Sunday 28 October 2018

Transforming Education with Science and Creativity

I've had an amazing three weeks in Russia at the Far Eastern Federal University at Vladivostok. I visited in March to deliver training to 20 teachers for a new course which myself and a small team devised called "Global Scientific Dialogue". The plan was to get those 20 teachers to deliver a similar programme to 200 students in October. It was a daunting task: working with teachers in concert with delivering an innovative course to students. The teacher development was very successful, and I was quite euphoric when I came back in March - but well aware that dealing with 200 students was a different kettle of fish. Now, I can say that the whole thing looks like it has been a big success, with some important implications for how we should approach educational development in institutions.

I'm pleased that most of the students (not quite all - but nearly!) really enjoyed the course, and many have expressed a sense of personal transformation through the experience (similar to the teachers in March). But more importantly, the teachers who I met in March have all been extremely positive about their experiences of teaching it - this has been transformative for them too. This is despite numerous technical issues, which bedevil any initiative of this kind, but which somehow has not dented the underlying philosophy or creative approach.

It makes me think that we need to look at the teacher-learner relationship as a "whole system" and make interventions with the whole system. Global Scientific Dialogue was really a cybernetic intervention: conversation drove the whole thing, supported by technology, but importantly, this was not the kind of technologically-supported conversation that dominates thinking about educational technology today (threaded discussions, etc). More importantly, the cybernetics that drove it was also part of the content (although I didn't labour the point!)

A whole system intervention is obviously not an intervention in the "parts" of teaching and learning which we usually attempt with silly things like "curriculum review", "teacher development" or what goes by the name of "technology-enhanced learning". I think there is no point in trying to develop teaching practice (or indeed curriculum) in isolation from the participation of students. Nor is there any point in trying to "bully" teachers into getting the best approval ratings from their students, or using the "latest technology". All of this simply depresses people. What we've done in Vladivostok is different: it was an intervention with everyone - teachers, learners and managers. It was an attempt to transform relationships and create the conditions for conversation. It worked.

How did we bring together teachers from management, economics, biology and tourism together to work on a single module which students could also participate in? Simply by focusing the educational content of the course on current scientific developments and questions "to which nobody currently knows the answer". So students and teachers passed through sessions focusing on "wicked problems", on current developments in quantum mechanics (and quantum biology), in AI, in social software, in intersubjectivity and interdisciplinarity. With there being no answer to any of this stuff, students and staff were encouraged to engage in creative activities. We used all sorts of things, from Mary Flannagan's brilliant "grow a game", to drama, music, art, data analysis and product innovation. We also had a special day where expert practitioners from biology, soil science, drama, music, genetics and many other disciplines, could be freely consulted by the students. This day was particularly successful because it opened the eyes of students too often imprisoned by subjects like management or economics which lose sight of the technological and scientific developments which fundamentally affect the context within which any management is conducted. This is a nice post written in English by one of the students the experts' session:

As in March, teaching activities were coordinated with a kind of video lesson plan - which worked very well in coordinating large numbers of students doing the same kinds of activities coordinated by different teachers. We also supplied the students with some comparative judgement software and a range of texts which were assembled around the different themes of the course. The software asked the students to simply say which of two texts (chosen at random) were most interesting to them: it was really an activity designed to encourage the student to read and think.

Assessment was a combination of this comparison activity and the presentation of a "patchwork text" which produced highly individualised work in presentation sessions which were some of the most uplifting things I have seen in education. Not all students liked it ("it was too much like kindergarten," was a common comment from those who didn't), but it seems the vast majority found the experience of being focused on collaborative activity with people they didn't know before was truly liberating and built a foundation for future collaboration.

I've been incredibly lucky in Russia: not simply that immediate colleagues have run with crazy ideas, but that we had powerful backing from the senior management in the school, who have not just been supportive, but have taken an active interest in the development of the course. Russia has yet to feel the full force of the ravages of marketisation (although there's plenty of it, of course). But it doesn't seem to have been paralysed by reductionist metrics in the way that many UK institutions seem to have become.

That's a worry for the UK HE sector. Personally, as someone who simply wants to make education better, I don't think it matters where positive interventions occur. Young people of all countries are the future of the world, and I am both deeply impressed and grateful for the wonderful work of colleagues and students at the Far Eastern Federal University.