A new 'think tank' wants education to keep pace with social change and technology
Jim WynnPromethean's Jim WynnWhat differentiates the best technology companies working with schools? An understanding of how learning happens in and out of classrooms. Some develop it through their work with schools, while others create their own projects to “bottle” the expertise and experience and put it to best use.

That’s why Jim Wynn, director of education at Promethean, created Education Fast Forward, an impressive ‘think tank’ of more than 20 esteemed  international  educators including Professor Sugata Mitra, Tom Carroll and Riel Miller. It's supported by Promethean and US networking giant Cisco.

Promethean already has extensive school experience with executives like Margaret Allen and Mark Robinson, both gifted teachers in their time in school, so why a think tank now? Well one reason is that while no one was looking Promethean suddenly became a global player in education, with a turnover of £250 million and and a presence across 100 countries, so it needs a global understanding of educational need and current trends and changes.

Why Education Fast Forward? That's simple. Because the world and technology is moving very quickly but education isn't.

'Where teachers use technology well it brings rewards – it saves time, it works'

"Look at the situation," says Jim Wynn. "There are 60 million teachers on the planet with possibly 30 million not fully trained in the developing world (and this doesn’t take account of the shortage of millions of teachers to reach the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals target). Add into this equation the mix-match of teaching skills and the impact on citizen skills such as from the STEM subject areas and the needs of today’s economies together with tight public budgets and what many describe as an over-emphasis on tests and assessments.

"Where teachers are using technology – in class, outside class, in administration – and it's done well it brings rewards. It saves time, it works. Some people know the answers, but so many don’t. So what’s to be done? The only solution can be to improve the way the information about what needs to be done gets to a wider audience.

"So at Promethean we talked about education debate, how conferences often don’t work, how a lot of blogs aren’t read and how so often the good stuff passes you by. We wondered how we could improve access to and stimulate a faster debate that would reach more people.

"We also recognised that these dialogues often pass by most practising teachers and decision-makers as they do their day-to-day jobs. Having worked at Cisco I could see that its internet technology could bring together a world-wide group for a simultaneous quality dialogue without the need to give up three or four days to travel. The intention is to stream the debate live, making it truly public and also take sections of video and distribute that along with quotes and summaries that would take the content out to a wider audience.

"Unesco has been invited to help spread the word as the debate has to have an impact. We called the group Education Fast Forward as a working title but it stuck as it does get the essence of what we are trying to achieve."

A video-conference between 22 participants in 12 different global locations

Sitting in on the first EFF session at a Cisco TelePresence Centre in the City of London, the initial shock of the technology soon melted as the debate got under way. A shock because the three startlingly clear widescreens and hi-fi quality audio were allowing virtually seamless contributions from the 22 participants in 12 different global locations – London, Paris, Budapest, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Virginia, Toronto, Glasgow, Sao Paulo, Libya, Seoul and… Bedfont Lakes.

Bálint MagyarBálint MagyarTo get the conversations going they had two different propositions to debate: “The right to digital skills development should be adopted internationally as a Basic Human Right”, presented by Bálint Magyar; and  “In the digital age creativity in education will play a critical role, even more critical than STEM education in achieving national economic success”, presented by Lord David Puttnam. But the conversations soon eclipsed the proposition.

Bálint Magyar, a member of the governing board of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, and a former education minister in Hungary, said that citizens left behind by technology were disadvantaged socially and economically.

"Being a human means social interaction, and now social interaction is moving to digital platforms,” he said. “Digital literacy gives us the chance to keep in touch with each other, with any one at any time and in any form. Digital literacy, empowering citizens for social interaction in an open society became an essential competence without which social interaction can exist only at a prehistoric level. Consequently, gaining the competence of digital literacy should be a guaranteed human right."

'We have got to accept, certainly in the UK, that the average teacher is sub-standard'

Lord David PuttnamLord David PuttnamLord David Puttnam, Chancellor of the Open University and Promethean non-executive director, said that creativity is “imagining the way things could be”. “I've come to the conclusion that if we are truly prepared to take on the immense challenges of the 21st century, we've no choice but to embrace the equally immense power of the digital technologies to nurture creativity right across the curriculum and, as it happens, most notably in the STEM subjects. And to do so makes our present rate of adoption look exactly what it is, which is hesitant and, in fact, particularly inadequate.”

A time-serving supporter of the teaching profession, he didn't pull any punches: “We have got to accept, certainly in the UK, that the average teacher is sub-standard. Not just sub-optimal but sub-standard. So raising the average of the average teacher has got to be an overwhelming task for anyone who wants to move on and move far.”

Pete Cevenini, K-12 education lead for Cisco in the US, setting the context, responded: “It’s easy to bash teachers and say the profession is drenched in mediocrity, but most of them want to be excellent but they don't know how. One of the paradigms that we have to shift is to teach them to be excellent… They just don't know how to be the excellent teachers who inspire kids to learn.”

Tom CarrollTom CarrollVirginia-based Tom Carroll, who leads the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, teased out the changes required for teachers: “I think teaching may be the last solo profession in the world. There is no other profession that we don't ‘do’ in team environments. Health care teams, fire and rescue teams, anything you can think of is being done by teams, so what we need are learning teams...

“We need to transform schools from teaching places into learning places. And you don't do that one teacher at a time; you do that by creating learning teams, that are like health-care teams, that have a differentiated composition of knowledge and skills to create a learning environment. And by the way, the students are members of the learning team. They are not served by the learning team; they are active, participating members... We've got teaching factories; we need learning organisations.”

Sister Margaret WongSister Margaret WongThe role of learners had been raised at an early stage by Sister Margaret Wong, principal of St Paul’s Convent School, Hong Kong. “I would like to involve the students,” she said. “We are the ones saying what sort of education they are getting, the curriculum, what they should learn and so on, but what do they think about their own learning? Because now with the technology they have lifelong learning and personalised learning so I would like to involve students as well as teachers.”

“Any real change takes generations,” warned Promethean vice-chairman and founder Tony Cann. “The old system has to die. I think we shouldn't expect this change to come quickly... we need to plan for the change to come.” He said that he had spent his life trying to invent new things: “What amazes me is that you can create something that becomes ubiquitous but at the beginning very few people can see it. Back in 1992 I was shown email – I thought, ‘What on earth would anybody want that for?’"

Tony CannTony CannThere was a strong consensus on changing the role of teachers, and it was expressed particularly well by Tom Carroll: “Every time we talk about training teachers to use this technology we are at real risk of taking new tools to do old work. And the old work, that teachers have always been trained to do, and that they are really good at, is information transfer.

“The school and the teaching model were designed for an era when access to information was limited. You just had to have access to a teacher, a book and so on. Now access to information is ubiquitous… We have to train teachers not to use new tools for old work. We need to train teachers to fundamentally change their role and relationship to young people...

“It’s not training teachers to use technology; it's training teachers for an entirely new role. To transform their role so that they become co-learners who can balance these three learning environments - information transfer, application, creativity and innovation."

Michelle SelingerMichelle SelingerEducator Michelle Selinger, who works for Cisco, recorded the frustration she experienced while working in UK teacher education: ‘I couldn’t teach teachers the way I wanted them to teach. And I couldn’t teach them the way I believe teaching should happen… We don’t get given the permission to make those changes. We don’t give teachers and children white spaces.

"What we have to do is start to change the structures of the way we work in schools in order to give teachers and learners white space and permission, and giving students the opportunity to follow their own interests.

“Schools should be about learning to learn, and they are not. They are learning sets of facts, however we couch them or try to organise them."

'Revolutionary transformation rather than evolutionary tinkering' in the US

It may be a major challenge to transform education – it is, after all, an institution – but there are plenty of influential people who are rejecting any further incremental change. In the US, for example, the National Education Technology Plan 2010 (NETP) asserts that schools in the United States require "revolutionary transformation rather than evolutionary tinkering". And one of the leading influences behind its report, "Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology", director of the Office of Educational Technology Karen Cator will be spreading her message when she visits London for BETT Week, making appearances at both Learning Without Frontiers and the BETT International Conference 2011.

However, at a time in the UK when then Government has little to say about ICT for learning, the challenge will be to turn words into action. As Promethean's Jim Wynn warns, "The debate will have been a waste of time if nothing changes, the group has to be influential and there is no room for egos. To fast-forward education it has to help bring new thinking to the debate. The founding fellows, the first group of 20 or so, is just meant to be the start. We have to encourage the new thinkers and practitioners to take part and above all else stimulate action."

More information

Education Fast Forward attendees first meeting in November 2010:
Jim Wynn, Gavin Dykes (facilitator), Tony Cann, Lord Puttnam, Mary Lenehan (Promethean education  research manager), John Connell (facilitator), Michelle Sellinger, Charles Fadel, Glen Bull, Tom Carroll, Peter Cevenini, Eduardo Chaves, Jennifer Correiro, Michelle Lissoos, Balint Magyar, Riel Miller, Tarek Shawki, Tim Unwin, Conrad Wolfram, Sister Margaret Wong.

Other Education Fast Forward fellows: Jessica Colaço, Professor Yong Zhao, Professor Sugata Mitra, Haif Bannayan, Jenny Lewis.

A full account of this event, along with video clips will appear at Education Fast Forward

Add comment

Security code