Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Sir Ken Robinson

Sir Ken Robinson divides opinion. His stint as a castaway on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs last week prompted a wave of responses from educators. You can hear the broadcast online here or download a podcast here.

As a contemporary thinker and communicator, Sir Ken has a comprehensive website here. His biography says that:

Sir Ken Robinson, PhD is an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources in education and in business. He is also one of the world’s leading speakers on these topics, with a profound impact on audiences everywhere.

You can get a flavour of his thinking in this RSA video.

RSA animate

Some commentators claim that he’s an ego-driven self publicist, popularising his arguments through charm and persuasion. Others see him as a brilliant creative visionary who can save education from a system that isn’t working for far too many people. Of course, neither of these extremes of opinion is mutually exclusive and both are simplistic. One is about assumed motivation – and it can only ever be assumed – and personality and the other is about promoting a single approach to teaching and learning.

I heard him talk to a comparatively small audience several years ago. There was no doubting his charisma but his arguments, to educators and policy makers, were also very compelling. The quote below is typical and especially relevant to adult and community learning, where we often work with people who didn’t flourish or find their skills and confidence before they left school.

“We have to go from what is essentially an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity and batching people. We have to move to a model that is based more on principles of agriculture. We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process; it’s an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development. All you can do, like a farmer, is create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish.”

How do we decide on the validity of his theses and respond to the counter claims of his critics?

I’m with John Dewey on this. We all filter evidence through the lens of our personal experience. I’ve read and listened to some of the pros and cons relating to Sir Ken’s approaches and tried to be objective but personal experience of learning and teaching tells me that he talks good sense. Are people suspicious because he does so with such panache? Being a good communicator isn’t the same as dumbing down.

What do you think about the RSA video and Sir Ken’s vision for creativity in education?

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Massive, open, online and incompleted courses?

The University news feature on page 28 of the current Private Eye (No. 1341, 31 May – 13 June 2013) focuses on MOOCs – “massive open online courses”. Several prominent universities are offering these courses free of charge to anyone, anywhere with internet access. Many people are only likely to stumble upon these courses if they’re directed to them, but the options seem very attractive in light of rising fees in higher education and a decline in participation by mature students.

The article includes statistics that are surprising in this context and very disappointing if taken at face value.

  • Only 10% of people who start short courses with Coursera (https://www.coursera.org/) ever finish them. (Source: New York Times)
  • There was an average completion rate of just 6.8% for students on 29 MOOCs run by prestigious universities in various countries (Source: Katy Jordan, PhD student at the Open University)
  • A mere 2.2% of people who enrolled on a 5-week artificial intelligence planning course run by Edinburgh University in January received a statement of accomplishment for finishing and only 4% finished an e-learning and digital cultures course.

It would be interesting to delve further into reasons for the reported non-completion. What was the demographic make-up of students and what were their incentives for joining courses? What role did information, advice and guidance play in assessing how suitable courses were for each student? Were the learning processes meaningful and motivating? What pedagogical principles were applied? Do we commit as deeply to courses that are relatively anonymous and free of charge?

In comparison, the WEA’s Self-Assessment Report for the last academic year shows average success rates for all our adult education courses (accredited and non-accredited) as 93%.

Figures show that tailored support plays an important role.

  • 96% of WEA students receiving Additional Learning Support stayed to the end of their courses.
  • 95% of WEA students receiving Discretionary Learner Support stayed to the end of their courses.

As well as completing courses, WEA statistics for 2011-12 from our student survey show that:

  • 25% of students progressed onto another taught course
  • 66% of these progressed onto a course with the WEA while 33% progressed on to a course with another provider.
  • 33% of our students who went on to do further learning progressed onto a course with a qualification.

The WEA student body is from a very diverse range of groups and circumstances:

  • one third were aged over 65
  • 24% were from minority ethnic groups
  • 27% had a physical disability
  • 13% had a learning difficulty or disability
  • 40% were in receipt of income related benefit
  • 37% lived in a ward with a disadvantaged postcode
  • 41% did not have previous qualifications above Level 2.

Most WEA courses are part-time and involve face-to-face teaching, learning and assessment with active group participation but we’re keen to make access to learning more flexible by increasing the range and availability of our online resources. Clearly we will have to learn some lessons from MOOCs and their effectiveness if their outcomes and impact aren’t yet meeting the high expectations and promise.

The Open University has a very successful tradition of distance learning and blended learning so it will be interesting to see the development of Futurelearn MOOCs http://futurelearn.com/about/, which could offer progression for some WEA students.

Education, community and culture

It’s amazing where adult education can lead, especially if we follow students’ stories after the end of their courses. Who would have thought that a short, part-time course could make a lasting impression on a coastal community’s social, cultural and economic life?

Screen-next-the-Sea has become a fixture in the cultural scene of the Norfolk town of Wells. The local Eastern Daily Post reports (at http://bit.ly/WeBPwT) how it began as an idea in a WEA course five years ago. Organisers held its second annual film festival this weekend, theming a three-day event around The Best of British. They presented a selection of films from across the British Isles.

The event has grown from a monthly showing at the Granary Theatre near the town’s quay to a twice-monthly screening, occasional matinees, live performances beamed in by satellite from the Bolshoi and National Theatre, and the film festival itself, complete with guest speakers.

The community cinema is friendly and intimate, with a loop system and surround sound. Nigel Baker, one of the projectionists, says that, “People like the cosy environment and the fact you get to know people.”

He said that an eight-week WEA course on Italian film sparked the idea of bringing cinema to the town. Mr Baker said: “We would like to think it will eventually attract people to the town like the well-established events like the carnival.”

All the tickets for a September showing of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time were sold out last year within a couple of hours. Other National Theatre productions relayed live from London to Wells included The Last of the Haussmans in October and Timon of Athens in November.

The WEA has been no stranger to film festivals in the last year. A new work by Turner Prize Nominee Luke Fowler was shown during 56th British Film Institute London Film Festival. The film explored the role played by WEA tutor E P Thompson in working class communities of post-war Yorkshire. His journals written during this time are read out in the film against the backdrop of contemporary and archival footage of the Yorkshire area. The film was shown originally for a season at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield.

The WEA runs film courses and some community screenings in various locations across the country. We also have many more examples of self-organising groups growing from our courses, including writers’ circles, reading groups, community choirs and orchestras.

Why does cultural education matter?

“Arts Council chief accuses Gove of abandoning cultural education.”

This headline in the Guardian caught my eye earlier this week. You can read the full article about Dame Liz Forgan’s farewell to the Arts Council as Sir Peter Bazalgette prepares to take over as the new Chair at http://bit.ly/S7P3uB.

Interestingly, Melvyn Bragg is also exploring the ‘The Value of Culture’ in a current BBC Radio 4 series examining the idea of culture and its evolution over the last 150 years. Podcasts are available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/tvoc

Culture is one of the WEA’s four main educational themes and we have been mentioned in the Radio 4 programmes. Our other three educational themes are Employability, Health and Wellbeing and Community Engagement. We have distinctive approaches to each of these themes and work collaboratively to develop our curriculum. All the collectively developed text below explains why we think that cultural education is important in the WEA.

What do you think?

The WEA’s ‘Culture’ Theme

“WEA cultural education broadens horizons through understanding cultures, identities and environments embodying our commitment to social purpose”

Students on the WEA's 'Digability' community archaeology project

Students on the WEA’s ‘Digability’ community archaeology project

We believe that exploring culture helps people to understand the human experience, learning from the past, understanding the present and giving us resources to imagine and shape the future.

‘Culture’ is a very broad term and includes philosophy, music, literature, history, arts, religion, archaeology, science, economics, politics, media – and other subjects from cultures across the world. Studying these subjects enriches our lives and helps us to think creatively and critically as well as providing a basis for thinking about moral and ethical questions.

"Create a Radio Play" - a WEA course run in partnership with the homeless charity St Mungo’s

“Create a Radio Play” – a WEA course run in partnership with the homeless charity St Mungo’s

The notion of ‘art for art’s sake’ is of great value and learning about culture enriches lives regardless of any other benefits that result from such learning.

A journey through local history on the 'Pride of Tyne' ferry last year

A journey through local history on the ‘Pride of Tyne’ ferry last year

We know that learning about culture can cause life-changing personal development, teach us to engage with ideas critically and independently. Through such learning, students develop the skills, understanding and resilience to deal with change.

The insights we gain from history, drama, fiction, poetry, paintings and music can be transferred into other aspects of our lives. Learning about other cultures, achievements and experiences in different places and ages help us to understand the world.

Studying other people’s creativity challenges our students to develop their own creative thinking skills, which can prove useful for solving problems that they might encounter in the future. Creativity also promotes well-being.

Through ‘culture’, students can learn from each other and imagine the ways that other people live, or have lived, their lives. This encourages a greater ability for people to understand and learn from others’ experiences as well as about themselves.

Lee Hall based his 'Pitman Painters' hit play on a WEA art coursein the 1930s

Lee Hall based his ‘Pitman Painters’ hit play on a WEA art course in the 1930s

Our tutors are enthusiastic experts in their subject areas, who continue to learn and share high levels of academic expertise. Many are practising artists, writers, musicians and / or academic specialists in their subject areas. They nurture students’ creative instincts and curiosity.

It is important that understanding culture does not become exclusive or seen as ‘belonging’ to any dominant group or class so, as with other aspects of our activities, we work at neighbourhood levels creating accessible and affordable learning opportunities for people who might otherwise be marginalised.

We work in many partnerships for example with galleries, museums, theatres and archives. Our educational activities are part of the cultural fabric of England and Scotland and maximise wider cultural opportunities and access for WEA students and strengthen the voice of those who value cultural education.

Learning about Culture with the WEA can take many forms including study circles, events, seminars and visits as well as courses.