Ewan McIntosh

18th May 2012 at 01:00
The former teacher turned digital learning guru discusses the importance of schools' willingness to move with the technological times, the changing perception of Scotland abroad and his role in last year's SNP landslide. Interview by Henry Hepburn.

How would you sum up what you do at NoTosh?

We work with creative companies, take the ingenious ways they work and come up with creative ideas for classrooms around the world.

You've described two AHDS conferences as the sum total of your work in Scotland recently. Why is that?

Everything we do is word of mouth. We have a global outlook. It happens that most of my contacts who get this are abroad. In Scotland, there are 32 districts to sell into, whereas in most countries you can go in at a higher level. There are scores of Scottish schools that would like to undertake our type of work.

You've said people should be free to explore their `epic' issues. What did you mean?

Outside school, children get engaged in video games where they save the universe, or are responsible for the health of a dog. It's about using your learning to improve the world around you.

What do you think of Curriculum for Excellence?

It's getting there. It started as an eight-word curriculum, which made us the envy of the world. We've had this cry of, "How do we teach this?" The wrong answer would be to give lesson plans and backfill it.

A teacher wants to explore digital learning but lacks confidence. What's the first move?

Get an iPad or any slate computer. It has one button. You have a wealth of content. Content drives ideas, and ideas are often what teachers lack in technology. Second, find a dozen people online who've been there, done it and can share their experiences.

Is there still a place for teachers who take centre stage to transmit their passion for a subject?

Yes. I've done this experiment where I ask people for their happiest experience as a learner; I've asked over 5,000 teachers in the last 18 months. "Passionate teachers" is always in the top five things they loved about school. A passionate teacher giving the lecture of their life, about something fascinating, cannot be beaten.

Is there a risk of technology distancing pupils from the everyday tactile stuff?

There is. We should look at technology and say, "Does it add a value that couldn't be reaped any other way?" The most exciting technology we're working with is 3D printers. For pound;600 they'll take your design and transform it into a physical thing. You've seen Dragons' Den: "I need pound;125,000 to produce 1,000 units." Well, now you need 10 times less.

What is the impression of Scottish education abroad?

They admire the ethos of the new curriculum. But the reputation of "Scotland invented education and we've got a long history" - nobody cares any longer. It's not about how good you were; it's about your plans for the future. Until about 2009, 2010, Scotland was in the top half-dozen countries in terms of perception of innovation. It had the first school in Europe to podcast, some of the first commercial off-the-shelf gaming being used in the classroom. But we've taken our eyes off the ball.

What do you think of Glow?

Its biggest challenge is that innovation is about collaborating with diverse groups. If professional development is about getting people on Glow, having thousands of weblogs, but private, so we can't actually see them, with audiences of 20 or 30 - if that's where we're putting our eggs, it's the wrong basket. The default setting on anything a teacher shares should be global.

Do you have any sympathy with local authorities that keep a tight leash on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube?

No. It's Machiavellian. Any authority that bans Facebook and Twitter for teachers doesn't understand professional learning.

Are Scottish schools and local authorities too rigid and hierarchical to make the most of new technology?

Local authority leaders are trying incredibly hard. Look at Don Ledingham in particular - the best boss I ever had. His phrase was "leading from behind" - creating space to innovate.

You've said that in education `we strive for mediocrity in the face of proven excellence'. Could you explain?

We know what works in classrooms - research is coming out of our ears. Yet senior leaders don't necessarily go out and seek it, and researchers don't do a great job of translating it into language that's useful for time- pressed teachers.

Your online campaigning was credited with a pivotal role in the SNP landslide last year, yet you described yourself as apolitical. Why did you get involved?

This was, for me, another creative gig. Here's a party 15 points behind in a competition - can we get them 15 points ahead? I was apolitical, but the more I got to understand SNP policies, I thought they were head and shoulders above everyone else.

Would you still describe yourself as apolitical?

No, I'm a card-carrying member.

What's the most inspiring thing you've seen in a classroom?

We were asked to help kids, aged seven and eight, in an impoverished area of Sunderland. In nine weeks they pulled together the world's youngest ever TEDx event - TEDx is the global conference circuit, self- organised events. They had an audience of 250 people - strangers - in rapturous laughter and tears: bit.lylE4qpH

Personal profile

Born: Dunoon, 1978

Education: Dunoon Grammar; University of Edinburgh, European languages and European Union studies; PGCE, University of Strathclyde.

Career: Languages teacher, Musselburgh Grammar; development officer for modern foreign languages environment (precursor to Glow Communities), Learning and Teaching Scotland; national adviser on learning technologies; digital commissioner, Channel 4; founded NoTosh in 2010.

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