(…unless you don’t like porridge).
On learning at school, at university, at work and beyond.
We the web kids vs what went before
I don’t know how many of you have read the article We the web kids but it’s one I recommend you read in full – especially if you’re a teacher or the sort of person who’s into education policy and the setting of exams. This world is a very different world to the one I was familiar with during the dying years of the last millennium. (The late 1990s).
I took a “year out” (we didn’t call them ‘gap yahs‘ in those days) because in the run up to my A-Level exams I genuinely had no idea what my results were likely to be. (I failed my Geography mock exam – as did 40% of us – only to bring it up to a “B” within six months). Basically this was not the stuff anyone could be basing a university application on. It was a result of that experience amongst other things that convinced me the system of applying to university with predicted grades needs to be scrapped. This was a world where learning materials were limited – Blair and Brown had not yet increased spending having only just been elected, and even then it would take time for that spending to see results on the ground.
Accordingly, I moved from an educational institution where the culture seemed to be one of not using the internet at all, to using almost nothing but the internet by the time I got to university. One of the first things one of my house mate’s did when I got to university was to set me up with a web-based email account. One of my childhood friends who ended up doing computer sciences at Cambridge managed to find out my email address before I did, meaning that when I logged onto the system for the first time, there was an email from him waiting for me.
Adapting to the internet
In those days, my mindset of essay-writing was one where if someone had written something and had published it somewhere, you could cite it. It didn’t matter whether the institution was credible or not, & it made the business of writing essays far more straight forward at a time when my mental health was imploding. Rather than reading through pages and pages of things, far better to decide what you want your conclusion to be and search online for quotations of people who will back up your argument. These tactics got me through university with a 2:1. While it might get you through university, it won’t get you through policy world. We found that out with the Iraq war with policy-based evidence-making rather than evidence-based policy-making.
There was one essay – on the impact of corruption on economic development – which I did score highly on. The difference with that one was I was genuinely passionate about the issue and read widely first before formulating a conclusion. This was to be a well-learnt lesson – one that I mentioned to my line manager about making policy recommendations to ministers when I felt I did not have all of the information I needed in order to make a sound recommendation. I was to find out that much policy-making in the civil service is inevitably based on incomplete information.
Towards history and away from economics
During much of my time at university I was buried in history books. I could afford to given that most of my first year at university seemed to cover far too much stuff I covered during my A-levels). Had I had the courage I’d have dropped economics – and my university at the time & reapplied somewhere else to do history, the subject of my heart. But I was a coward. In some regards, I think I still am with some of the decisions I have or haven’t taken in recent times. The area of history I focussed on was Europe 1871-1914. It was how I found out about Kaiser Friedrich III – the finest emperor Germany never had. In all of that reading, one thing that really stood out for me was just how ‘real’ these people were. Having also seen pages and pages of photographs and images of the individuals concerned, it makes dramatisations of events of that time difficult viewing. “He didn’t look like that! Sack the stylist!”
It was on the back of all of that reading that, after graduating, I switched over to a contemporary history post-graduate course at Anglia Ruskin in Cambridge that sadly they no longer do. In my final six months in undergraduate-ville my view was to graduate, get the photo for my parents’ mantel piece and be done with economics. Even back then I had a feeling that there was something rotten at the heart of economics as an academic subject. Inside Job went and spectacularly proved me right not so long ago. At the same time, I no longer have the passion or desire to go back and re-explore any of the more detailed concepts. I feel ‘cheated’ by the whole thing – the authors of some of the core macroeconomics textbooks being compromised up to their necks by the financial institutions that brought the world to its knees. Hence why in part I feel my first degree’s barely worth the paper it’s printed on.
Do we stop learning when we leave formal education?
It’s a bit of a loaded question really. Since leaving the civil service I’ve tried to get into the habit of reading and learning far beyond my traditional areas of interest – history, politics and social policy. It was one of the reasons why I enrolled on the Open University course Engineering the Future. (I’m currently averaging over 90% on my assessed assignments, which is…frightening). I’ve made the deliberate choice to branch out in social media too, though procrastination is a horribly persistent curse that keeps coming back.
It must be right because Professor Brian Cox said so!
On wider reading, I’m also trying to branch out into areas I’ve not touched since secondary school. The one physics question in the GCSE paper that had me stumped was on what red shift was. I found out what it was all about because Professor Brian Cox told me in his book The Wonders of the Universe. When I read his book, I don’t hear a value-neutral voice, I hear his strong but soft Oldham tones. The book itself is more than a book about science. It is a rich tapestry of literature, history, religion and science all woven into one…written as if explaining something one-to-one, which is one of the many reasons why he’s such a popular broadcaster. Having the knowledge is one thing. Being able to communicate it is quite another.
What was really frustrating about both physics at GCSE and physical geography at A-Level was I was blessed with kind but hopelessly incompetent teachers. Fair play to the latter for jumping before he was pushed, realising that after 2 years things were not working out for him, leaving to retrain in IT. But by then the damage was done. At primary school I was fascinated by dinosaurs and space. Yet both of these areas were notable by their absence in syllabuses. I found a number of aspects of physical geography – in particular atmospheric systems to be incredibly stimulating. But there was no one to harness any of that. Hence why I jump up and down about the importance of mentors from outside of the world of education being brought into it.
Some of you will be familiar with the William Arthur Ward quotation:
“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”
What we’re lucky to have now is the ability to bypass some of the negative impacts of mediocre teaching. As We the web kids explains, the great teachers that inspire are making their learning available – for free. Here’s Professor Cox on stars. Would the mathematical equivalent made a much better job of teaching me calculus? Would the geological equivalent done a better job of explaining Britain’s jurassic coast? The internet and social media has given me access to the work of some of the finest writers, bloggers and communicators I could ever wish to read and listen to. And you know what? I don’t need a qualification for any of it.
It’s mind-blowing to think how far we have come in such a short space of time. As our seemingly unending search for greater knowledge continues, lets hope that humanity will make some significant improvements on what we do with that knowledge.