School leaders should plan for learners' future, not external pressures, writes Mick Waters
Mick WatersMick Waters: four key points for school leadersWe are in a time of great change in education with the emergence of new, innovative and exciting structures, thinking, learning design, technologies and freedoms.

The 21st Century Learning Alliance believes there has never been a more crucial time to capitalise on new thinking and it provides the space, incentive and opportunity to draw together those leading our changing landscape, to discuss, debate and offer practical opportunities  for schools and teachers.

We have always argued over what and how our young people should learn; the curriculum and the teaching. As state schooling began they mirrored much of what the public schools had offered the privileged classes in their pursuit of classical traditions. The Age of Enlightenment, the understanding of the planets, basic scientific ideas such as displacement, power, and also the application of ideas that led us into the industrial revolution.

As time unfolded, so the belief that our young people should learn about our place in the world led to a "Britain is best" emphasis in learning. We have had an age of emancipation; where gender, race or faith, the importance of opportunity and societal equities influenced society. The creative upsurge has been observed in the latter half of the 20th century, although it would seem to have been prevalent much earlier.

'Our problem is that we cannot seem to move forward quickly'

More recently the era of connectedness has come upon us in the shrinking world created by the growing influence of technology. Our problem is that we cannot seem to move forward quickly since each new era meets with defenders of previous outlooks. Hence, "new" subjects such media studies, economics, and psychology are seen as threats that might displace previous "proper" learning.

Yet if we took those same arenas of learning and expressed them differently, as ethics and logic, phenomena, our world, equality and fairness, innovation and our people, we would probably have a basis for a curriculum that pretty well everybody would credit with sense. If every subject had to embrace terms such as these in the experiences offered in search of the big ideas in history, art, languages, mathematics and so on, then there would be a clearer purpose for education, a real curriculum. The content needs to be set against some real intentions for our young people and that is what good leadership seems able to communicate.

The real drivers in the current school system, of course, are influenced by politics. Driven by data, often suspect, schools’ league table positions become paramount. The inspection regime is a further driver. Add the English Baccalaureate, market-driven awarding bodies and there is a potent mix to influence leadership. What we sometimes see, are the side effects of pupils following a simplistic syllabus, swallowing spoon-fed learning, on extended courses as schools chase the cusps of performance.  

All of this influences teaching. Brilliant teachers bring learning alive but many schools feel they have to settle for the exercising trudge towards exams or tests with a series of one-off, special events to spice up the experience of their pupils. That is essentially different from a consolidated, embedded experience built on real learning.

Does computer technology make a difference to learning?

Computers started to nudge on to the school scene about 20 years ago. It was widely believed that there would be no end to their capability. Indeed, the role of the teacher would change dramatically, maybe even prove redundant as computers found the way to remove the tail of under-achievement and stretch the most able. The computer had so many advantages over the human teacher. It had boundless knowledge, it never got tired, it never lost patience, it remained consistent and it was glamorous.

The trouble is that many use the computer to try to solve the old educational problem in a new way. If we can look at a picture of modern, computerised teaching and substitute paper or even slate for screen, then maybe all we have done is to computerise failed educational principles.

The upshot is that we have made the tail of under-achievement realise its predicament more swiftly and more dynamically with less blobs of ink. Maybe we were not teaching properly in the first place and all we have done is to use computers to promote poor practice in teaching in a more dynamic way. By the way, when did the whiteboard cease to be interactive? Rarely, these days, is the prefix used.

The problem is that, just as we first did with exercise books, we think we can speed up, for instance, mathematical capability and performance by some sort of programmed learning.

The reality is that many of the perceived successful people of the pre-computer age were only successful at a limited range of mathematical operations. If we want to be strong at mathematics, we certainly need number bonds and we certainly need to be able to record operations and calculations. These must not, though, mask our capacity or lack of it in other aspects of mathematics. To succeed using mathematics there is a need to be comfortable with estimation, with micro and macro numbers, and with measurement as well as being able to manipulate number. The computer can help with these as a tool used in context but little can teach estimation like real experience and practice over time and in context.

It is here that the computer should find itself; being part of the experience rather than being the experience.

So how should we use computers in the education process?

First, we need to change views of the education process including the way we measure success.

The surgeon using computer technology to carry out an intricate brain operation is admired as being part of a big step forward in human health. The surgeon is not grudgingly respected and then asked to prove he or she can do the same operation in the style of the 1950s.

The 21st Learning Alliance is uniquely placed to bring a greater understanding to the way in which young people are educated by using its combined knowledge, skills, experience and networks. As a group it debates difficult and sensitive issues, stimulating improvement and change through expert, evidence-based information and advice.

There are four big areas of focus for school leaders to consider:

  • Real world examples – Our children need to be confronted with real world examples. What proportion of physics GCSE students might have discussed and studied the Hadron Collider experiment and the Higgs Boson theory, real-life, as it happens, exciting science? What proportion will have had mentioned the recent passing of Norman Ramsey, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who was at the heart of the development of the atomic clock? In his lifetime, Ramsey signed the H bomb that dropped on Hiroshima and was central the development of MRI scanning. We need real-world examples as a natural part of learning for all leaners all the time.
  • Application and processes – Our expectations in learning about computer technology for children tend to focus on using the functions of computer technology. There is nothing wrong with this, yet some youngsters must be able to manage programming principles and algorithms from an early age. PowerPoint is useful, as are spreadsheets and animations, but the application of computer technology is more fundamental than that. Most geographers use maps in the course of their work but the true geographer makes maps of new terrain, new phenomena, and new insights. Application and processes have to be explicit all the time.
  • From inertia to dynamic – Inertia spreads because of the go-slows in the system. The archaic examination system which fails sublimely to even consider technology in this era of connectedness is a prime example. How can the exam system congratulate itself on being able to do on-line marking, through scanning hand-written papers, as if this were some sort of achievement? As a society, we persist with the "rite of passage" experience for young people, archaic in nature, a sort of trial by ordeal. When else in life would we enter a room, sit a metre away from everyone and work in silence for two hours? In real life, presented with a problem at work, most people immediately contact others, ask opinion, test solutions, seek information, pool knowledge and construct solutions that others critique. If we to have this annual harvest of the exam season, could we not set the question and invite the student to conjure the best answer within three hours by connecting with whatever source of help they can? How can we translate inertia into dynamics? 
  • Work related learning - Young people are taken behind fences each day to learn about a real world that happens outside the fence. From an early age children should be helped to build awareness of the working world in which they live. By the secondary phase, they ought to be linking their study, whatever the subject discipline, to the world of work and, through that, to the influence of technology. The science teacher showing satellite tracking of wildlife, the PE staff making explicit the way technology will influence the Olympics in so many ways, the design and technology teacher showing that precision demolition is an art form because of computer usage these are all examples of work related learning on an incidental but enormously important scale. Work related learning must be easier said than done because there is relatively little of it done.

These four areas of leadership focus are at the heart of the 21st Century Learning Alliance Fellowship programme that was launched in 2009 to support teachers implementing developmental or small action-research teaching and learning projects. To date there have been 13 primary and secondary Fellowships awarded by the Alliance.
The Fellowships have provided areas of diverse and rewarding research: eight have been completed and the full findings can be found on our website at The focus of these fellowship projects fits within the four areas of leadership emphasis outlined above.

On Thursday January 12, at  Olympia 2, Sir Tim Brighouse (Alliance co-chair) and Nick Stacey (board director) will be supporting the Alliance Fellowship teachers in sharing their research projects and progress to date with each other as well as other members of the Alliance.

So, leadership?

Be certain. Take the lead from ourselves. Let’s not be driven by other – the next tests, the next inspection, the next election – let’s be driven by the needs of the next generation.

Mick Waters is a board member of the 21st Century Alliance and professor of education at Wolverhampton University

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The 21st Century Learning Alliance will be at BETT 2012 On Thursday January 12 with its Alliance Fellowship teachers at Olympia 2