Friday, October 15, 2010

Education, Skill Sharing, Self Learning and Tuition Fees in England

A few thoughts have been going round my head recently centred around the theme of education. Not too surprising, I suppose, since I earn my living by helping children aged three to seventeen to develop their potential through self learning, since my wife has been a teacher all her working life, since my father is a university professor and my brother is a university lecturer. Learning, in a number of different aspects, features large in my own life and background.

This week, education came back into the political spotlight in the UK in a big way with the publication of the Browne Review on the future of higher education funding in England. The report, which looks likely to shape the policies of the current coalition government, proposes a "shake up" (why does public policy always need to be shaken? Why can't it be planned, and thought through strategically?) in the way that higher education is to be funded in the coming years.

The Review's headline recommendation is to allow universities to charge more for their courses - up to £7,000 per year for an undergraduate programme.

One consequence of this, if the proposal is adopted as government policy , is that poorer children will be de-motivated from attending university (in my opinion) despite low-interest loans for students from low-income families.

It is difficult for government ministers to appreciate, since many of them are millionaires, how terrifying the idea of debt is in any form to an 18-year old from a family who have no savings, who live from hand to mouth and who make a living in the informal sector. The tuition fee amount is not the issue. The requirement to become indebted is the issue.

Coinciding with the publication of Browne, I read a fascinating report by Latitude Research and Shareable magazine titled The New Sharing Economy. The report's thesis is that online sharing, of digital media and goods, is proving a catalyst for offline sharing of tangible commodities such as cars, workspace and household utilities. The transition, in its infancy, is described as being "from an ownership to an access economy" in which "use" will prove more important than "possession."

Applying this idea to my own sphere of education - and inspired by several examples I have come across from the US - I have been thinking for some time about running a "skill-share" day here in Bristol, primarily among families I work with through my business and others I know in the wider community.

A skill share is an event at which people with knowledge or abilities pass on what they know to others who would like to learn them, in a mutual, non-fee paying environment. Everyone teaches; everyone learns.

Thinking about the families I currently work with, whose main earners include doctors, warehouse operatives, professors, taxi drivers, cleaners and small business owners, I have been amazed when I consider how many skills they possess. They speak over twenty languages between them, they can cook, change plugs, programme computers, break dance, do business accounts, fix cars, fund raise, run marketing campaigns, analyze ancient texts, play musical instruments, create software, make furniture, grow food, negotiate, manage, repair cycles, administer first aid, and create works of art. And that's just for starters.

A skill share would bring together - for a day, on a drop-in basis - people who want to share "how to" with people who want to learn "how." I imagine a rolling programme throughout a Saturday, with maybe four or five sessions running at the same time, for forty minutes at a time. People attend what they would like to and come and go as they wish. The day could benefit from some tasty food and drink served throughout, to add to the social ambiance of the event.

As this was going round my head, I stumbled upon this fantastic video by Sir Ken Robinson, placing today's education practices in their historic and economic context and suggesting the direction of new paradigms needed in education if the many are not to be excluded from the learning process in the future. I hope I'm not exaggerating when I say that this short video is the best introductory piece of education philosophy I have ever come across. Brilliant.

Paradigms are notoriously difficult to change, and if they do change, the process usually begins with small groups of visionary individuals on the fringe, rather than with major changes at the centre. Visionaries such as Dr Sugata Mitra, who wanted to test a hypothesis:

The acquisition of basic computing skills by any set of children can be achieved through incidental learning provided the learners are given access to a suitable computing facility, with entertaining and motivating content and some minimal (human) guidance.

By placing an Internet-ready computer in the outer wall of his office in Delhi, which enabled children from the nearby slum to access it without supervision or restriction, Dr Mitra's discovery was that the children taught themselves how to read and develop computing and maths skills unaided by a teacher.

Self-learning is at the heart of the Kumon method of learning, in which I am an Instructor. I don't formally teach any of the 100 children I see every week. They teach themselves, with appropriate material and appropriate guidance, lightly given.

I guess the various strands of this rambling post come together in the following convictions: that traditional industrial-style education is creaking at the seams, that the on-going pressure on public finances is going to make this model even more difficult to sustain, and increasingly difficult for many to access at higher education levels. Beyond this, grass-roots community-based skill sharing, and carefully conceived self-learning programmes, may provide some of the ways through for discovering the new paradigms needed in our age. It goes without saying that the Internet provides a platform for these two strands - self-learning and free learning - to come together massively, and that we have only begun to scratch the surface of how these could combine in the future.

What do you think?

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