By Douglas Blane
Quality learning and teaching will be tough to achieve in the years ahead, with education budgets slashed to bail out bungling banks. A good place to look for inspiration might be Scotland's smaller education authorities, where getting the most bang for your buck is a way of life.
East Lothian, a third the area of London with a population of just one hundredth, has six secondary schools and no cities. Yet this unlikely location has created a culture of innovation in educational ICT that is second to none. A list of the 10 most technologically innovative educators in Scotland would include four who came from this culture. Ewan McIntosh and Ollie Bray are already part of this series. And Don Ledingham's academic research was where it all began, says David Gilmour – who completes the quartet.
"Don was head of education – now acting director of education – and was investigating how to improve learning and teaching without extra resources," explains David Gilmour. "His research suggested opening up what teachers were doing, so they weren't reinventing the wheel. Without knowing exactly how it could be done, he had the idea of a website to which everyone could contribute."
This was the point, three years ago, when David, a physicist and IT expert with 25 years' experience in the nuclear industry, was recruited, initially as a physics and maths teacher. "I began to help out, set up accounts, show people how to do things," he says. "We gave log-ins to folk around the authority and got all kinds of contributions, from enterprise activities to a pocket guide to Vygotsky.
"A few people began using the blogging facility for less formal stuff – warts-and-all stories about what they'd been doing. We quickly found that part of the site was getting all the traffic. There was a pattern. Strangers would read a blog post and leave a comment, which would lead to a wee conversation on the blog. They'd then say, 'We're working in the same area – let's meet up.'
'A happy accident – not a typical education initiative'
"You started to get networks forming which was exactly what we'd wanted. You could say it was a happy accident. We hadn't planned it all out, the way you would with a typical education initiative."
In a relatively short time a set of individual schools evolved into a collaborative community, David says. "That's now very much how we work in East Lothian. Edubuzz.org has more than 1,800 members and 1,000 active blogs. It's so busy that we're having to migrate to a 1-terabyte server. Music teacher Alan Coady's blog alone occupies 500 megabytes. Video and audio demonstrations and children's performances take up a lot of space."
Besides the need for ample storage, so teachers and pupils can express themselves in many media, the organic growth of Edubuzz points up another lesson, says David. "Don's research showed that teachers hate being hit with initiatives – someone arrives with a wheelbarrow, dumps out the folders, and tells them to get on with it and the Inspectorate will be checking up on them."
So Edubuzz was intentionally not an initiative: "We designed no posters, mugs or mouse-mats. We didn't blast out emails telling teachers to use it. Instead we supported them, when they asked, to gain learning and teaching benefits – and it spread by word of mouth."
The lesson learnt, a similar approach is now being adopted to implementing Glow, Scotland's national intranet, in East Lothian schools. "We're taking a supportive role – making suggestions, helping people do what they want, encouraging them to talk about it. This is now a thread that runs through everything we do – a focus on learning and teaching benefits, rather than project management."
Once responsible for the IT systems at Torness Power Station, David brings an external perspective to the likely effects of financial stringency. "If someone tells you to reduce costs, what you do in an IT department is standardise. You lock everything down. You take no chances. Above all you do not innovate."
'Educational IT is not a hygiene factor... It improves education'
For local councils, IT can be a hygiene factor, warns David Gilmour. "It's like toilets. You need them, but they don't make much difference. Educational IT is not a hygiene factor. It makes a strategic difference. It improves education.
"But for that to happen there has to be slack in the system, because nobody has been here before. You have to be able to try things out to see if they work. That's something corporate IT departments find very difficult to allow."
However, progress can be made despite the difficulties, he says – and often at virtually no cost. "Children are on YouTube and creating Bebo pages at home, well before upper primary. If you bring the Web into the classroom you get questions. You get opportunities for learning. We now know we need to do this when the children are about eight."
David Gilmour also points to the big returns can be gained from focused staff training. "Curriculum ICT teams, like the one I belong to, are different from council IT departments. They're usually teachers who have shown an interest, but they don't always have the confidence to create or customise systems, as we've been doing. A little training there could make a huge difference."
The most essential requirement for any innovator is a support network, says David Gilmour. "People who try to innovate almost always face resistance. There's a book called The Living Company, which compares organisations to organisms, and says that innovation is attacked in the same way that white blood cells attack germs.
"Education is a self-righting system that pulls people back to doing things the same old way. The first teacher to start a blog in a school will often get a hard time. There's this widespread fear of putting your head above the parapet.
"If we want innovation we need more people to put their heads above the parapet."
Conditions for innovation
- Transparency. If people see what others do it generates support and peer pressure.
- Greenhousing. Innovative ideas often start out as fragile little shoots that need nurturing. [see Sticky Wisdom below]
- Benefit focus. Keep asking what it is you're trying to achieve – don't just tick boxes.
- Diversity. Of people, background, experience and outlook. Avoid groups of people who all think the same.
- Recognise risks, watch out for politics, listen to people at the sharp end.
- Avoid deficiency models. Telling people they need to be there rather than here does not work.
- Mistakes. It has to be all right to say, 'That didn't work – let's try something else.'
- Long-term planning. Can't be done for innovation. Sensible next step is best that can be done. Then look closely at what happens and take another step.
Edubuzz. The online home of East Lothian's learning community. "Opens a window on teaching and learning in East Lothian schools." http://edubuzz.org
Don Ledingham’s Learning Log. "Don actively encourages risk-taking."
Alan Coady's Musical Blog
PrestonLodge.net "A busy, student-driven family of blogs from one secondary school – which they're almost re-inventing around this virtual presence."
Generation Blend, by Rob Salkowitz. How to manage and support different generations in their use of modern technology. http://generationblend.com
The Living Company: Growth Learning and Longevity in Business, by Arie P. De Geus (2002). Habits for survival in a turbulent business environment. Harvard Business Books.
Sticky Wisdom, Dave Allan et al (2002). How to start a creative revolution at work. Second edition, London: Capstone. "There are six main ways of being more creative – from thinking about things afresh, through greenhousing (letting good ideas grow) to bravery (making them happen)."
You can follow David Gilmour on Twitter at http://twitter.com/dgilmour
Douglas Blane is a journalist and teacher. You can follow him on Twitter at http:twitter.com/ddblane