DC in revenge for the burning of York (Toronto) in Lower Canada at the start of the war. Then there were a few commentators who talked about “Google knowledge” and how we don’t need to know facts, events, dates or just knowledge anymore and Trump was no different.

This set off a chain of thoughts in my thinking especially as a former Head of History, who loves and values dearly historical knowledge, about how this type of comment around the purpose of education is taking more and more hold of the debate concerning what we will be and what we should be delivering in schools for now and the future especially viewed through the digital learning lens. Even in the late 1990s I remember a school bursar arguing with me over my request for a set of text books because “in the future there would be no more paper”. Like all things around predicting the future, the flying cars and cities on the Moon etc, they haven’t quite come to fruition yet.  Unfortunately, in education capricious fads come thick and fast and I have been struck over the weekend on #Edu-Twitter by one commentator referring jokingly to “cutting edge futurism” with reference to those who use the term “C21st learning”.  As someone who references this a fair bit, it did make me go back and question how I was using it in explaining the educational approaches of Wyedean School and the point of global learning in general.  It’s made me think even more introspectively because Wyedean is about to embark on a widescale consultation with all parts of its community (sorry, cannot say “stakeholders”) looking at the “preferred futures” and the vision of the school going into the 2020s.

What I do know is this; the “knowledge v skills” debate is about as useful as the “Man v Food” programme on Dave. Certainly not as entertaining as the TV version of another false binary dichotomy in a zero-sum game. There are so many snake oil salespeople still in education. I’ve sat in “cutting edge futurism” conferences in the UK and overseas and listened to very well paid “gurus” with about 5 mins total teaching experience in front of adolescents on a cold wet dark Wednesday afternoon in November, to tell stressed and hard-working educators capricious statements such as 1) there will be no curriculum content in the future; 2) Coding will replace MFL or 3) the “3Rs will be replaced by the 3Cs”. And of course, no one will have textbooks and all teachers will be robots.  The way the profession has been treated poorly on a range of issues from pay awards to performance management and punitive QA systems has almost turned hardworking teachers that are still left in the profession almost into robots. But as the Welsh sing “Yma o Hyd” – “we are still here”. The 3Rs are fundamental and have underpinned education in the past and will continue to be important but so will creativity, communication and collaboration in learning. Coding is a vitally important area of computer science and digital learning which we need to invest in with more funding.  Wyedean has recently begun working with the National Cyber Security Centre to develop this key area of the curriculum.  This is one of the most exciting initiatives I have seen in over 20 years of education. My brilliant colleague and faculty leader, Emma Williams, is now simply “Agent Williams” and it is engaging so many learners and using outside agencies like the NCSC to positively influence education.

We are also aware of the fundamental importance of learning more than one language and there are a number of recent British Council studies emphasising the damage being done as the UK moves to a “linguaphobic” situation:

I refuse to believe that tools like Google Translator, useful at a facilitating level, will replace learning languages and all that knowledge acquiring means to a learner when they use it to engage people and culture in a wider global society that isn’t monoglot English. What has been illuminating in the initial discussions I have had with colleagues, governors and teachers about the future of education in Wyedean is that no one is falling into the “curriculum reductivism” model in the discussions or suggesting learning is all about “skills”. The noises coming out of OfSTED and the new framework in 2019 is focusing all around the curriculum and for schools to have a much more strategic approach to why they are delivering the model to their students. This is actually to be welcomed and there are very few systems in the World where there is a coherent strategy around the skills, knowledge and understanding students will acquire in their experiences of the informal and formal curriculum that will form their education model through their schooling.  More importantly, aiming for a purpose beyond school and linked to the values and positive contributions individuals make to their local, national and global societies. It was well received news last week that in Wales the recommendations were to allow the inspection service, Estyn, a break from inspecting schools to actually allow them time to implement the very interesting curriculum reforms of Graham Donaldson on the Welsh system.  More strategic thinking like this on the English side of the border would be more welcome.  I am speaking at a British Council event for Welsh senior school leaders on school improvement strategy in Cardiff next week and I will certainly be praising them for this refreshing approach to actually allow something to be developed and established, especially something as important as a nation’s approach to curriculum and its future through the education of young people.

The American author, William Doyle, stresses the following six things we all need to consider in education when we speculate what the future of education will be:

1)Student wellbeing;

2) Teacher wellbeing;

3) Social and cultural wellbeing;

4) Nature-Play;

5) Collaboration, professionalisation and research;

6) Post digital schools & non-digital oasis – effective but limited use of screens.

Doyle’s points echo the very things we miss when we fall into simple, easy, lazy and fractious arguments, often based on the personal becoming the general in debates about the purpose and direction of education for the 2020s and beyond. The strategy I had when I first become principal of Wyedean in 2015, which had underpinned my approach as an educator and school leader since I started teaching in the mid-1990s (staffrooms not stinking of cigarette smoke as they did back then is clear progress) is the curriculum needed strands to join it up and in particular the strands of global, digital, creative and sustainable learning. There are more, but these are the four I focused on. When we look at social mobility issues in the C21st or BAME or gender equality or LGBTQ, the socio-economic and equity elements of education should be considered more in the curriculum and the education experience in our schools. This is something I feel I could be doing more to lead on as a school leader going forward as this has not been raised nearly enough in broader education debates especially at the supra-national level. When I first became involved in the IB at the start of the millennium, it was  the IB Learner Profile and the type of student that would emerge from the whole IB experience still blows my mind as an educator and just makes sense whenever I catch a progressive/conservative/neoliberal/liberal education debate on what we teach in schools and how we teach it:

Currently, my good friend and colleague from Gar-Field High School, Virginia, and presenter of the White House burning painting to me, Brian Bassett, is with his IB students and colleagues in Ghana working with partner schools and communities to build libraries full of those old fashioned educational quirky things Guttenberg called “books” all those centuries ago. Everything about an educational philosophy, approach and lasting legacy you would want for the C21st and for that matter the C22nd, which some of these students may just make it into to pass on a baton to the next generation. On a similar note it is very welcome that the European Commission is offering young people age 18 a free travel pass this summer to see Europe through their Discover EU scheme and a number of my sixth formers at Wyedean are applying for this horizon widening opportunity. Brexit means we are leaving the structures of the EU, not the continental geography of our allies and neighbours of Europe.

I have been very fortunate to begin working with one of the most inspirational global educators around, and a 2018 Varkey Global Teacher prize finalist, the Norwegian teacher, Barbara A Zielonka. Barbara is a passionate advocate of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). From this September her #bethechangetakethechallenge1819 initiative is being launched in over 100 schools worldwide to raise awareness of the SDG by using digital learning to link global classrooms, subjects and develop skills such as the American academic Patrick Kyllonen, defined as C21st century learning in 2012 as cognitive, inter-personal and intra-personal competencies. I am very honoured to be the UK ambassador for this initiative and to work and share ideas with incredible educators across the globe. Barbara is also behind initiatives such as “How can technology empower the class of 2030?”. More of that cutting-edge futurism but only this time it is!  It is in Wales where the teaching of the SDGs is compulsory in the curriculum, something else we could learn from over the border of the River Wye.  I feel I can look Barbara in the eye especially now the school’s solar panels, covering the entire roof space have been installed and switched on.  Chepstow announced it is “plastic free” on the weekend and the BBC announced “plastic” was the children’s word of the year.  I am in awe of the schools that are committed to be plastic free by 2020, and this is something I will look at in Wyedean. The power of “The Blue Planet” changing attitudes and approaches as we are truly all in the process of being educated. This theme of the SDG is always linked to our annual Wyedean Creativity festival and this is being held on the 6th July.

My colleague, vice principal academic and best timetabler on the planet I have ever seen, Gwennan Jeremiah, is attending a SW RSC conference this week on curriculum approaches. I am hoping it is not just about how we squeeze the curriculum into the politicised EBacc. Believing in the future is also to be an optimist by default I keep telling myself. My colleague and Wyedean’s director of teaching and learning, Julie Smith, wrote an article in last week’s TES on the school’s approach to “stretch and challenge” learning and we are speaking to Eastern European colleagues online at the META annual summer conference next week about this inclusive approach at Wyedean to creating compelling learning opportunities through challenge:

Often the “preferred future” is the one that is already happening and the one that has always been underpinning the very essence of what we do in education always. Not a panacea, silver bullet or any guru’s snake oil to miraculously solve overnight all society’s ills through education and our schools. To return to Socrates, who I quoted at the start of this blog, 2500 years ago I am sure his “Socratic method” of teaching was being sneered at because it was seen in Ancient Athens as “cutting edge futurism” by his peers.  Well, it has stood the test of time and tomorrow I will deliver an assembly to Year 10 and a critical thinking lesson to Year 12 using near enough the same methods of teaching and learning from the Classical Greeks.  It still seems to be working well in 2018 and when you work with young people in education, you are always building the new. The “preferred future” is a decent one for the next generation avoiding the mistakes so often made by others in the past.


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