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Plato’s Computer – a Box of light?

Along with a colleague, I was writing a new teaching and learning publication for the staff in my school.  Our intention is to publish an electronic celebration of good practice and new thinking once every half term, encouraging contributions and input from across the school.  Whist browsing for an inspiring title, I came across this quote:

“Someday, in the distant future, our grandchildren’s grandchildren will develop a new equivalent of our classrooms. They will spend many hours in front of boxes with fires glowing within. May they have the wisdom to know the difference between light and knowledge” Plato

It got me thinking.  I understand that looking at historic quotations with new knowledge is not always the best way to consider Plato’s thoughts on the future of learning, but what did he mean?  He cannot have had known about the age we live in and our boxes of fire that are getting smaller and more powerful by the day.  But, if we take these boxes to mean the computers and Information Communication Technology we have today, then Plato also notes the concern that I have with ICT in schools and potentially in society.   What I do accept is that learning is changing because of these devices and we all need to change with it.  My concern is – at what cost? And, if you read my first blog on the value of education out of the classroom you may already have some insight into where I am going with this.

I am quickly becoming a huge fan of technology, its capacity and its potential.  I have all the gadgets and I am leaning how to use them.  On a recent conference at Cramlington Learning Village, I was inspired to start this blog and change the way that I am working with technology.  Nevertheless, a machine or a new piece of kit did not inspire me.  It was the people: amazing, enthusiastic, passionate and real.  They too were inspired by each other and worked together to get the best out of their students AND the technology available.  My concern continues that ICT cannot drive a learning revolution but I acknowledge that it has to be a big part of it.

Being heavily involved in my school’s BSF programme, has led to some interesting discussions about the way we approach ICT and computers in the school.  The ‘desired’ outcome, according to the programme, is that all students have an individual learning device.  We do not feel that we are ready for that or that our students have the skills to accept that responsibility.  They can certainly run rings around most of the staff when it comes to use of applications, but when they are faced with real interactions they are not always prepared.  Also from my experience, although I do not want this to be the focus of this blog, there is a significant copy and paste culture, which demonstrates an immaturity in ICT usage.

I have read a lot this summer through social media.  Twitter has exposed me to a world of blogs and websites that have taught me a thousand things.  They have got me thinking and really interested in the world and the job I do.  I am enthused and ICT has brought that to me, but it has not replaced and will not replace the joy and exhilaration of real experiences.

I am involved in amateur theatre and was performing earlier in the year in a production of Guys and Dolls.  I talk about my hobbies and interests quite often in the classroom and I do sing out loud!  After months of asking, I eventually agreed to arrange for my year 10 group to come and see a performance.  Out of the fourteen in the group, one had been to a pantomime before and rest had never set foot in a theatre.  They are a great bunch of kids and they drive me insane, but the conversations that we had in the following days and weeks were awesome, and we planned another two theatre trips immediately.  The smile on one student’s face will live with me forever. I have never seen that enthusiasm after a video finished or they log off their computers! The initial impact of some ICT is immense, but real experiences cannot be replicated with 3D glasses and a fancy projector.

I have no idea where I would be without an internet connection, my iPod, my phone or my computer.  There is no need to hang onto all the knowledge that I needed to in the past.  I can find out in seconds by switching on a one of my devices.  That is not how we assess in todays schools and the direction that this current government is taking with assessment and examinations does not support that way of working.  So where do we go?

Plato is right; we must adapt and be creative with where and how learning happens, particularly in a technology rich world.   But, I remain concerned that our students won’t know how to connect with each other without a cable.  I know and accept that ICT is the future and I believe that the ‘fire’ in the these ‘boxes’ can light the way.  It will, however, only lead to greater knowledge if it is coupled with actual experiences and real human connections.

Off Piste! Is it all about Skiing?

The value of education outside the classroom cannot be underestimated.  Whether you are walking in the hills of North Wales or in the footsteps of soldiers on Flanders Fields, the power of that experience is priceless.  I have led trips all over the country and for that matter to the other side of the world.  We always set out with clear ideas of our aims and objectives, but the real outcomes cannot fully be planned for.

It is every parent’s fear to see their child upset and this is also true of a real teacher on a residential trip.  A friend of mine once told me of the dread and fear in a child’s voice whilst high on a mountain.  The student was looking down the valley at the shadow of a cloud moving towards the group.  Her limited experiences and perspective had not prepared her for this understandably frightening occurrence.  When you see the vulnerability in, otherwise, hard to reach students you find your opportunity to change their world.  I have taken some very challenging groups on wilderness expeditions in Scotland.  On one expedition, as we canoed through Loch Ness, I listened to a group of lads discussing the patterns in the heather on the mountainside.  They listened to one another as they had never done in the classroom.  They all had their own opinions but finally agreed that it was an angel. It fills your heart with hope that these ‘urchins’ have such sensitivity and innocence when they are given the chance to be themselves without the constraints of an institutional setting!

I took a group of students on a chance of a lifetime trip to Australia.  The trip was two years in the planning.  The group were carefully selected, each of them for a different reason.  We believed that one girl needed to understand that the she could be who she wanted to be, do what she wanted to do and know that  she did not have to conform to the low aspirations of her family.  We wanted to show her that the world was not that big a place anymore and that she did not have to be a stuck with ‘living, breeding and dying within a two mile radius.’  We arrived in Melbourne late on a Friday night.  The twelve students went off with their host families and I was not going to see them again until Monday morning.  It was a restless weekend.  Monday morning arrived and I was greeted with screams and tears from the aforementioned student.  My heart sank and didn’t know what I was going to have to deal with. When she calmed down and told me about her weekend it was my eyes that filled with tears.  She had travelled to the other side of the world and although she was fifteen years old she had never learned to swim.  Her host family had a pool and ‘as a family’ she was taught to swim.  Her tears of joy and excitement filled me with dread and fear, but very quickly I knew that I was in the right job and I was changing lives forever.

Last year and this year I have accompanied the History department to Ypres and Holland respectively.  In Ypres and the surrounding area we explored the sites, impact and memories of the First World War.  Our students approached this visit with such dignity and grace.  On top of learning through experience, they demonstrated their understanding through anger and frustration at other school groups who were less respectful.  This year on a World War II visit to Amsterdam and a concentration camp in Vught, their comprehension of what this fighting was all about became more heartfelt.  Although the excellent organisation and planning to provide these experiences was clearly visible, once again I was slapped and overawed by the outstanding learning and teaching experiences that followed.  Guided by excellent teachers, the students led their own learning.  The outcome for one group was clear.  They established that it was no longer soldiers fighting soldiers.  It was persecution, hatred and incomprehensible treatment of people!

We live in a society that is moving so quickly and is so consumed with attainment and the material outcomes that children are no longer children and students no longer study.  They are being processed though the education factory and forgetting the joy of real learning.  Educational visits, both residential and non-residential, provide the chance to stop, take stock and really inspire and empower children.

Although I have only spotlighted a few examples, the opportunities for ticking that ‘outstanding’ box are endless.  They cannot all be planned for and even the most organised teacher may miss the point in their planning if they are not prepared to take risks and go ‘Off Piste!’