That vision thing (part II) – Learning with ‘e’s

There will be little comfort for school leaders in this text – little ease from Wheeler’s punning title. If you read the book hoping to pluck a solution to your ed-tech angst, you will probably put it down with more questions than answers. And this is probably the point.

The theoretical review within is urgent and valuable, as well as being about as contemporary as this meme can be. It’s a fine place to test your values and beliefs about the impact of ed-tech in 2015.

The book was a unique experience – in a good way. I have never read a text that led to such wild fluctuations of accord and discord. Perhaps text selections in my leadership career have been knowingly affirmative? My reading a study in confirmation bias? Maybe the issue is that “Learning with ‘e’s” is more of a series of blog posts than a book? It has the same title as Steve Wheeler‘s much visited site.


Even the front cover is provocative – here is a man spoiling for a dialogue.

But I am going to structure my review into a very simple list of the ideas I agreed with and those I didn’t.

Starting with the discord:

  • The rhetorical drift is towards the Sir Ken Robinson trope of “Industrial Schooling.” The old set up in duality with the new. I didn’t like any of the metaphors that attempted to persuade me that new wine couldn’t be put into old wineskins or that the pencil was a convincing substitute for new technology in the, “hasn’t education always been slow to adapt chestnut.” The metaphors were rather clumsy and the “Meze” eating game paradigm for the national curriculum experience just a little bizarre;
  • “Schools are notoriously conservative and change is slow in coming…” Page 83 and although I shouldn’t rise defensively ( I just have), this isn’t the case universally. The accountability system is conservative and this controls everything. Please see Learning from What Works from the University of Manchester (via Mel Ainscow) for what I feel is an accurate précis of the problem with education today. The simple fact is that we are a long way from a school-led system but we shouldn’t confuse issues with accountability with the need to instruct;
  • Whilst Wheeler states on page 88 that, “The key point I am making is not that knowledge is bad…” there are frequent references to the contrary, “…how much more effective would our time in school have been if we had been given more problems to solve and challenges to meet, instead of content to consume?” and, “…explicit knowledge being peddled every day in the form of lessons full of facts…” Wheeler may argue that young people have tools in their hands that enable them to access knowledge as and when required (and even some exam boards are exploring the idea) but I am of the belief that children need the disciplines and the core to be taught – even committed to memory;
  • The section on the future of assessment was “far-out” also. Whilst I agree with the iniquities of norm-referencing, the answer is criterion referencing and there is still a place for exams. Replacing centralised assessment with a Like count on a blog post (and, yes, I’m picking on the extreme end of Wheeler’s future-thinking), isn’t going to map into KS3,4 or 5. There is an implication that if we make choices for young people about what they should be learning that we may be underestimating them or doing them a disservice.

Wheeler is a dealer in fracture and discord but his provocations are creative.

Where I agree with Steve Wheeler:

  • Mobile technology as a platform for community learning is already having an impact and I believe it will continue to, with increasing rapidity; we’re not far from seeing wearables in the classroom;
  • The judicious use of social media – especially Twitter – in connecting ideas, amplifying and extending them is powerful. Like Wheeler, I have found this connectedness to be the most re-vitalising and stimulating professional experience of my career. The fact that I am writing this at all is down to trail-blazers like Wheeler (whom I have followed and lurked with for a number of years);
  • Blogging, the act of iteration, cannot be loaded with enough significance. From the “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” from Freire to the structured thinking and implicit awareness of audience that comes from committing one’s thoughts to a page;
  • The age of the VLE is over – they’re a closed one-stop-shop; students are used to choice, finding the next new thing to help them learn;
  • Stephen Harris and the Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning are cool. I visited Northern Beaches in 2013 and was inspired by the impact of learning spaces, theory and praxis;
  • Both Martin Robinson and Steve Wheeler recognise that one of the greatest challenges for education is funding the time for teachers to research, take risks, engage and adapt. There is also a moment of Trivium-like agreement on page 80, “Content [Grammar?] is merely one facet of the web. Conversation [dialectic?] is another…” – leading to “communities of learning [rhetoric?]” – Wheeler falls heavily into the tech-progressive camp but also gives a nod to numerous schools that have embraced the new curriculum with ingenuity and success;
  • I have to agree that gaming is learning. It’s difficult to swallow when I seem to spend a great deal of my time at home prising my sons from complex virtual worlds into a balanced physical existence in the sun. But then I remember the hours I spent on adventure games on my ZX Spectrum and realise that they probably helped me find “Hampstead.”

I need to look more deeply into another area that Wheeler touches upon – the impact of technology on the sense of self. He has given me some leads.

We are in a new era for learning. The environment is richer, the connections boundless and chaotic. I was surprised that it took so long for the cyber-punk prophet William Gibson to be referenced in “Learning with ‘e’s” (p.197).

Wheeler is the cyber-punk who grew up to be an associate professor. I’m glad I read his book. I will be dipping in and out of it for years.

As I suggested at the outset of this review, policy is not straightforward in this arena. But there’s no excuse for a lack of vision.

I almost feel sorry for the DfE. Almost.