Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Who was that Masked Educator?

A quick education trivia question to start this weeks blog:

Who is responsible for establishing the world's first pre-school nursery? 

The answer in a moment... But first I've found myself thinking about role models and how we treat our pioneers and heroes this week.

I finished re-reading Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" this week, which gets you thinking! I was also getting flashbacks from my childhood with the release of "The Lone Ranger," and the heroes of the wild west. I was also transported back to the 19th Century life via a visit to the New Lanark World Heritage Site, which highlights the life and work of Robert Owen and his cotton mill.

The Mill? Home of Oppression or Centre for social reform?
I had never heard of Robert Owen until I visited the centre, and was astounded at the contribution that he made to so many aspects of life.

"Owen endeavoured to improve the health, education, well-being and rights of the working class. This driving ambition to create a better society for all took him around the world, from a small mill village in Lanarkshire in Scotland to New Harmony, Indiana in America with varied success" 

Owen had an interest, and made an impact, in a number of societal issues and influenced the reformers who came after him... many of his views seem as relevant and resonate today in their modernity and progressive nature.

But what struck me the most were his views and contribution to educationI could not believe that the man responsible for the world's first pre-school nursery was 30mins from where I live, but I had never heard of him... his observations on pre-school education would not look out of place today alongside Malcolm Gladwell's other education research and examples in Outliers or Blink.

Enlightened Capitalist or Social Reformer? 
I don't know if reading Atlas Shrugged (which advocates free markets and limited government intervention) preceding a visit to a site like the New Lanark Mill is a good or bad thing but one thing is for sure... it really does get you thinking! This capitalist sure seemed to be doing a better job than the Government policy of the day.

What if Atlas Shrugged?
Atlas shrugged also highlights that we don't value the contribution of visionaries, choosing to criticise instead of applaud their achievements. This struck me on the tour of the Mill as Owen faced criticism and opposition that in his lifetime.

Even today Owen's is not the model that comes to mind when thinking of 19 Century factory life, we are more likely to conjure up images like from Channel 4 series "The Mill." Events from the TV show are based on actual events, but are quite a contrast to the inspiring and pioneering achievements of Owen's Mill.

Both versions were a reality, but why is it the latter vision that comes to mind? Why doesn't every school boy know the heroes who helped wring in the changes to these conditions? Is it because we don't value visionaries in the way that we could/should?

Looking for Inspiration...
So this week has really got me thinking, where are (and how do we treat) our heroes today?

Remember when you were young and you'd be playing outside and, depending on your age and interests, you would run around pretending to be all kinds of heroes (for me it was Superman, Luke Skywalker when I was young and would be replaced with Coe, Carm & Ovett)

I suppose, in a way, I've never grown out of this as today I read about people whose achievements I admire, to try to find out about the practices and core values they applied when working towards their goals.

I encourage my kids to find roles models too. But can encounter a problem here.

Where have all the good guys gone?
Whether you look to the world of sport, entertainment, exploration, business or politics there appear to be less people that our kids can look up to today...or maybe the problem is with me and the onset of old-age;

"Accept certain inalienable truths, prices will rise, politicians will philander, you too will get old, and when you do you'll fantasize that when you were young prices were reasonable, politicians were noble and children respected their elders" Sunscreen Lyrics

Or is it something else? Is it that we do have role models but, like Robert Owen, we don't celebrate success in the way that we should?

A Job Well DoneI talk about companies that make really, really, really great products with my kids, this includes Lego, Pixar, Google, Apple, Nintendo, amongst others (not sure if the tech orgs is my influence or a reflection of the sad state of our gadget obsessed youth today...)

We discuss what makes them great and regardless of the term used (I.e. "Because its really cool"), product quality is usually a top attribute. This is usually a result of the founders focus, intelligence, creativity, passion, vision & values... And persistence and determination given some of the huge challenges they face along the way.

If you want friends... Lose? 

Google and Apple once faced the unenviable challenge of finding ways to unsurp IBM, Micosoft, Inktomi and Yahoo to become market leaders.

When these underdogs were competing with larger, more established companies, they were cheered on in their David Vs Golieth battle.

But then a curious thing happens, as Nike CEO Phil Knight, observed "We were the up-and-comers once and everybody liked us... Then we became number one and everybody started criticising”

Today even though Google and Apple seem to be transforming classrooms - and should be praised, and are with a lot educators - they also appear to be dealing with a lot of criticism as well as various copyright, patent and monopoly court cases and issues on a weekly basis.

What changed? Was it that they became so successful that they became part of the establishment, their success making them a target to be shot at?

“Everybody loves success…But they hate successful people” John McEnroe

I think there is something in this, but if we're going to criticise anything in education let's focus on complacency, and mediocrity... Not turn on the pioneers.

Educating Heroes
Does the same thing happen in education? 
  • When I watched "Waiting for Superman" I thought "Wow! What a breath of fresh air Michelle Rhee is"
  • I loved reading about how Arne Duncan cleaned up the teachers cheating on students exams in Chicago in Freakimomics.
  • Who isn't in awe of what Pasi Sahlberg and his team have achieved in Finland and many an educator seem to make the education equivalent of a pilgrimage to get a bottle of their secret sauce.
  • I got goose bumps when I saw Sugata Mitra Ted talk on how technology could revolutionise teaching and learning.
  • I dared to dream that social mobility was still a tangible concept today when I read the results that Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin achieved with KIPP schools. 
Indeed I tend to use the "hole in the wall project" and KIPP schools as yardsticks when assessing any new projects. I.e How might this tech assist self organised learning? Will this idea/project help motivate and educate marginalised groups in the same way KIPP does?

So you can perhaps understand my confusion and frustration when, after a while, various groups start to question the results of these visionaries and heroes...

While I have read some of the criticisms expressed about these education heroes recently, I tend to find myself asking;
  •  Who is writing the negative commentary, and why? 
  • Is there a possible agenda, political or otherwise?
  • Like Google and Apple et al, do we like these projects as they are emerging but success starts to generate criticism?
Do these suggestions sound ridiculous? When we work in a sector where some argue that Union's and tenure is cited as one of the biggest barriers to reform, then it doesn't seem inconceivable - Waiting for Superman - Lemon Dance & "Rubber Rooms".

Meanwhile, whether 19th Century Cotton Mills or Google's server farms and Apple's Tech Orchard, we have capitalists making a huge contribution in education.

We also have educators who are criticised today for ideas and methods which, not so long ago, were widely praised and applauded. 

Holding Out for an... Edu-Hero?
Atlas Shrugged celebrates the visionaries & heroes and asks what kind of world would we live in without them?

Whether its Capitalists achieving world firsts in education or educators trying new things, where would we be without the visionaries in education? What would happen if these educators stopped experimenting and innovating?

Until this evenings #EdTechChat I did not have a satisfactory conclusion to this post, but fortunately the topic was discussing the New Media Consortium's 6th "Horizon Report" which identifies the impact of emerging technologies in education. When you read this report ask yourself; 

Who was it that helped get this EdTech to this point with these promising new tools?

The answer you get may be similar to asking "Who was that Masked man?" or "Who is John Galt?" because the answer is that it was the thousands of educators who research, discuss, experiment and apply these tools.  

For me, regardless of what the critics come up with about Sugata Mitra, KIPP et al, I hold the pioneers in education and the developers of great education tools in the highest regard... I think the Horizon Report demonstrates the impact they make. 

So Here's to the crazy ones - the tech enthusiast educators & those who have thought differently... look at the difference your ideas have made.

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