John DavittJohn Davitt: gifting 'synapses of insight'By Bill Hicks
Ask John Davitt what he thinks learning should be like, and the chances are he’ll quote you a lyric from Billy Bragg’s 1991 hit "Sexuality". Why, John demands, shouldn’t learning be “strong and warm and wild and free”.

If those are qualities that you don’t naturally associate with learning in our schools and colleges, then that, according to John Davitt, is a terrible indictment of the system. He believes strongly that with the digital tools at our disposal, we should now  be able to revolutionise learning – if not, “history will judge us harshly for this failure”.

“History will say, ‘you had those tools and you did WHAT with them?’”

If you have any interest in the area of ICT in education, it’s likely you’ve already encountered John. Maybe you read his reviews and columns in the old TES Online and Guardian Education over the years. Or you might have been at one of his many conference presentations. At the most recent of these – Handheld Learning 2009  in London – John got his audience to build an online school, do the Guardian crossword, and create a crowd-sourced font – all in the course of a 20-minute presentation.

However you first encounter John, you will have realised two things almost immediately – that he’s passionate about innovative technology, but that he’s as far from being a techie (or a technocrat) as you could imagine.

You could call him a teacher, a writer, an innovator, a guru – they’d all be right. He’s part of that generation of teachers who worked with the first computers in UK schools, and who went on to help drive the ICT revolution from the grassroots up over the following decades.

A digital tool is as powerful as a perfectly-balanced chisel in the hands of a carpenter

But the phrase that gets to the heart of what he is about is “digital toolmaker”. He’s interested in ICT in so far as it can be used in practical ways to improve learning – but when it works, he reckons, a digital tool is as powerful as a perfectly-balanced chisel in the hands of a carpenter.

It’s no coincidence that his father was a carpenter and taught the young John to appreciate the value of tools and of making things early in his life. One of the best ways of understanding where he’s coming from is to use some of the tools he has developed for learning.

The first was a CD-Rom language game called WordRoot, released in the 1990s but developed a decade earlier when John was a secondary English teacher with a “particular fondness for etymology”. Using  an early programming tool called Quest, he built a simple word-search game so that his students, “in the absence of Greek or Latin education, could develop that skill of recognising word parts and having a stab at the meaning”.

“I noticed that students, once in position of knowing there wasn’t one right answer, would carry out wonderful searches using this arcane string-query language. A search for “pter” for instance would lead to two words popping up – ‘pterodactyl’ and ‘ helicopter’ – students then could work out what they had in common.

The arrival of Apple’s HyperCard was a “road to Damascus moment” for John, and he used its ability to link events to develop his word game into what eventually became the CD-Rom. This, sadly, is no longer available – another of those lost nuggets of home-grown learning software just crying out to be reinvented as an app in somebody’s cloud – but he’s working on it.

When these endorphins are released, 'something magical tends to happen'

“We’re a tool-making species, we have an intrinsic appetite for making things,” John says. He believes that the right tool at the right moment can completely change the learning experience. “This is the theory of the endorphins of enthusiasm!” he says.

When these endorphins are released, “something magical tends to happen” in the learning process. John also mentions his concept of ‘struggleware’ at this point – tools and approaches that make students scratch their head and think a little bit more deeply. “Tools like the free  Scratch from MIT (scratch.mit.edu/)  and Flash from Adobe seem to be good examples of ‘struggleware’ – we need more tools like these in the curriculum.”

One of his more recent innovations, the “Learning Event Generator”, has the release of those endorphins right in the middle of its sights. The LEG is John’s first stab at his own struggleware. – a  game-based app that is as simple as it is effective. It uses a fruit-machine style mechanism to generate two things – something you must explain and the way in which you have to explain it.

So let’s click – here goes:
1. DO the life cycle of the tadpole – as a careful tracing
2. DO the internal combustion engine – as an obituary
3. DO how steel is made – as a love song
4. DO quadratic formulae – as a text message

DO you get the idea? The LEG is fun – it offers links for further info on each topic – and it can be  addictive. It is also quite good at winding up teachers and learners:  “You almost feel, how dare it suggest we do Heidegger’s uncertainty principle as dance!”

“But as soon as you get stuck in as a group something magical starts to happen,” John adds. “This is designed to be used just occasionally, as a stimulus – a way of nudging learners (and teachers) out of their comfort zones”.

So you ask them to “do” the fulcrum as a dance – or as a sculpture – and you can immediately see how this might aid real understanding of the physics of the fulcrum much more directly than just writing an explanation, and how it might spark a little magic learning, to create, as John Davitt puts it, a “synapse of insight”.

The RAGThe RAGThis LEG is now available free online and is being used by around 700 schools around the world, he says. Typically, children will work in groups of four or five to work out how to do what the LEG demands. More recently he has developed a commercial version of this for the iPhone – the Random Activity Generator, RAG (available from Apple's online App Store). Just shake the phone and it throws up the “Dos” and the “As’s” automatically.

The network of users of these tools is also constantly adding to the lists of  “Do’s” and “As’s” – and a forthcoming version will include a “backtrack” function to make assessment of student work possible. In this way he taps into that “most precious learning resource” – “us, each other”.

In his recent Handheld Learning presentation, John points out how eBay’s user rating system gives him more feedback and assessment of his efforts in a day than he received in 14 years of formal education. Then he wonders, out loud, what it would be like if  “the wisdom of the database” used so effectively by eBay and Amazon to sell more, could be fully deployed for learning – then what a world we’d see!

One other digital tool that John Davitt has created and developed over the past few years could also play its part in transforming learning. It’s called the Learning Score and it’s a piece of software which helps teachers and learners to plan their teaching and learning as graphical events in time . “Score” here is used in the sense of a music score – it’s the dimension of time, against which you can plan the various components of a learning journey – teacher talk, activity, role play, thought, etc.

Initially he devised this to let teachers do their lesson planning “as a creative graphical process” rather than ruining their evenings with it – then he realised it could equally well give it to learners working in a properly differentiated curriculum and get them to design their own learning events.

So, is he optimistic about the future of learning in this country? Well, yes, but with reservations. For all his enthusiasm for innovation, he also urges caution: “We jumped in to personalisation as if it was something easy and straightforward,” he says, “yet we are working in a system that also mitigates against the true innovation that such a development would require. Teachers have the ideas but are often impeded rather than trusted and encouraged ”.

He believes that the scale of transformation required means we need to go back to first principles, both in terms of curriculum design and teacher training. “The personalised learning agenda was a massive jump too far,” he says. “Initially, we need to take a step back, and just acknowledge difference - then allocate the resources to accommodate this difference.”

Without that, he says, we will be stuck with a system that can drag children through 10 years of education and spit them out with an E-grade at GCSE. “Just think how much redundancy there is in that!”

Conditions for Innovation

  • Never be hoodwinked into thinking one device or approach is the answer.
  • Raise the expectations bar – one of biggest dangers occurs if are prepared to expect too little, if we lavish praise on pointless uses of these new tools! Our expectations could rise 100 per cent and the students would be ready.
  • Keep learning from past as we build for the future. Don’t be afraid to combine ancient and modern approaches – that’s where the gold is often buried.
  • You can’t impose uniformity in a world of difference – you’ll be underachieving to an enormous degree. Start by just acknowledging it – "Wow, you are different!"
  • Some of the best learning is “illegal learning” – like when you listen to a song on your iPod on a train and learn it.
  • Keep finding and sharing resources and activities that help release the endorphins of enthusiasm. “Teachers know you  have to smuggle challenge and fun into learning in equal measures; let’s keep designing struggleware and smuggleware.”

Sources of inspiration

Everyone I follow on Twitter (@johndavitt)
Gordon Wells – The Meaning makers Wells, G. (1986) Heinemann. This book contains the wonderful quote: “Learning is the guided reinvention of knowledge.”
Future Shock
, by Alvin Toffler (ISBN 0-553-27737-5) Here he coins the phrase “Age of Adhocracy”  - I think that’s what we are living in now!
Clarence Fisher’s blog
http://www.evenfromhere.org/

Links to John’s work

www.newtools.org - web site with links to projects
http://bit.ly/legwork Example of Learning Event Generator – email John (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) for your own editable version and invite to wiki
Wiki to support the Learning Event Generator and provide access to lists:
http://legwork.pbworks.com/ (check out the As List it now contains over 200 ways to show what you know and only three of them are to do with writing!
The Learning Score website for resources and trial software
www.learningscore.org
John’s latest project is a roadshow and training day for schools, called Designs for Active Learning (D4AL). Find out more at www.newtools.org

Bill Hicks is a freelance journalist. You can contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Photo: Marco Antonio Torres


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