Reflections from Future Everything for the Future of Education

I guess we’re never sure if we’re speaking for our own prejudices or capturing broader sentiments but you’d (i.e., an academic might) imagine that an event that brought together cutting edge art, music and a summit of ideas for the future might lack critical engagement with ideas.  An audience of early adopters, futurologists, designers, brand strategists and open data activists might be thought to be a forum for champions of change, change, change.  You might think this but you would be wrong.  As one of presenter’s (Dan Hill) slides explained it, “Hipster urbanism, yes but…”

hipster urbanismMy second outing at Future Everything, reminded me of the benefits of going beyond the field of educational research for new ideas and in particular to observe the parallels between debates on ‘smart cities’ and the future of education.

The smart city describes a vision the technology-enabled city of the future.  Due to the huge sums of money involved, multi-national corporations have developed a range of services that promise city planners and mayors a range of benefits from increased efficiency to ensured safety.  Anthony Townsend posed an interesting question, why are mayors buying these services? What benefits do they see?  (His answer was, “City mayors are buying into smart city technology… hoping for remote controls to the city… to sit like gods on mount Olympus”). And, what happens when we substitute real people for the blurred approximations in the corporate videos of the future?

Screen shot 2013-03-29 at 20.18.38Of the urge to make cities ‘smart’ Usman Haque (read his notes) identified in the pursuit of ever more data on which to base decisions the Enlightenment belief in the inevitable progression from data to information, to knowledge and finally wisdom.  Drawing on Borges’ metaphors of the map, library and encyclopedia he explained the reasoning that “infinite data, merely needs an index and our problems will be solved.” Yet cities are ‘super wicked problems’ that defy easy definition or simple solutions.

To a lesser extent but still in substantive ways, schools are turning to data management systems to mediate the relationships between staff and students, and headteachers and teachers (e.g., SIMS, Frog, and Real Smart).  This is not to say that more data in schools is a bad thing but, as with smart cities, we should ask why are schools buying these services and what is the experience for staff and students when they are put into use?

This discussion about the role of data relates to the recent discussions on the role of evidence in education policy.  Ben Goldacre calls for the application of Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs) in education – read about it here and see Mary James’ response here.  His intervention appears to be based on the assumption that educational research has the wrong sort of evidence, which reflects Michael Gove’s “bad academia” gibes.  More data in schools is akin to the notion that we need RCTs to give scientific assessments of ‘what works’ in education.  More data entails better decisions.

This reminds of something that Martin (2005) wrote of the contrasting fortunes of evaluation and the ever more influential inspection regime.  According to Martin, politicians preferred the simple messages from inspection about  ‘what works’, shorn of explanations why, to be preferable to the complex and potentially challenging views emerging from evaluation studies.  Inspection is also quicker, an arguably imperfect snapshot of a school in a few days in comparison to evaluations that can take years to plan and implement.

The rise of data in schools presents the opportunity to provide instant feedback, open to analysis and display, on ‘what works’ in education.  A teacher could pilot a new teaching method and review the ‘results’ in real time.  Similarly, headteachers, academy chain managers and educational policy makers could introduce new policies or approaches to teaching, set the dials and see what happens.  This is a potential smart school and school system administered and run by algorithm.

Rolling data collection makes periodic Ofsted inspections seem almost quaint.  What about the real-time performance-based pay for teachers?  Further, where does this leave critical educational research, let alone evaluation, when there is some much clearer evidence about ‘what works’?

I believe it is crucial to respond to our critics (see here for an example) and make the case for critical educational research:  That education and schooling is more than simple matters of learning, explicable through neuroscience.  That children do not instantaneously appear in a classroom devoid of context, history and identity.  That policies have complex interactions and are biased by ideology that constrain and prevent even the simplest processes. I say this because somewhere there is a corporate video of smart education with dull, unblinking systems aggregating data and indexing ‘what works’ giving headteachers, heads of academy chains and the Secretary of State for Education the remote control to schools… leaving critical educational researchers to do what?

James Duggan

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