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1 November 2013updated 26 Sep 2015 10:46am

Why innovative teaching is unlikely to come from the UK

The World Innovation Summit for Education awards $500,000 to the most innovative teacher - but British attitudes toward education mean that it's unlikely to ever be awarded to a teacher from the UK.

By Jonn Elledge

Here’s a sentiment that you hear rather a lot in education futurology circles (yes, such circles exist). If you took a doctor from a hundred years ago and dumped him in a modern hospital, he’d be utterly lost: medical science has simply changed too much. Do the same with a Victorian teacher, though, and they’d probably get along fine. It’d take them a while to get used to the fact blackboards were now white and electronic, and lessons about Nazis might present a few challenges – but the basic model, of one teacher talking at a couple of dozen kids, is pretty much unchanged from the 19th century.

This is odd, because it’s not as if it works particularly well: just think of all the amazing stuff from science or history that school managed to make about as exciting as Tipp-ex.

So, there are those who think it’s time to shake things up a bit. In between launching global media brands and hosting inappropriate sporting tournaments, the tiny Gulf state of Qatar likes to play host to the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), where teachers, NGOs and former leaders of the Labour party can debate new approaches to schooling. Since 2011 each conference has also honoured one particularly innovative educator by awarding them the WISE Prize, which is worth $500,000 and a big gold medal, and which PR people tend to refer to in suspiciously close proximity to the word “Nobel”.

This year’s prize went to sociologist Vicky Colbert, for the Escuela Nueva (New School) model. Invented in 1975 to improve rural schools in Colbert’s native Colombia, Escuele Nueva sees children, effectively, teaching each other. Working together in small groups, the kids work through a series of pre-designed modules at their own pace; their teachers, WISE says, “modify their role from transmitters of facts to facilitators and advisors”. The goal is to teach kids stuff like critical thinking, teamwork and entrepreneurialism. All this is the sort of thing that would bring Michael Gove out in hives, but it’s now been adopted in 16 countries.

There’s another idea that gets a lot of play at events like WISE: the flipped classroom. In a traditional school, a teacher tells kids stuff, then they regurgitate it in homework. The flipped classroom turns this on its head, setting reading or watching a video as homework, then using class time for discussion and practical work. This, its fans say, allows a class to cover more ground. The fact the kids are active in class should mean they learn more, too.

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This is all very exciting, and the sort of thing technologists give impassioned speeches about at conferences. (Although there is a limit. This year’s WISE included a debate titled ‘Can we have education without teachers?’; the panel’s swift and unanimous verdict was ‘no’.) But I don’t think we’ll be seeing it on any scale back in Blighty any time soon – and not just because of Michael Gove.

It’s possible to shake things up in developing countries because things are not working particularly well at the moment. A lot of kids aren’t in school (an estimated 57 million globally), and a lot more than that are in schools that aren’t very good. There’s no Ofsted looking over their shoulders, scaring them off of taking risks, either: educators have both the motive and the opportunity to try something radical. If it works, it can spread (Escuala Nueva is now Colombian government policy). If it doesn’t, hey, it was worth a shot.

Our schools system will be a lot harder to change, paradoxically because it’s actually reasonably good. Enough people got a decent education for the debate to be beset by an epidemic of ‘well it worked for me’-ism, a psychological condition in which people assume that any move schools make away from their own experience of education can only be dumbing down. Gove is the most visible proponent of this, but he’s far from the only one. Can you imagine how the Daily Mail would feel about a school that described its teachers as ‘facilitators’? Or one who set homework via YouTube? Imagine the reaction if that school failed.

Schools have moved on since Mr Chips hung up his mortar board, of course, not least because of those whiteboards and all the other whizzy technology on offer; there are patches of more radical experimentation out there, too. But I don’t think a nationwide rethink of how the classroom works will be on the cards any time soon. Teachers will stay teachers, the classroom will remain un-flipped, and that time travelling will feel right at home. Maybe this is educational ‘rigour’. But, just maybe, we’re missing out.

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