How Technology is advancing in Learning environments

Education is constantly evolving. Billed as one of the fastest growing tech markets in the UK,  our schools collectively spend more than £900 million a year on education technology, or edtech as it’s commonly dubbed. Neither does the sector show any sign of slowing down.

Curriculums change through the years, and with them the means of presenting their educational content to school pupils. We’ve already seen chalkboards exchanged for interactive whiteboards and projectors, and textbooks largely swapped out for laptops and computers. We’re all familiar with these developments, but ground-breaking progress continues to be made.

On October 16th, 2018, the BBC published a report on a parliamentary meeting that served as a landmark event for technology in education. Based at Middlesex University, a robot named Pepper sat down with MP’s to discuss the impact that robotics and artificial intelligence have had on education, and how things could move forward in the future. While all the questions and answers were predetermined, the main thrust of the conversation with Pepper was to encourage a blend of technology and human oversight, rather than replacing one with the other.

This merger focuses on viewing technology as something that is of service to teachers and pupils rather than something to be subservient to. An LSE study has already proven that banning smartphones in schools significantly improved results, but the question worth asking is; can technology be repurposed for education’s sake?

Though robotics and AI are being introduced to the learning environment, for now they largely handle the more administrative tasks in the schooling arena. For example, they’ll record test results or manage student data. That said, the robot Pepper facilitated duties in front line learning too, such as aiding special needs children with their numeracy development. Clearly, this edtech is all of enormous help to teachers, who have been notoriously overworked for years, resigning and even falling ill from the stress of their exploited roles.

An App called Kahoot! has also made waves amongst school pupils both in the UK and the US. It allows teachers to create their own digital games that their pupils can access through the app, enhancing their learning through a fun use of technology. The app had a recorded 50 million monthly users in June 2017, which shows just how quickly edtech can gain traction in popularity. Under teacher supervision, apps enable the learning experience to become exciting and interactive in a way that textbooks, unfortunately, can’t be.

To some degree, edtech allows children to have a more prominent hand in their education. It gives them greater agency in terms of not only what they learn, but how they learn it. Technology is something that young people are very familiar with, and that same familiarity can spur their engagement in the classroom. Edtech use means that learning becomes a less passive experience; pupils can now get involved using their screens, instead of listening to teachers monologue in ways they can’t fully comprehend.

Research conducted in 2014 questioned if school pupils absorb information better when they’re taught under specific learning styles and techniques. In 2019, perhaps surprisingly, this topic of which method is best remains a hotbed for contention and controversy.

It’s well known that pupils can excel in certain subjects and may struggle to master others, and of course there’s no shame in finding anything difficult. It has rightly remained the principle of education in good schools to nurture a child’s desire to learn, rather than to relentlessly push them into acquiring top-end grades to the detriment of their wellbeing. Learning is an organic and diverse process and it suffers when enforced under superficial measures.

This said, an array of questions come into play here; can pupils decipher the information they need from blocks of text, or are more practical study methods their forte? Will they improve from class group work, or can they thrive using an online course at home? Do they need images to tackle a subject, or a teacher issuing instructions at every step?

The VAK (Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic) learning model aims to address these queries. A brief summary of each mode is as follows:

  • Visual: Learners who prefer to work with graphs, charts, videos, images or written text.
  • Auditory: Pupils who may instead favour group brainstorming, vocal instructions, reading aloud, and maintaining a dialogue with their tutors and peers to problem solve.
  • Kinesthetic: The mode of learning in which pupils prefer physical activity and external stimulation in order to better understand the topic. They may work better when movement, touch, and listening to music are involved in proceedings.

Each learning method in the VAK model aims to ensure that every child has an access point into learning, breaking down the barriers that prevent them from fully understanding any given topic. A child who prefers visual means can, theoretically, stick to the books and videos while avoiding any physical or listening-based activity. But does it make sense to make the act of learning so linear?

Complications arise when it comes to taking each method and making them applicable to every subject. Can a visual learner use images to really understand playing sport in physical education? Can an auditory learner excel in a silent reading period of an English class? Will their future workplace cater to that singular method alone? When a pupil is confined to a singular way of learning, it may have the potential to create a paradoxical classroom culture and restrict the kinds of information they can absorb in the future too.
Moreover, a research paper in 2004 recorded as many as 71 different learning styles, but the scholars themselves cited that their endeavours were “extensive, opaque, contradictory and controversial” after accumulating their data. Again, this state of argument appears to have changed little to date. While some children did indeed find their studies to be worthwhile under a personally tailored regimen, others criticised the lack of diversity. Do we ignore the things we’re not good at, or do we work to hone our skills?

Children need to know that learning is undoubtedly for them. When it comes to getting started or exam revision, something like VAK is undoubtedly a plus. It’s okay to have favoured ways of doing things, but then again, school is about being flexible and engaging with a never-ending canvas of ideas. There should be a constant circulation of learning styles for children to acquaint themselves with – not only so they can play to their strengths, but also to improve on methods of learning that they’re not so well versed in as well.

Too often we are inundated with stories of successful people’s morning routines, such as getting up at 5am to practice yoga, replying to emails and ticking off half a to-do list before even starting the working day. However, while this idea of always creating a productive morning may be inspiring to some, it may not sound remotely achievable – or appealing – to you and many others.

Oxford academic Dr Paul Kelley believes that our body’s natural rhythms are not set for such early morning starts. He called for a shift in the standard 9-to-5 work pattern of employees, claiming that the natural body clock is not accustomed to it: workers end up sleep deprived, affecting performance and output levels. Dr Kelley proposes that a more efficient starting time of 10am would suit us better during our working years, leading to lower levels of exhaustion and better gene function.

Similarly, Dr Kelley believes that children should not be expected to start school until 10am either. It is an idea that has been put to the test by a groundbreaking Oxford University experiment, and its results appear to support him. Grades increased significantly and rates of illness more than halved over a two-year period, illustrating the positive impact that better sleeping hours can have on teenagers’ performance in school. According to Dr Guy Meadows, co-founder of The Sleep School, schoolchildren in Britain take sixth position as the most sleep-deprived in the world. Losing 10 hours of sleep a week is a direct result of students being forced to get up too early since the adolescent biological rhythm is ready for sleep at midnight, as Dr Kelley points out.

As these findings and beliefs demonstrate, it is absolutely fine to not follow the standard daily work pattern imposed on us by society when it comes to our own study time. Some of us naturally work better in the evenings and into the night, meaning our mornings start off a little later than those of early-risers; others prefer to sacrifice a few hours of sleep in the morning for an earlier bedtime. Part of the journey through Higher Education is finding out what study rhythm works best for us individually and utilising it accordingly. There’s no sense in starting  weekend study sessions at the crack of dawn if you know your brain won’t be buzzing with motivation until a few hours later. Likewise, if the thought of staying in the library past dinner time fills you with dread, adjust your routine to suit when your mind feels most active.

One of the things to battle with is the guilt resulting from later starts to the day, with longer hours spent in bed synonymous with attributes of laziness and lack of direction. However, as science shows, biological factors have a lot to do with how our bodies respond to traditional work patterns. It’s time for a societal change and a better understanding of our natural body rhythms.

Sources:
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/school-start-tim-10am-student-illness-health-academic-performance-study-a8072231.html
https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/does-getting-up-at-5am-early-make-you-more-successful-we-tried-it-a7716086.html
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/11148930/Teenagers-to-start-school-at-10am-in-Oxford-University-sleep-experiment.html
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2016/03/12/staff-should-start-work-at-10am-to-avoid-torture-of-sleep-depriv/

Imagine if everything you had ever been told was wrong. We are told ‘facts’ and stories all our lives – but how can we know what we are being told is right?

When my daughter first started trying to convince me to home educate her, I countered her arguments ‘for’ with arguments ‘against’ that I had learned from other people: “You need to go to school to socialise with children your age;” “You are better off getting help from a teacher face-to-face;” “You need your peers at school to help you problem-solve”.

The problem was that each response I gave always came with a niggling doubt, mainly because I knew that my years spent studying at home with the Open University were far better and more rewarding than the years I spent studying for my degree with a bricks and mortar ‘traditional’ university. Added to that were my twelve years as a school governor (six as Chair) at a large primary school, where I felt the pushing for targets, associated paperwork and policies, all overshadowed the well-being of the children. I was also concerned that creativity and physical education were being pushed out by government targets and always had that same niggling doubt in my mind that ‘maybe this isn’t the best way’.

Further thought brought me to the realisation that for each ‘against’ I thought of, my brain seemed to automatically register a solution. I knew that socialisation wouldn’t be a problem; I have friends who home-educate and meet up regularly with other home-educating families. There are also numerous opportunities for voluntary work and I knew that if my daughter found some voluntary work in an area that interested her, she would be far more likely to meet like-minded friends with shared interests. The local riding stables are top of the list at the moment. Is she self-disciplined enough? Having watched her concentrate on her work, planning her days, and having her ask me relevant questions, I know the answer is yes. So long as the subject interests her, she will have no trouble completing the work. And that’s the beauty of home schooling – the children can choose the subjects that interest them.

My daughter has had an interest in video editing and IT for a long time – years – and I feel that they are something that she could make a successful career out of. Home-schooling, combined with some ‘unschooling’ (while she works on her video editing and IT) seemed like the ideal combination to give her a strong start in her working adult life.

And so our journey into home schooling has begun. It’s early days yet but the support so far from Oxford Home Learning has been impressive and I can honestly say that, as yet, I haven’t had any regrets in taking this path.

There’s a reason why parents usually push us to learn as much as we can at an early age and that’s because they want us to have time to learn and refine as years go by. You may remember being told that you need to have a certain set of skills to survive in life and to keep up with its demands. And it’s a question that will just keep on being asked. Indeed, as an adult you are going to thank your home and school environment for this. You are going to need and will start putting these skills to good use, starting at secondary school.

You may be wondering, of course, what kind of skills I am referring to. And you are right to do so. The word “skills” may take on different meanings. What I am referring to in this case are the two most important categories: soft and hard skills. Soft skills are the ones mostly connected to your personality and those around you; in other words your interpersonal or people skills. Even if you turn out to be the most introverted person you know, you will, at some point in your life, have to deal with an issue that requires you to address others around you. This is where soft skills come in to play. But which skills are these in particular? Glad you asked! Take a look at the following most important soft skills to start cultivating in school.

1) Communication: We can’t live in a world without communication. Learning to do it the right way, which means learning to actively listen and constructively contribute in order to find a viable solution to a problem, is the best way to go. You can start with your classmates and see where that takes you.

2) Team work: Combined with communication, this soft skill is of vital importance, starting in the classroom. Working with your classmates and being involved in your shared activities, whether it be sports or classwork, will boost your social skills and help you understand and adapt to the different personalities you will meet later in life as well.

3) Flexibility: This does not only concern your schedule. I would suggest that you look at it in a different light, as being flexible as to your opinions, ideas and beliefs. Tolerance is a powerful skill to possess.

4) Motivation: We all have those days when we want to do absolutely nothing. However, motivating yourself and then others can take you a long way into your relationships. How about starting to push yourself a little bit each day? According to research, it only takes 21 days to establish a new habit. Let this be yours. Start with yourself and see how that helps others around you.

5) Patience: They say that patience is key, and that’s definitely true. You can accomplish next to nothing without patience. How about trying to be patient, tolerant, a great listener, and diplomatic in your conversations with your fellow classmates?

We must not, however, forget the necessity of enriching ourselves with some hard skills as well. So, similarly, what do we mean by hard skills and why are they significant? In a few words, hard skills are the ones that you can learn, the learning process of which most likely starts in the classroom. They are also the skills that a prospective employer will be able to check and quantify later in your life. You can find some examples of hard skills below.

1) Learning a new language: did you see that coming? This is one of the most, if not the most, essential skills that you can learn in life. Apart from the fact that knowing a second language could lead to a more lucrative career in the future, possessing such a skill allows you to enter a culture, become familiar with its mindset, its people, its traditions and customs. Knowing a language other than your own acts as a beacon of cultural knowledge. Combined with soft skills such as communication and flexibility this can help you win people over.

2) Technology & Computer skills: you know you’ve got that, right? Whether you learn these at school or at home, these skills are here to stay. As technology advances, so should our knowledge of it in order for us to occupy a place in society. Of course, not all positions later in life require you to be a whizz-kid, but basic computer functions, such as emails and Microsoft Office are deemed imperative even when you are still in school. Take this opportunity and embellish these skills now, so that later you have time to refine them and learn new and more advanced ones should the need arise.

Now it’s time for you to mix and match! You may already possess some of the above and others you’ll probably wish to refine along with the others on the list. Ready, set, go!

Is the current education system eliminating imagination and artistic potential from our future society?

In recent years the British government has been accused of trying to marginalise the Arts subjects, in favour of Core subjects such as Science, Languages and Maths. The value placed on Art, Music and Drama appears to have decreased, with even the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) having dropped all Arts subjects, bar English, from its list of requirements.

Commenting on his post The Seven Deadly Sins that Prevent Creative Thinking, Psychology Today blogger Michael Michalko said, “Unfortunately, I’ve come to believe that education is a great inhibitor of our natural creativity… To me it seems that in the real world those who know more, create less; and those who know less create more.”

Michalko echoes the opinion that Sir Ken Robinson made in his 2006 TED talk, when he spoke passionately on why we need to create an educational system that nurtures, rather than undermines, creativity ( https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity ).

It could be said that in a modern world, full of technology and instant request filling opportunities, children don’t need to be as imaginative or creative as they have been in the past. In truth, many would argue that the opposite is the case. While the demands of the technology that runs our world means an understanding of science and maths is more vital than ever, the stresses that accompany such ambitions mean that the ability to escape into our imaginations has become just as important.

Creativity, be it through drama, song, playing of a musical instrument, drawing a picture or telling a story, provides a much needed dimension to our personalities, culture, and well-being; In its most extreme case scenario, the sidelining of the Arts would ultimately mean less books to read, less films to see, less songs to sing, and less artwork to enjoy.

In a recent article in the Times Educational Supplement, ‘Too many schools have forgotten that fun is crucially important’, Colin Harris asks if primary schools have become so concerned with meeting the standards of Ofsted and ensuring all government guidelines are met, that there is little time left for children to have fun or learn through creativity.

Mr Harris warns that, “Many of the problems that manifest themselves later at late junior and early secondary phases are due to the insufficient opportunities we have given our children to develop their emotional intelligence through play and creative opportunities when younger… Play and creativity need to permeate all levels of our system. Surely if learning is memorable and inventive then our children will certainly think and behave differently.”

Most teachers would rightly deny that they work hard merely to instil a feeling of dull mediocrity among their pupils. Yet with English teachers having little choice but to teach us what we are supposed to think about the books we read rather than allowing us the freedom to make up our own minds, and decreasing educational budgets meaning that even if a school wanted to stage a play or buy instruments to form an orchestra they can’t afford to, it is easy to see why the lack of creativity argument continues to rage. After all, any school that was seen to put the desire to buy dancing shoes ahead of purchasing new science equipment would lose its reputation fast.

It is fair to say that, on an individual level, the majority of teachers do their best to introduce as much creativity as they can to their daily lessons; but they are up against a system that is, at this current time, discouraging rather than encouraging that angle of education.

August in the UK doesn’t just mean a month of school holidays for many school and college pupils; for those who have sat their GCSE, A level, Standards, Highers, BTEC and equivalent exams, it brings to an end a long wait to see if those exams have been passed, and if so, how well.

After the A level results were released in England and Wales this year it was widely reported that, for the first time in many years, boys had fractionally higher grade marks than girls. A number of reasons have been put forward for what seems to be perceived as a sea-change, including the structure of this year’s exams. However, this may not necessarily be true. For instance, The Guardian also quotes a research group called Education Datalab which comments: “Their [boys] performance has improved relative to girls’ this year, but this might have been as much to do with the academic ability of the boys and girls who chose these subjects this year as it is to the changes to A level structure.”

In other words, the differences between boys and girls grades can depend on so many different factors that stating that boys are cleverer than girls this year, or vice versa, is a bold statement. There are so many variables to take into consideration; geographical differences, the subjects chosen (if more boys than girls do chemistry, then they are bound to have the higher percentage of good grades).

It is understandable that newspapers and the media in general feel duty-bound to report on the annual exam results. After all, those pupils are the very people who will steer our country through the next eighty or ninety years. There is a tendency however, when there is no real news to report about the annual results, to focus in on tiny differences in gender achievements or a tiny rise or fall in the overall grades received overall. More or less A grades than average can make a good newspaper headline- and good headlines sell papers.

In reality, despite what reporters say on the television, radio, in the newspapers or on social media platforms, the students that achieve the best exam results are the ones who have worked the hardest. It is those pupils who will go on to get the university places, apprenticeships, and the careers they hoped for- whether they are boys or girls.

During their time at High School, every student in the UK will be given an opportunity to take part in some form of work experience. Such an opportunity is also available via many colleges, and beyond into university life. But why is it so important?

  1. It will help you decide what sort of job you do, and don’t, want in the future.
    Work experience can help you to determine if a particular career is right for you, and conversely, if you are right for it. Even just a week of work experience can help familiarise you with a role enough to know if you need to change career path, or if you have found something you wish to embrace in the future.

      2. Learn from others
By observing those already employed in your work experience venue, you can see how career paths develop, and what the everyday challenges of a job are. Working alongside professionals provides the chance to speak to them, and ask direct questions about their work.

      3. It will help you find a job in the future. Most employers are looking for people who have skills and experience in the world of work, as well as people with good qualifications. A     previous record of work experience shows you are serious about making your way in the world. A survey by UCAS showed that graduates who had no previous work experience were unlikely to be successful during an interview selection process. It also found that one third of employers felt that applicants who did not take unpaid work experience were without the level of knowledge required to cope in the world of work.

      4. It can provide you with contacts for the future
If you are lucky enough to find work experience in a field which you wish to continue into in adult life, then it will give you the opportunity to build relationships with professionals in a potential place of work.

     5. CV building
Even if you don’t find work in a field you wish to continue in later, the more work experience you have on your CV the better. It will show future employers and university selectors that you are the sort of person that is willing to get out there and work.

At whatever stage of your working life, if you are prepared to work for a short time without pay, just to learn new skills, and test out new career paths, then you will not only improve your own confidence, but you will impress future employers, giving you a better footing on your career ladder.

When, after a general election, no one political party has won enough seats to have a majority government controlling the House of Commons, it is known as a hung parliament.

Since 1929, there have been three general elections in the UK that have ended with a hung parliament. In 1974 the general election resulted in a hung parliament which only lasted for a few months, before the government collapsed in October 1974. The second hung parliament came in 2010 when, although the Conservative party was the largest single party, they didn’t have enough seats in the House of Commons to rule alone. In this instance they formed a coalition (shared government) with the Liberal Democrat party; so although the Conservatives were in power, they were unable to get laws to papers through parliament without the backing of the Liberals. Such a situation is hardly ideal. Having to depend upon a different political party, with different political views to your own, naturally makes getting legislation through parliament very much harder than it would be if you had a majority government.

The third hung parliament since 1929 brings us right up to date, with the recent result of the snap election called by the Conservative leader Theresa May (above) leaving her clinging on to power by a thread. It is probably safe to say that the result was not what she expected and, rather than strengthen the party as she had hoped in the light of the Brexit negotiations, she now has to cope with a minority government.

In order to form a Government that can effectively run a country, the winning political party must be able to command a majority in the House of Commons. This majority can include support from other political parties, whether or not there is a formal coalition. On this occasion, rather than form a coalition government like her predecessor David Cameron did in 2010, May has formed an alliance with the small DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) from Northern Ireland.

If the Prime Minister in charge of a hung parliament finds that they cannot get the legislation they want through with the help of their allied party, and so decides to resign, then the leader of the largest opposition party (currently Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party) may be invited to form a government. If they accept the challenge, they can choose to rule either as a minority government (which would make getting their policies through the House of Commons similarly difficult), or again by forming a coalition or alliance with another party.

Hung parliaments often result in the eventual resignation of the Prime Minister. However, a Prime Minister only has to resign if it is clear that they can’t command a majority of the House of Commons, despite any alliances they have formed, or if they lose a vote of confidence motion in the House of Commons. Whether that will be the case this time remains to be seen.

The controversy over taking children out of school for holidays poses wider questions about education. Should parents who take their children out of school to go on holiday be fined? That was the question at the heart of a recent court case where Isle of Wight council took father Jon Platt to court when he failed to pay a fine for taking his daughter out of school. The High Court decided in his favour, saying that as he had ensured his daughter had attended school regularly, there was no case to answer.

During the case, a number of authorities, including the government, stepped in to voice support for the council’s case, saying that taking children out of school for even one day would damage their education and that of others around them. But what kind of education are they talking about? Interestingly, the National Union of Teachers argues that there are valuable social and cultural benefits to going on holiday – benefits which are all too often overlooked. And when holidays during the summer are so prohibitively expensive, these benefits are in danger of becoming the preserve of the well-off.

What can be gained by going on holiday, then? Well, travelling abroad is an important learning experience for any child. Experiencing a new culture can fuel their natural curiosity to learn about the world, and can fire them with enthusiasm for those French lessons at school… Even just a holiday to the seaside offers the chance for children to do and see things out of the ordinary – to learn about sea life by looking in rock pools or to try different foods, even if it’s simply a traditional Devon cream tea. Why should these experiences only be available to those of the middle classes? Many holidays become cherished family memories which last a lifetime – far more memorable than that Tuesday afternoon literacy lesson they missed.

Simply having time to reconnect with parents and siblings away from the non-stop routine of everyday life is valuable in itself. Children who have parents who are more involved do better at school, and holidays which help to foster and strengthen family relationships are likely to lead to children who are happier, and more well-balanced and, perhaps, likely to do better in school. Relationships with family or friends who live abroad are also something valuable, giving children the chance to hear other perspectives of life and widen their horizons beyond their own hometown.

Little has also been said about families who want to gather together to celebrate their festivals together. All children have time off to celebrate Christmas and Easter – but what of families who want the right to celebrate Diwali or Eid? Must these children miss out on the chance of coming together with their family and community to celebrate a festival which is part of their cultural heritage – and what will be achieved if they do?

No one thinks it’s a good idea if children are continually taken out of school. But learning doesn’t just happen in a classroom. We need to look at the broader picture – and realise that learning comes in all shapes and sizes.

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