Jake Davis

Digital Activism – Jake Davis

You cannot arrest an idea


Jake Davis


LulzSecOn July 27th 2011, Jake Davis was visited at his home in the Shetland Islands, a remote archipelago of Scotland that lie north-east of mainland Britain, by 6 police officers from London and arrested. Aged 18, Jake was accused and subsequently charged with a number of offences including unauthorised computer access and conspiracy to carry out a distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack on the UK’s Serious Organised Crime Agency’s website.


Jake, as it transpired, had been playing with online activist groups including Anonymous and LulzSec, the latter being more akin to a team of digital pranksters sailing the waves of cyberspace rather than the kind of cyber-terrorists that certain parts of the media would have the public believe.


Under his online pseudonym , “Topiary” (@atopiary on Twitter), Jake came to prominence amongst the hacker community after participating in a live radio phone-in discussion with a member of the Westboro Baptist Church whilst their site was hacked and replaced with a message from Anonymous. The Westboro Baptist Church is widely recognised as a “hate group” for its extreme ideologies especially against the gay community as well as picketing the funerals of children and US military personnel. In this regard, whilst illegal in terms of the law, the live hack of the web site could be regarded as an act of protest within the digital domain against the proliferation of online hate speech.

According to Davis, LulzSec was formed during a moment of boredom within an online chat room with fellow users none of whom had met in the physical world nor knew each others real identity. The groups objective was initially to rail against what they saw as the absurdity of online marketing by using the digital world against itself. They launched a number of notable campaigns including the exposure of Sony Playstation’s lack of security for users confidential information, posting a fictitious story on the PBS site about rapper Tupac Shakur being found alive in New Zealand and hacking the site of The Sun newspaper in the UK where they posted a spoof story suggesting that its owner, Rupert Murdoch, had taken his own life as a result of the “phone hacking scandal” that had implicated his own organisation.


Each successful campaign brought the LulzSec group notoriety across global mass-media and, as if to prove the point about digital marketing, their @LulzSec Twitter account managed by Jake Davis accumulated more than 400,000 followers. Legality aside one can only admire the chutzpah of a group of teenagers using their laptops to create mischief within a digital world barely understood by their parents generation.


LulzSec only lasted a matter of months before the arrest of Davis but already there was disagreement within the amorphous group with the suggestion that government hired hackers had infiltrated the group to encourage less whimsical campaigns and more carnage.


After his arrest Jake was banned from using the internet for 2 years, wore a location tagging device that enforced a curfew and was sentenced to 37 days in Feltham Young Offenders Institute, a prison more commonly used to accommodate young people with a history of committing violent crime or narcotic distribution.


The inclusion of my interview with Jake Davis within a book about learning in a connected world is to give voice to the kind of learner whom we almost never hear from in the discourse about education particularly when we discuss digital. So often the young people of Jakes generation are described as apathetic and disengaged from the society around them. Whilst western nations describe the transformative effect of digital platforms within emerging democracies and, for example, the “Arab Spring” the flip side is that they are not prepared for protest or even pranks within the emergent digital economy. The brightest minds of Jakes generation are now actively nurtured and recruited by our respective intelligence agencies to commit acts of espionage and civil surveillance on behalf of their nations. So by interviewing Jake I wanted to understand more about the world in which current and future generations are expected to grow and demonstrate dissent.


My full interview with Jake will be published in the Learning {RE}imagined book later this year but in the meantime here is a short clip where Jake describes his experiences of schools that lead him to cyberspace.



Further viewing – Courtesy of BBC Newsnight



Digital Learning : Tailored or Taylored?


The message I’m trying to send is that technology is political, and that many decisions that look like decisions about technology actually are not at all about technology – they are about politics, and they need to be scrutinized as closely as we would scrutinize decisions about politics.


Evgeny Morozov


They say a week is a long time in politics and the past week has been quite a big one for the UK government who have played not one but two cards in a recent initiative to demonstrate their belief in the role of technology in education.


In one initiative, the Year of Code, the government has positioned technology as an outcome of learning rather than enabler. Although to be fair, it’s not entirely clear what they have demonstrated beyond a woeful misunderstanding of the subject.


The initiatives director, Lottie Dexter, was thrown into the spotlight, like a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter, to explain the project on national television only to expose that she really didn’t know anything about computer programming beyond her scripted conviction that it was now an essential skill like reading and writing. It was regarded by many as car crash TV that also revealed that the, government influenced, committee of yes people behind the initiative also had next to no knowledge of the subject. Fast forward to 5:24 in the video below.



The second initiative, the Educational Technology Action Group (ETAG), seems more promising. A committee of the usual suspects and educational technology evangelists chaired by respected educationalist Stephen Heppell. Set up by UK government ministers Michael Gove, Matthew Hancock and David Willets with the brief


to identify barriers to the growth of technology that have been put in place (inadvertently or otherwise) by the Government, as well as thinking about ways that these barriers can be broken down.


For a government that entered parliament with the mission to close quango’s it is now on a mission to create as many as possible within its own image.


What could have happened to engender this about face and commitment to technology for learning?


Could it be as, open data designer, Adrian Short suggests, a demonstration of the administrations “neoliberal agenda” that calls for economic liberalizations, free trade and open markets, privatization, deregulation, and enhancing the role of the private sector in modern society?


Matthew Hancock MPMy concerns were raised initially by a speech given by UK skills minister Matthew Hancock at a private event in March 2013 to launch an EdTech incubator where he showed scant understanding of the education sector but a good nose for potential business growth which, after all, is his job.


Since then having garnered the support of EdTech start-ups looking for the door marked entry Mr Hancock has grown bolder in his statements. By December 2013 he was going on the record announcing his governments plans for teachers to “take a backseat in the imparting of knowledge”.


This was followed by a speech at the recent BETT EdTech trade show held in London where he said “An algorithm then takes that data, and works out how each child could learn more”.


It’s quite possible that Mr Hancock might have been using a standard issue government algorithm for speech writing given that in 2005, Ruth Kelly, Labour’s Education Secretary said “And in the future it will be more than simply a storage place – a digital space that is personalised, that remembers what the learner is interested in and suggests relevant web sites, or alerts them to courses and learning opportunities that fit their needs.”


Which brings us to these algorithms that are going to enable teachers to take a back seat and for “Technology” to decide what and how much your child can learn. I’m curious about who will own these algorithms, who will write them, how they will work and how they are biased. I say biased because as we should know by now algorithms aren’t neutral, they are designed and written by people, i.e. they are mediated. Suggesting they aren’t biased is like saying newspapers like the Daily Mail or The New York Times aren’t biased. Of course they are.


We know that digital platforms offer the most amazing possibilities for learning and that isn’t the question here. My book and digital resources for Learning {RE}imagined will document many interesting digital deployments for learning from 5 continents. The question relates to the point that writer Evegny Morozov makes in the opening quote of this post that technology is far from neutral, it is political.


In the early 1900’s the American engineer and management consultant Frederick Taylor in a desire to improve industrial efficiency conceived the “scientific management” approach to manufacturing. The underpinning of scientific management is the disdain for tradition preserved merely for its own sake or to protect the social status of particular workers with particular skill set. Its objective was the transformation of craft production into mass production. Whilst Taylor’s management theory were largely obsolete by the 1930’s most of its themes are still important parts of industrial management thinking.


In particular, Taylor’s management approach fetishised data which was collected at numerous points during the manufacturing process that could be used by management to determine what steps to take to improve efficiency. Taylorism, therefore, was probably one of the first attempts to use at the turn of the 19th century that which today we call “Big Data”.


The problem with all this data is that we arrive at what French social theorist, Jean Baudrillard, suggested when he wrote in his work , Simulcra and Simulations, “We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning”. What he means here is that the data tells us what is happening but not why it’s happening.


Stephen_HeppellWhen I discussed some of my concerns with Stephen Heppell he told me that it would be important for educators to remain vigilant in the face of these prospects and, of course, he is right. We need to make sure that digital platforms for learning are not appropriated within a political tactic to introduce Taylorism into our education systems. That is, we shouldn’t believe that technology is an opportunity to de-skill and de-professionalise the teaching profession, to remove the craft of teaching in order to achieve the efficient manufacturing of children to a set of industrialised test standards.


Understanding as we do that algorithms and technology aren’t neutral, that technology isn’t as, suggested by Noam Chomsky, simply a tool like a hammer we should remember that simply a love for technology itself doesn’t breed change. We must, as Heppell suggests, be vigilant and we must, as Morozov implores, scrutinise technological decisions as we would the political.


It seems common today for our techno determinists, evangelists and festishists to simply reject all criticism as being anti-technological & anti-modern but this is unhealthy and stifles an important discourse around the deployment of digital platforms within our education systems. Ironically, the stifling of this debate could mean that technology continues to have little or no transformative effect on learning rather it becomes a management tool for enforcing 19th century ideas about schooling.


“They’ll have that repeated forty or fifty times more before they wake; then again on Thursday, and again on Saturday. A hundred and twenty times three times a week for thirty months. After which they go on to a more advanced lesson.”


“Till at last the child’s mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child’s mind. And not the child’s mind only. The adult’s mind too—all his life long. The mind that judges and desires and decides—made up of these suggestions. But all these suggestions are our suggestions!


Aldous Huxley – Brave New World


Further reading


Silicon Valley – Open Up (Algorithmic Bias)
Evegny Morozov


Noam Chomsky and Graham Brown-Martin

Noam Chomsky on Technology & Learning


As far as technology itself and education is concerned, technology is basically neutral. It’s like a hammer. The hammer doesn’t care whether you use it to build a house or whether on torture, using it to crush somebody’s skull, the hammer can do either.


Noam Chomsky


For the Learning {RE}imagined book and digital resource project being published later this year I interviewed Professor Noam Chomsky where we discussed the purpose of education, the role and impact of technology and the challenges of assessment with standardised tests.


I thought visitors to this blog would enjoy this 5 minute excerpt from my conversation with Noam where when asked about technology and its impact on learning he argues that:

You have to know how to evaluate, interpret and understand. Let’s say, biology, again. The person who wins the Nobel Prize in biology is not the person who read the most journal articles and those notes on them. He’s a person who knew what to look for and cultivating that capacity to seek what’s significant, always willing to question whether you’re on the right track. That’s what education is going to be about whether it’s using computers and internet or pencil and paper or books


Do you agree?


Have a listen and please feel welcome to add your thoughts and comments below.



Sir Ken Robinson & Graham Brown-Martin

Sir Ken Robinson : The Art of Teaching

That’s why I always say that teaching is an art form. It’s not a delivery system. I don’t know when we started confusing teaching with FedEx. Teaching is an arts practice. It’s about connoisseurship and judgment and intuition. We all remember the great teachers in our lives. The ones who kind of woke us up and that we’re still thinking about because they said something to us or they gave us an angle on something that we’ve never forgotten.


Sir Ken Robinson


One of the many people I met and interviewed during the research tour for #LearningREimagined was my friend and mentor Sir Ken Robinson. The full interview will be published later this year as part of the Learning {RE}imagined book and accompanying app but I thought you would enjoy this 5 minute excerpt.



Let me know what you think in the comments section below and please feel welcome to share with your friends and colleagues.



Seth Godin on Education Reform

Happy New Year everybody and please accept my apologies for being quiet on this blog. After completing my travels and returning to London at the end of November I needed some time for reflection as well as taking care of some family matters as a result of a bereavement. :(


My visits to China and India were quite frankly, eye-opening, insightful and enlightening. I regret that I haven’t yet been able to post updates from these visits but will endeavour to do so in the weeks ahead.


If you’re new to this blog the journey starts here otherwise read on.


Things have been very busy behind the scenes however as my team and I have been processing and curating the most amazing treasure trove of photographs (taken by Iran’s most acclaimed young photographer, Newsha Tavakolian), hours of video recorded interviews and case studies, audio recordings, transcriptions and several journals worth of notes.


EDlabs StudioI am now held hostage in my small but perfectly formed study in SE London where I’m carefully crafting the words, editing the videos, curating the photographs, coding the mobile app and working with my publishing team to create what I hope will do justice for all of the wonderful participants in this story.


Some have expressed surprise that I am doing much of this myself imagining a team of programmers and video editors but for me working in this transmedia approach makes perfect sense and chimes with the theme of the book. There are too many books and statements made about digital technology for learning by experts who haven’t used it and I didn’t want to be one of those.


As a New Years treat I thought I would share with you one of the many recorded interviews that will form part of a library of exclusive interviews, films and other digital resources that will be unlocked via the printed book when it is published later this year. My hope is that the printed book, lavishly illustrated, with my accompanying notes, documents, thought pieces and interviews will be an artefact in the physical world that is a delight to hold and explore whilst acting as a spring board into a digital ocean of additional material. Well it’s not like me to aim for the stars is it? ;)


Thanks to Seth Godin for his patience, passion and time. Seth has published a book on education reform that is available free in PDF/eBook format – Stop Stealing Dreams


I hope you enjoy this interview, I have plenty more that contradict it!





By the time you read this we’ll be leaving China from Chengdu and heading to India via Kathmandu.


I’ll be updating you on who we visited, what we saw and what we learned during our stay in China in the next post but for now let me tell you what’s next in our global adventure to find innovation in learning as we travel around India.


India, touted by many as a future superpower alongside the USA and China, is characterised by poverty and chaos on the one hand whilst being a global leader in high technology on the other. It is the worlds leading weapons importer and is also advancing its space programme which includes a mission to Mars. With a population reaching 1.27 billion this year India is the 2nd most populous country in the world and is expected to exceed China by 2030. That’s a lot of people to feed and educate in the worlds largest democracy.


XSEEDOur first stop is New Delhi where we’ll be meeting with the principals of iDiscoveri and learning about their XSEED programme. iDiscoveri is a leadership organisation whose CEO, Ashish Rajpal, we’ll be meeting. His iDiscoveri Education group describes itself as “an education innovation company focused on learning and leadership”. It has developed a programme called XSEED which is based around a proprietary curriculum, training and assessment capability designed to improve learning and teaching capability. The programme has already scaled to more than 700 schools in India with 2-3 times improvement in academic improvement within pilot studies. Of course, this raises questions over what is being assessed and how but with what appears to be such an impressive track record we wanted to learn more and will report back.


After visiting iDiscoveri we’ll be travelling down to Chennai to visit a school that has adopted the XSEED program to see for ourselves.


BBC Media ActionAlso in New Delhi we’ll be meeting with BBC Media Action a charitable organisation via the British Broadcasting Corporation that uses media and communication as a force for positive social change. BBC Media Action in India has been using media to improve health, rights and resilience since 2001 with a strong focus on maternal and child health. Their innovative projects in the states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha help to increase knowledge and improve the health of mothers and children using a combination of TV, radio, online, street theatre, outdoor advertising and mobile phones.


We will be visiting sites in Patna, Baadh and Bhaktiyarpur to meet with frontline health workers, beneficiaries and correspondents related to this vital initiative.


Follow our activities on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook - see you there!



Chairing at WISEWell, the WISE 2013 Summit was epic and I was pleased to meet so many friends old and new who wanted to know about the Learning {RE}imagined book.


As I was filming interviews a lot of the time I didn’t get to spend as much time in sessions or meet as many of my fellow delegates as I would have liked but you know where to find me – virtually at least!


I’ve put some more AudioBoo’s online from some of the people we interviewed including former Australia Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, LEGO Education President, Jacob Kragh, BBC Learning Controller, Saul Nassé and many others. Find them here.


The Learning {RE}imagined team are now heading to China where we will be visiting the RDFZ Xishan School in Beijing, a flagship school for Apple, where every student is equipped with an iPad and where the school actively nurtures personal growth, creativity and innovation.



RDFZ was the first school in China to adopt a 1:1 computing approach based around Apple technology so we are looking forward to learning how this has worked out.


By way of contrast we’re then travelling to Chengdu, capital of the Sichuan province in Southwest China, to meet with Deng Fei, the campaigning journalist who leveraged social media in China in response to the many rural schools in the country that do not have facilities to provide children, many of whom walk many miles to school, with lunch. The “Free Lunch for Children” initiative raised more than $4 million in 8 months as a result of Deng Fei’s campaign largely conducted on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.



We then travel to Ya’an the site of a catastrophic earthquake measuring 7 on the Richter scale that occurred in April of this year killing nearly 200 people and injuring a further 12,000, some 1,000 seriously were seriously hurt. Many homes and public buildings, including schools, collapsed during the earthquake and the region is still recovering. The Free Lunch for Children programme is actively supporting the community here and we will be reporting back on that.



WISE 2013 – Qatar

The Learning {RE}imagined team is in Qatar attending and filming interviews at the World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha. It’s the annual summit hosted by the Qatar Foundation that brings together many of the worlds educators to meet, discuss and network around the themes of education, innovation and transformation.


Of all the summits I attend I feel that this one has a genuinely global perspective that isn’t specifically based around policy makers with disposable budget. WISE brings together an engaged and diverse community of policy makers, educators, innovators and thought leaders from over 100 countries all passionate about making a better world through learning. Whilst the summit sessions themselves provide plenty of opportunity for the sharing of ideas it’s the chance meetings and social as well as professional networking opportunities that make it so valuable for me.

If you’re attending WISE then you can discover more about the Learning {RE}imagined book and digital media project by visiting our space on the first floor to the right as you enter the building where you’ll see a sign that says “WISE Books“.


You can contribute to the project by visiting our special video recording booth where you can record your response to the question “how would you reimagine learning”. We’ll be making a special compilation of these video clips so you can be immortalized as a contributor to the project. It will only take a minute of your time so please take part!


I will be hosting a forum session with panelists who have participated in the creation of the book as well as members of the WISE Learners Voice. The session is being hosted on Thursday October 31st at 13:30 in The Forum on the first floor near the entrance. More information here.


If you’re not attending WISE then you can follow the live video streams here


If you’re new to the Learning {RE}imagined project then welcome to this blog and start here to begin the journey.


We look forward to seeing you during the next few days and please say hello if you’d like to know more!


Olympic Learning for Brazil?

Smile, you're on cameraIt was far too short with so much to learn in such a large and diverse country as Brazil but nevertheless we managed to spend a few days there and left inspired but with as many questions raised as those answered which simply begs a return visit!


Brazil celebrates its 200th year of independence in 2022 and this perhaps sets a useful target for its nascent educational transformation programme. Currently committing over $15 Billion to host the Olympics in 2016 and $11 Billion to the FIFA 2014 World Cup it’s little wonder that the Brazilian public, who are footing the bill, are wondering why there is less enthusiaism from government to commit to delivering Olympic or FIFA standards to their public services including schools.


The disruptive history of Brazil is a good indicator of that which has lead to its challenges with public (state provided) education. From colonialism, outside interventions (ongoing) and military dictatorships to redemocratization it hasn’t been an easy ride for the Brazilians. Even today there are vast inequalities amongst marginalised ethnic groups such as the underrepresented Afro-Brazilian population, which is extraordinary when you consider that a recent census showed that 50.7% of the Brazilian population define themselves as black or dual-heritage.


The public education system in Brazil has historically been tragically underfunded and the status of teachers and educators undermined by successive governments. Over recent years there have been many attempts to meet the challenges of transforming their educational systems through the use of technology with a variety of national schemes including the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), 1:1 computing with Intel Classmate PC and various mobile phone programmes of which none could claim to have been successful. Commentators within Brazil have even suggested that these were vanity projects that merely suggested change but met other more commercial interests.


But grassroots activism, social entrepreneurship and public-private partnerships are emerging to meet these challenges. The country is so vast and diverse with a population of nearly 200 million that “change must be orchestrated in partnership with the civil society” as one government official told me. By this, he recognised that the creation of a long term plan that could transcend changes of government in a democracy could only be really achieved if the plan was owned by external social and commercial enterprises.


Gilbert Dimenstein

Our first visit was to meet with the people behind Porvir, an initiative of the Inspirare Institute, whose mission is to inspire innovations in entrepreneurial activities, public policies, programs and investments that improve the quality of education in Brazil. It is the brainchild of Brazilian business man, Bernado Gradin, whose family fortune was made in the petrochemical industries before investing in sustainable energy sectors and other social programmes.


Interviews with Bernado and the many people either behind Porvir or who share the same mission will be featured in the Learning {RE}imagined book.


The creation of Porvir is a not for profit response to the dearth of knowledgeable reporting in the Brazilian mainstream media about education. It acts as a furiously productive editorial office that produces daily stories about global and regional innovations in education that it makes freely available to the mainstream media under Creative Commons licence. The organisation runs workshops for journalists and lobbies mainstream media from newspapers to radio to television and online to carry insightful reportings on educational innovation. The objective is to engage both the general public and policy makers in the discourse about educational transformation.


It is here that I believe the world can learn something. So often “education” is regarded by the public as something that either doesn’t interest them, they have no voice in or is just plain dull. And yet in many countries we hand our children over to the state apparatus without a question about its purpose or whether the outcomes are, in fact, relevant to their childrens future or the well-being of their nation state.


Porvir’s vital mission then is to change that and it’s already bearing fruit for its labour by providing journalists and editors with a resource that enables them to understand the meaning and impact of education and insights from global thinkers and activists.


As a news resource for educators everywhere Porvir is worthing following.


NAVE RioWe then headed down to Rio de Janiero to visit the NAVE Rio School which has won numerous plaudits for being one of the worlds most innovative schools. Thus our expectations were high and we weren’t disappointed.


Literally hidden away in Tijuca, built in to an existing telephone exchange building the school is a partnership between Brazil’s largest telecommunications corporation Oi via their Institute of Social Responsibility, Oi Futuro, and the state departments for education of Rio de Janiero.


The school is a public, state school for students aged 16-19 and is a exemplar of how public schools could be in Brazil given the necessary level of support and vision from the private as well as the public sector. Competition for one of the 500 places at the school is fierce with some 5000 applications for the 120 places available each year. But also the demands placed on students is also fierce. Given that the school is compelled to meet the statutory demands of the state education department but at the same time is striving to provide students with marketable skills in the digital domain such as coding and design students work a 10 hour day, 5 days a week.


I spent much of my day with a group of students who showed me their school and took me to lessons. Like High Tech High in San Diego the school features a strong project based learning ethos where cross-disciplinary subjects are merged to solve particular challenges with the results being exhibited within the school building.


School in a Telephone ExchangeAnd what a school building it is. Policy makers who assume that architectural enhancements to learning are a folly should take note. The environment at NAVE Rio is one of the key’s to its success. Like High Tech High and the offices of IDEO in San Francisco the building is a design space full of collaborative common areas imaginatively decorated and lit. The inside of NAVE Rio looks more like the inside of a corporation like Google than the sort of schools that resemble prisons. In discussing this with the students it’s clear that this environment is key. Like employees of Google they are expected to spend long hours in the building while being able to meet the demands of the day, staying sharp, social and creative. Whilst both the students and teachers would like to see a shorter day, which may actually come to pass, the environment was compelling rather than oppressive and in my mind answers the question about environment when so many policy makers see it as an unnecessary luxury at least from the benefit of their leather chair in a luxurious government office ;)


The basis of the school being a private/public partnership is similar to the charter schools in the US and academies in the UK so I was cautious about the motives behind the investment of Brazil’s telecoms company Oi in this venture. Was it intended to simply be a training camp for compliant future employees willing to work 50+ hours a week?


Carla BrancoI put this question to Oi Futura’s Industry Liaison Head, Carla Branco, who explained that whilst mine was a natural suspicion the initiative was “not intended to create future employees for Oi but to stimulate local well-being and independent wealth creation within the community itself. If Brazilians are doing well then so do our businesses.”


What is key, Carla told me, “is that students from NAVE Rio generally gain entry to the state-funded universities which are far better than the private ones’. This statement was also roundly supported by the students who all have ambitions for future careers and not necessarily in the digital industries.


3 days in Brazil can never be enough, it’s a complex country with a booming economy but with a restless population demanding better public services as the treasury begins to expand. Unrest and dissent is the reality and indicator of a healthy democracy and one can be optimistic that without external interventions that Brazil can capitalize on its relative stability and growing wealth provided that it is distributed. If it can do this then it will genuinely have become independent and make 2022 a year really worth celebrating.


Outside it’s America

Airplane LondonWe spent an intense 10 days in the USA on what was an ambitious schedule of New York, Cambridge, Rhode Island, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego then back to New York before heading to our next destination in Brazil (see next post).


Whilst at the time it felt madly ambitious we only missed one flight, which left me sleeping in a motel that looked like a rendezvous for Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman, we visited some really impressive people and organisations.


This post, like the others before it, can only be a brief summary of our activities. For the rest you’ll have to wait for the book ;)


First up in New York we visited Quest to Learn, a school that one of the 14 year old students told me was the school that everyone’s heard of apart from New York. By this she meant that Quest to Learn receives a constant stream of visitors from all over the world and yet many of her friends haven’t heard of it. Designed from the ground up by a team of teachers and game designers based on 30 years of learning research it is a bold initiative that redesigns the curriculum and teaching practice taking influence from the way young people engage with games.


Quest to Learn SchoolBy games they don’t specifically mean video games and indeed despite being known as the “game based learning” school in the popular media there is little evidence of what we typically think of when we think games. As co-director Arana Shapiro tells me “people expect to see our students sitting around playing video or board games and whilst we do use such games from time to time the reference to games is in the mechanics we deploy within our teaching and learning strategy.” To get an idea of what’s happening here I visit their “Mission Lab” which is a design studio within the school where teachers work alongside game and curriculum designers to design flexible learning experiences for their classes.


One of the principles of the teaching style draws heavily on the gaming concept of simulation where learning is placed in applied context rather than simply memorising things by rote whilst employing cross-disciplinary skills to solve a particular problem or challenge. Students are actively encouraged to work in collaborative teams which effectively act as self-organising learning environments in between teacher directed segments of a given class.


The designers and directors of the school have learnt a lot since it opened in 2009 and an important lesson has been in the role of the teacher. Arana is candid when she explains that “initially we imagined that teachers would essentially be content specialists supported by designers but it soon became clear that there was far more to teaching than simply knowing the subject specifically their ability to engage learners by being engaged themselves.”


We left New York for Cambridge, MA where went to MIT to visit Noam Chomsky, Mitch Resnick and Eric Rosenbaum.


Noam Chomsky & Graham Brown-MartinNoam, unimpressed that I had hardly been home in months, suggested that I needed a good shave and looking in the mirror that evening I think I’d have to agree. To receive personal grooming tips from someone I regard as one of todays greatest living intellectuals was quite a moment for me. We’d arrived to take photographs for the book to supplement an earlier interview I’d conducted with him but during the photo session we discussed a variety of issues such as a comparison of the education systems of Cuba and Singapore as well as Noam’s childhood experiences of attending Oak Lane Day School that was regarded as an experimental when it was founded in 1916 upon the principles of honouring a childs individuality in a setting that fosters intellectual, creative, academic and personal growth in the Dewey tradition.


Well, I think the proof of the schools efficacy is in the results!


I asked Noam how we would reimagine learning and this is what he said.


Next, we moved on to another building at MIT to visit the people behind EdX, the non-profit partnership founded by MIT and Harvard with an investment of $60 Million to increase access to students globally, improve campus education by bringing online technologies in to the campus and perform research around learning. It’s the latter parts of their mission which I feel separates them from the almost embarrassingly over-inflated EdTech bubble that is MOOCs.


I met with Johannes Heinlein, Director of Strategic Partnerships at EdX and like him immediately as he immediately dismisses all the hyperbole around MOOCs and sticks with the facts that MOOCs are still work in progress, that they don’t replace the vital social, interpersonal and collaborative engagement that a physical meeting place provides and whilst access is key they are using this opportunity to improve the quality of learning on and off campus. He tells me that EdX students are forming meet-up groups and that nearly 30% of the EdX subscribers are of high school age effectively benefitting from the lack of any entry requirements to begin studying degree level material. I ask him about the potential for educational colonialism as a result of exporting MIT or Harvard degrees and he agrees that this was a concern so they have made their technology open so that international partners can participate in this programme with their own materials.


Mitch ResnickWe moved along to MIT’s Media Lab and the Lifelong Kindergarten where we met with its leader and Professor of Learning Research, Mitch Resnick. Mitch amongst other achievements is regarded as the father of the Scratch programming environment for children and the building bricks that became the basis of the LEGO Mindstorm kits. I’ve been a long time fan of Mitch’s work and he tells me that the thinking behind this group at MIT was based on the inspiration he gets from the way children learn in kindergarten where they spend lots of time “playfully designing and creating things in collaboration with one another”. Mitch believes this natural creative learning instinct becomes eroded by the time students reach high school where the learning is more geared towards listening to lectures rather than experimentation rather than develop as creative thinkers. So Mitch’s group explores and develops techniques and platforms to prepare young people for the kind of tasks that he believes are more needed today where they are able to take on new challenges with confidence. That said Mitch is concerned that kindergartens today are becoming more like our schools in that you can now find young children now filling out worksheets on phonics and working on spelling flashcards.


Working in the same group as Mitch and in fact one of Resnick’s PhD students is Eric Rosenbaum, co-founder of Makey Makey.


Makey Makey calls itself an invention kit for everyone and is a programmable circuit board that allows you to control things and get feedback. Sounds techy but it’s child’s play and you can be up and running making the contents of your fruit bowl into a musical instrument – yes really! Makey Makey is to programmable control boards like Arduino what the Scratch programming environment is to Python it’s an easy point of inception that gets kids engaged, building and creating quickly. It’s also a fab present for the upcoming holiday season (or so my daughters keep reminding me).


John MaedaWe then take a 2 hour drive out from Cambridge to Providence and the Rhode Island School of Design and meet the team lead by Provost Roseanne Somerson and President John Maeda. I asked John why he thought STEM subjects had become such an apparent priority amongst education systems to the detriment of the arts and he explained to me that “it’s because we believe that technology innovation creates new economic opportunities in a way like back in the 1960’s the Moon shot required a significant expansion of our knowledge in maths, science, physics etc. But the reality was that it was influenced by creativity and design. Somewhere along the way we become more interested in the “what?” rather than the “why?”. This creates a problem in that you can be a good testing nation but you can’t invent or innovate which is why we seek to put the ‘art’ back into the STEM education conversation in what we call STEAM”


I had a really stimulating afternoon with the RISD team and learned far more than I can write in this blog so looking forward to putting altogether for you in the book. But speaking of books Roseanne kindly gave me a copy of her recently published book which is not only beautifully produced but also very thought provoking so I recommend you take a look. It’s called “The Art of Critical Making”.


Sir Ken Robinson & Graham Brown-MartinOver to Los Angeles and we meet with the one and only Sir Ken Robinson. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Sir Ken for a few years now and I’ll admit that I feel a couple of inches taller and a bit more determined after spending an hour or two in his company. We meet in his very trendy offices in Westwood Village to film our interview before heading across the street for a very good cup of coffee and some photos. If you’re attending or watching the livestream of the WISE 2013 Summit you’ll catch a small preview of our interview but you’ll get full access to the whole enchilada once I’ve had a chance to edit it down and prep it for, well you know, the book ;)


We had a detailed discussion about the role and potential of digital technologies within the learning experience and Ken compares them to the role that many tools have had in our past to extend what we are capable of, not just of doing but of thinking about. Ken tells me that “as soon as you have writing systems you don’t just extend your ability to spread a message you affect the very nature of the message and what you can conceive and all great transformative technologies have done that. They’ve not just let us do the things we did before just differently but let us do things we haven’t conceived of before and that’s what’s happening with this new wave of digital technologies”.


Ken was generous with his time and has made a terrific contribution to my work. I asked him the same question as I asked Noam Chomsky about how he would reimagine learning and he said this.


Our work completed in Los Angeles we left for San Francisco, not to visit the homes of the digital technology companies that have so much impact on our lives (although we did ask – see my earlier post about Silicon Valley’s false consciousness), but to meet with Sandy Speicher, the education lead at design consultancy IDEO.


Sandy SpeicherIDEO designed Apple’s first mouse for the Lisa and Macintosh computers, the Palm PDA and work for a range of well known brands. They have been championing the approach of “design thinking” and more recently applying it to education. Sandy explains that IDEO take a human-centred approach to their design work which really means adopting a process that begins with people and that leads to a desired outcome that takes into account the desires and needs of the people working within that system. Sandy believes that by adopting design thinking approaches to education we can create better learning experiences and environments where teachers and learners are designers of this physical and mental spaces. Sandy has already instigated some useful resources for those interested in learning more about design thinking as it applies to education. There’s the free “Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit” and hot off the press the “Design Thinking In Schools” which is a partnership between IDEO and the K12 Lab Network at Stanford d.school both established by IDEO co-founder David Kelley with the aim of helping people of all ages and background build their creative confidence.


I happened to be at IDEO’s offices at the launch of Tom and David Kelley’s book “Creative Confidence” and was given a copy. It seems like everybody is writing a book these days!


We then headed over to San Diego to visit High Tech High and the force of nature that is Larry Rosenstock, their CEO. High Tech High is in fact 11 schools in the San Diego area comprised of 2 elementary schools, 4 middle schools and 5 high schools. They are “charter schools” which means that whilst they must adhere to a set of state standards they have greater freedom in how they teach. They are state schools and deliberately attract a socially and culturally diverse student population selected by lottery.


Larry RosenstockDespite the name the school does not deploy or rely upon any significant about of digital technology. It is there but it is not the focus, the name comes from the schools origin as a response to the high technology corporations in the region that were becoming frustrated with the skillset exhibited by students coming out of traditional schooling. The schools DNA is configured around a high level of personalization, adult-world connection, common intellectual mission and the teacher as designer.


Larry explains that “teachers as designers means that they are creators of new knowledge and not just churning stuff out of books”. He says this with such conviction that you wouldn’t want to argue with him. There is such a rebellious streak in him that I am immediately caught up in the bonhomie but with good reason for this is one of the most exciting schools that I have had the fortune to visit.


The interior of the school is almost identical to the design studio of IDEO in San Francisco, part swanky private members club of the Shoreditch House variety and part creative design studio with nearly 500 students. It’s difficult to define where classrooms finish and social collaborative areas begin for in effect they are one and the same. I am guided around the school by a student and invited to speak to any student or member of staff that I wish. Without exception every one that I speak to is knowledgeable, interesting and interested.


Jeff RobinThe school is almost certainly the leading exponent of “project based learning” guided, defined and installed by resident art teacher and ships mate Jeff Robin. I’m not going to say anything more about Jeff here other than if you want to put a zap on your educational world then visit his website that is full of resources that he has created to share with the community. I mean just visit it, like right now!


The project based mentality that is at the heart of educational practice within High Tech High means that the walls and common areas within the school are adorned with the outputs of the students projects where the goal for each student is to complete their project to the point where it can be displayed to share with other students. Trust me when I say that much of what I saw would not have looked out of place in a high end design store.


I’ve a lot more to write about High Tech High but I can say that this is as good as transformation gets within the confines of remaining within a system that demands a set of standardised tests at the end.


Larry has a coffee mug that states his aim of “nurturing creative noncompliance” which pretty much sums up the exciting learning environment he & team have created.


Here’s Larry’s words on how he would reimagine learning.


Finally, we head back to New York to the offices of TED, of the conference and talks fame, to meet Logan Smalley the head of TED’s educational initiative TED-Ed. The goal of TED-Ed is to find the worlds best lessons and combine them with great animation and production so that they can reach a bigger audience. TED-Ed uses an open nomination system where anyone can nominate either themselves or an educator they respect for consideration for the TED-Ed program. So far in the 18 months since they started they have created nearly 300 lessons worth sharing that have been viewed about 36 million times.


Logan SmalleyLogan says that a key motivator for teachers to get involved is the reach of the TED-Ed platform, he says “that they have worked with teachers that have given a lesson in a class that may reach perhaps around 500 learners a year but on TED-Ed the same lesson is reaching more than 100,000 learners”. He continues to tell me how “exciting it is to hear the voice of great teachers amplified”. Logan cautions however that “video is not teaching, it doesn’t have the body language or the sixth sense that teaching requires but it delivers content in a way that can be used by teachers and learners.”. Logan explains that the purpose of TED-Ed is to ignite curiosity and compared to other video based flipped classroom approaches he feels that its geared towards the why? of education rather than the how? By this he means learning, for example, why Pythagoras Theorem is useful as opposed to just learning the formula.


This is what Logan said when I asked him how he would reimagine learning.


So that was our excellent adventure in the USA. If the truth be told there was certainly a book’s worth of material just from that 10 day trip and I will do my best to distill it down into a useful essence when I come to the full writing and resource editing part of this project.


Here’s another musical interlude:


Next up Brazil!