An Open Letter to Chris Anderson, TED Curator

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Dear Chris,

I posted last night, on the way home from Tedx London – if you have time you can read it here. I got an immediate reaction mostly in agreement, some saying I was being too negative. This troubled me overnight, as I don’t like to think of myself as a negative person, so I thought I’d follow up the post with a little more by way of positive suggestions.

As I said in the post, I’ve got huge respect for Ted.com, and for what you’ve done personally. So, although it might have appeared that I was arguing for Ted not to become involved in an ‘Education Revolution’, I hope you’ll see that quite the reverse is the case. My main concern yesterday was that the format of Tedx events – to my eyes, attempts to be mini-me versions of the main Ted events – is unsuited to turning ideas into action. Let me give you a couple of examples by way of illustration.

I’ve known and worked with Sir Ken Robinson for over 15 years, and I have enormous respect for his views, and analyses of what needs fixing in our schools. I know that he recognises how difficult it is to transform the system, because we’re dealing with highly complex political, cultural and personal issues here. I believe he goes to the heart of the matter when he says that the way to revolution lies in the classroom – what goes on between the teacher and student – and nowhere else. Not, as Ken Spours pointed out yesterday, in structures, not in curriculum (although that is important), and not even in technology.

The political interference, which bedevils education and educators in the the US and UK, not only condemms us to perpetual pendulum swings, as successive minsters promote progressive, then ‘back to basics’, approaches according to their respective ideologies (I blogged about the harm this does to the slow march of progress in education elsewhere), it also means that pedagogy (the route to transformation) is never discussed rationally, ojectively, and in terms of ‘what works’. Few ministers have ever spent any time in schools (let alone worked in them) so they don’t understand what great teaching, or engagement, looks like, and therefore turn their attentions elsewhere.

What we saw yesterday was a range of inspiring young people, teachers and apps. As heart-warming as their presentations were, I’m afraid it doesn’t lead us any closer to the learning revolution. Why? Because, since the Ancient Greeks, we’ve always had inspirational teachers, students and technological advances – the holy grail for policy-makers is how to make innovative practices scaleable. Yesterday, we were all urged to pledge to do something in our work to improve education, and clearly that’s an admirable aspiration but it won’t bring the revolution any closer, and let me say why not.

I’ve worked in education for the past 25 years, and I’ve achieved some success in radically changing pedagogy, so I feel I know a little about the challenges we face, and how we might arrive at solutions. The Musical Futures project in now in its 8th year and has changed the way music teachers teach, and is approaching a tipping point, with almost half of all high schools in England adopting these new teaching approaches. Kids are much more engaged and exam results are up. We’ve achieved this by:

  • creating tools for teachers, since we couldn’t expect them to change without giving them support;
  • building a national network for teachers and students, so that peer learning can take place, and a host of video/audio resources, created by teachers and students  for each other;
  • connecting teachers through global forums (the initiative has now spread to 6 other countries), social media and professional development programmes.

This has been slow, unglamorous work, since the only way is to change one school at a time. But, that’s in a single subject. How much harder it is to change a whole school, or collection of schools.The other programme I lead, Learning Futures, is seeking to change the learning culture within schools, and that’s a much more difficult task. From our experience, if Ted is hoping to revolutionise learning, then just some of the problems you face are:

  • risk-averseness from school leaders, especially if they’re under pressure to improve exam results (and, let’s face it, they nearly all are);
  • fear from teachers that putting students in charge of their own learning might lead to some loss of ‘control’ in the classroom – and, since the riots in the UK, teachers are under even more pressure to ensure their students are compliant, and well-behaved;
  • a reluctance of schools to collaborate, and share their learning experiences – good and bad – because government sees competition, not collaboration, as the key to reform.

I was hoping some of these challenges (and potential solutions) to scaling up innovation, would be acknowledged yesterday but, sadly, none were.

There was an 70s folk song popular among the liberal left in England. It was called ‘As Soon As This Pub Closes (The Revolution Starts)’ and I was reminded of it yesterday. Of course, it’s important to be amazed, entertained, and celebrate – but, after that, the hard work starts, and individuals working alone to fulfill their pledges may struggle to remember the buzz they felt at Tedx London, when things get tough, hectic,or just, well, exhausting.

So, the question is: how can Ted best support a transformation in learning?

Well, allow me to make a couple of suggestions. First, I don’t think that Ted is set up to change the world one school at a time. But it is a wonderfully effective thought-leader, with considerable influence.

So, why not establish a campaign (or campaigns) to create a global debate on the purpose of education – a debate which is focussed on values, and not politics, on personal growth not (just) exam performance? In fact, why not campaign for the ‘de-politicisation’ of education? Why not try to engage the one group that all governments have to defer to: parents? Wht not have a Ted event which shines a light on models of great learning around the world, which are great, not simply because they ‘turnaround’ exam results, but because they engage and excite learners, and turn schools into learning commons, serving their communities, not just their paymasters?

If you were to raise the banner in this way, there would be many progressive collectives who would gather around it, welcoming the profile, and amplification, that their message would receive (for they are the ones who can then do the daily follow-up on the ground). In England alone we have Whole Education, Pupos/ed, the Curriculum Foundation, the RSA and a host of others.

My personal pledge in this would be to work, without financial reward, to support such follow-up, knowing that I was part of something bigger, with the potential to turn government from transmit mode, to recieve.

I’m excited at the potential for Ted to really step into the global concern about the future of education and, particularly, our schools, and I hope that we can build on yesterday, with a strategic, realistic, realiseable purpose.

 

Very best wishes,

 

David Price OBE 

6 Responses to An Open Letter to Chris Anderson, TED Curator

  1. Matthew Baughman says:

    Dear Mr. Price, I wanted to take a moment and thank you for this letter, which, perhaps to some seems to take the sheen off of TED and the talks that happen there, but to others (like me) is a breath of fresh, and realistic air. I am a Technology Integration Coordinator in Stuttgart, Germany and it is my job to try to influence teachers to change their practices. I am new to my job, and despite feeling that it is a rather one-dimensional position in that what I really want to affect is teacher practice-not just their use of technology. Last year I attended the ECIS IT conference in Frankfurt where some well-known educational reformers (through tech) spoke. After a very encouraging lecture by one of the keynote speakers, I made my way to the front to talk with the presenter and asked him if he had any idea how many teachers’ practices he had helped change through his speaking engagements. Of course he didn’t know. And I realized that it is talks like this that help to contribute to the lack of change that occurs in schools–we can be inspired and feel that in some way we have done our part in reform (by inviting thought-leaders to come speak), but when it comes to the real nuts-and-bolts of changing teacher practice in the classroom, not much occurs. I am by no means criticizing the speaker, or anyone who is able to motivate and inspire audiences to change through elocution, but more and more I find that I crave and teachers need models and support to effect real change in their classrooms. An hour in the classroom working one-on-one with a teacher is worth a week’s worth of inspirational lecture. I suppose that is my unglamorous position. I believe deeply that people learn through embodied experience-or active/experiential learning. Unfortunately most traditional learning is decontextualized and meaningless to students. This is where technology CAN help students in their quest for authenticity in the classroom…. I digress. Again, thank you for this call for action in the trenches of education. I too would do all I could to support a public, progressive educational reform movement.

  2. David Price says:

    Matthew,Thanks you for your thoughtful comments. I agree with you on the value of teachers working together – I brought some inspirational teachers across from the High tech High schools in San Diego to work for a week with English colleagues. It was transformative – better than any visiting speaker (myself included)!

  3. Leon Cych says:

    I think we are in the midst of a cultural change not reflected by schools. That is the difference today. What is needed is for schools to reconnect with their learning and their learners by handing over the curriculum in part to their pupils and the wider community. There should be intergenerational learning and multi-agency mentoring going on. Where the disconnect is happening is where learners are not interested because the school, as an institution, doesn’t cater for, embody appropriate curiosity for and encourage exploratory learning with their community members. It is not surprising then that it doesn’t engage them if they aren’t academic or interested in pure academic disciplines. I don’t think the answer lies entirely with schools or teachers as they have been but what they could be, that is curious practitioners using action research to help orchestrate hubs of social activity way beyond the narrow metrics set down by successive governments. What urgently needs to be covered are how to represent yourself in the new media age, how to communicate effectively – how to take control of your own learning and that’s just the teachers.Social Media for Schools is designed to open up the channels between school and home and foster new ways of managing communities with the help of social networking. The irony being that it is mostly face to face meetings, events, governance and personal engagement with others that drives the community building. Only when we interleave learning with different agegroups in different arenas for different purposes suitable for community need will we get back to learning. Yes all the organisations you mention are working towards that aim and I think there should be a central venue for a festival of the imagination run by TED to see where all this could lead. For five years I have been documenting TeachMeets and only now are they on the fringes of becoming mainstream. There is a will for change and there is the expertise and, yes, many people are tired of the “talking shop” and would like to get on but those channels for change need to be created. Our organisation is willing to partner with anyone willing to put in the hours to create practical change at scale and to develop learning communities. Ted could certainly help foster that.I moot there should be a 3 day festival of ideas but with the difference that practical outcomes should come out of such a meeting between all the agents for change. And the agenda should be sustainable and local initiatives that people can pull people together in highly practical ways. “Partnership plugins” that allow people to form ad hoc and more permanent allegiances to act as crucible for change. Only then will you get an educational revolution worthy of our times.

  4. jpjsavage says:

    As someone who didn’t attend the event in London, I wouldn’t want to comment specifically on that. I enjoy the ted.com website and find lots of value there. Like several others, I think your open letter is insightful and full of excellent ideas for future practice that ought to be pursued. Your work with Musical Futures and Learning Futures is highly relevant and deserves considerable praise (although I know you would be too modest to say so). I agree with you that the central notion of a teacher’s pedagogy is central to any lasting reform, and that this is almost entirely missing from many discussions (although it seems that Ewan’s talk was a notable exception to this). I find myself going back to Stenhouse’s work more and more often these days. His notion that there is no curriculum development without teacher development (and vice versa) is really important for this discussion. The full richness of what this means for us, today, needs to be explored more rigorously.I also agree with you that the opportunity to create links between progressive groups is essential if we are to challenge effectively the crass and ill-considered educational polices of our day. I’m not sure how this will happen, but I am sure TED could have a role to play. Do keep us informed of any responses that you get to this letter?

  5. David Price says:

    Leon:Brilliantly articulated thoughts. When I’ve written about a 21st Century Learning Commons, I cite 3 cultures:1. A culture of co-construction (of both pedagogy and curriculum) with all parties involved in determining what is learned and how it is learned;2. A culture of collaborative enquiry – teachers AND students, families, communities as action researchers;3. A culture of democratic community – which actively distributes learning relationships (mentoring, coaching, experts) in just the way you describe.If we got this right, we wouldn’t have to worry about ‘relevance’. Re Social media for Schools: have you come across DigitalMe? They’re engaged in work with strong similarities, I think.Jon, thanks for your kind comments – I will indeed keep you informed Though I don’t hold out much hope of a reply, not through any sense of malice, I would imagine Chris Anderson gets a lot of mail – which might explain his email charter! But if enough TED fans talk about the so-called education revolution, he may start to take notice.

  6. eyebeams says:

    Chris, DigitalMe – yes very much so – I recently worked with Tim Riches on a project in Exeter. The last few months I have had more and more contact with artists, scientists and others ripe to work in schools. There seem to be a lot of different initiatives chuntering along and I’m currently just listing the people who might attend such a festival of ideas and the organisations that could pump prime events such as Purpos/ed, DigitalMe, TedX, codingforkids, the list goes on and on – a lot of these organisations are starting to form local hubs – this is going to happen anyway at some point I think as the learning networks evolve.

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