The Best Learning of My Life

In the last few weeks I have experienced some of the best learning of my life.  Ryan Baker’s presentation on educational data mining organised through the #LAK12 Open Online Course not only blew my mind in terms of content (for example: did you know that urban students show more off-task behaviours when online than rural students? me either!) but it also blew my mind because the experience I had of learning through the MOOC format was truly exhilarating.
Sat in my kitchen at 8pm on a Tuesday evening I watched Baker’s slides and could hear him talking – in real-time – about his work.  In the bottom corner of the screen we viewers could write our thoughts and questions.  At one point the microphone was wobbling but the  alert audience soon sorted that with textual cries of “We can’t hear you” giving Baker the opportunity to adjust.  Later in the event people could pose questions which Baker then answered giving an opportunity for those who dislike standing at a microphone to actually have their questions answered.
But even more amazing for me was that as the presentation was going on I could check information online, pull research articles as they were mentioned, broadcast ideas I had to twitter and get feedback from teacher colleagues here in the UK who were sat in their hous watching tv quite unaware of what I was listening in to.  There was just so. much. learning.  And it was awesome in the literal sense of the word – for the entire hour I was in awe of how much information I was able to take in and make sense of in so many different ways.
Being a traditionalist I still turned pen to paper once the experience was over.  Using all the information from the previous hour I designed some illustrations and wrote some texts to help recapture and synthesise what I had been taught.  But I was absolutely buzzing.  That the topic itself was about learning data and the use of online technologies was cool; that being involved in online learning was so genuinely inspirational is what has truly turned me on to the power of MOOCs.

The Difference Between Knowledge and Knowing

When an early 20s Matt Damon sat down with his two best friends to write the script for Good Will Hunting I doubt greatly that he thought he’d win an Oscar. I’m also pretty certain he had no idea that one day that film would change my life.  While I credit my own hard work for getting me into Oxford it was watching Good Will Hunting that made me apply.
In recent years I’ve gone back to the film and the same scene always stands out for me now in a way it didn’t when I first watched it.  Robin Williams plays Will (Damon’s) therapist and early on in the film takes him out to the park to give the following speech.  It gets to the heart of why I think factual knowledge, alone, isn’t enough for living a full life.  As someone who went on to study at such a high level obviously I think knowing stuff is useful but we must never, ever, convince ourselves that it is enough.
Sean Maguire’s Speech:  “If I asked you about art you could give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo? You know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspiration, him and the Pope, sexual orientation, the whole works right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel.  You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling, or seen that.

“If I ask you about women, you could probably give me a syllabus of your personal favourites. You may even have been laid a few times. But you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy…. You’re a tough kid, so if I ask about war you’ll probably quote Shakespeare at me: “Once more into the breach dear friends”… But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap as he gasped his last breath looking to you for help.
“Ask about love, you’ll probably quote me a sonnet, but you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable, known someone who could level you with her eyes feeling like God put an Angel on Earth just for you… who could rescue you from the depths of Hell. And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her Angel. To have that love for her be there forever, through anything. Through cancer. And you wouldn’t know about sleeping sitting up in a hospital room for 2 months holding her hand because the doctor can see in your eyes that the terms ‘visiting hours’ don’t apply to you. You don’t know about real loss because that only occurs when you love something more than you love yourself, and I doubt you dared to love anybody that much.
“I look at you, I don’t see an intelligent, confident man. I see a cocky scared shitless kid.”

Why (and when) Class Matters

Written as a response to a blog on Informed Education, itself a response to a Twitter debate about whether or not it is acceptable to refer to students as ‘working class’
Facts about class matter. One particular fact motivated my curiosity all the way through A-Levels, through my UCAS application to study politics and was the thing I got most fired up about in an Oxford admissions interview.
The fact was:  If you are born into a family with a father working as an unskilled manual labourer you are seven times more likely to die by the age of 2 than if you are born to a father in a ‘professional managerial’ position.
Think about that: Before you are capable of dressing or feeding yourself properly, you are seven times more likely to die because at the end of your birth-tunnel there was a different pair of hands waiting for you than at the end of someone else’s. Class – just like ethnicity or nationality – is a gynacological lottery that significantly impacts your chance of survival.*
Over the years some other facts have struck me as equally important:
Lesbian and gay young people are 3 times more likely to commit suicide than heterosexual peers (paper here)
Black people are over-represented in prison by 7 times their number in the British population (here)
Only 22% of elected MPs are women
All of these statistics point us towards inequalities in opportunity or the attitudes towards certain groups in our society. My view is that not only do we have a duty to talk about these statistics we must analyse the “Why?” and “What can be done?” It is too easy to get dragged down into the minutiae: What is meant by ‘lesbian and gay’?  Someone who is in a same-sex relationship or had any sexual contact with someone of the same sex?  Or, in the case of race: How do you account for mixed race?  Is it the same for African and Caribbean nations? One can make infinitely more delicate definitions – and research papers generally do otherwise they wouldn’t pass peer-review – but the truth remains: some things are more likely to happen to you than other things given your ethnicity, gender, social background, etc, and pretending this isn’t true won’t help anyone.
Knowing that such discrimination exists, however, does not make it inevitable for everyone.  For example, I have long advocated about transgender issues as I grew up with someone who transitioned from female to male. I have campaigned particularly about the high percentage of transexuals who experience employment discrimination. Acknowledging that employer prejudice exists does not mean I assume it happens to every transgender person nor that I think it’s acceptable – quite the opposite! – but talking about the issue is important because it might lead someone in charge of employment policies to think carefully about their recruitment. [In fact, when I worked at McDonald’s I wrote to Head Office about the difference in men and women’s uniforms for precisely this reason].
Speaking about inequality is imperative for getting change in society.  An abstract fear of ‘generalising’ across people in a discriminated group is not a good enough reason to sweep differences in their treatment or access to services under the carpet. But simply knowing that a group you belong to faces inequities should not – it must not! – lead to the limiting of a child’s belief about what they can do in the future. Just this week I ran a series of Tweets taking quotes from biographies my students did of people with disabilities who excelled in their field and who they compared themselves to in a piece of comparative biographical writing.  In my classroom we didn’t pretend that disability had no bearing on the person’s life, just as I don’t pretend that growing up in a family with little education had no impact on me – but the message is made clear that with dedication and effort one can certainly overcome those odds.
There is no inherent contradiction between talking honestly about the problems a group faces and wanting there to be a change in the future. In fact, I wonder if change is ever really possible without accepting and talking about such differences?
So, my final fact is this: The background and body you are born into impacts the likelihood of certain life outcomes and the discrimination you may face. When I am thinking as a policymaker I have a responsibility to question these inequalities and consider how policies might overcome them.  As a teacher, however, I truthfully recognise these challenge and difficulties, discussing honestly with students, but also demonstrating that the responsibility for making the best use of our background and bodies rests firmly on the student’s shoulders. At least as long as they’ve made it past the age of 2.
*At least it did in the late 90s.