Computer games technology could be the key to equipping schools for the 21st century, according to a man described by Michael Gove as one of the two most important people in world education. Sir Michael Barber argues that to meet the challenges of the next 50 years, pupils will not just have to be taught knowledge but also how to think, lead and influence people.
The former Downing Street adviser to Tony Blair said that new technology would be required to assess these "21st- century skills". "What I point to are the best computer games," he told TES. "They create scenarios and they test you out on those - it might be running a Premier League soccer club.
"They give you options and they give you pretty instant feedback and benchmarks. I am not recommending computer games should become assessment. I am saying that the technology that has enabled computer gaming could be applied into thinking about how we assess and I think that will happen."
Sir Michael has moved from masterminding New Labour's drive to improve numeracy and literacy to being a major influence on Mr Gove. The education secretary revealed last year that he had plundered ideas from Sir Michael's two reports for global consultancy firm McKinsey, analysing what lay behind the success of the world's "most improved" and "best" schools systems.
Mr Gove is also reported to have tried to recruit Sir Michael to lead the Department for Education as permanent secretary. Instead he became chief education adviser for Pearson, the company advising the increasingly influential Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) survey on the "benefits, opportunities and implications" of computer testing.
"I have seen prototypes in Pearson of tests that enable you to test collaborative problem-solving where the individual student is in a virtual scenario with an avatar that can't answer the question unless it finds a way of going into the right dialogue," Sir Michael said. "The one I've seen is a scientific problem, but you can't solve it by reading a science book because you have got to know about that specific greenhouse, and what the temperature and what the weather was like the day before.
"In that situation, you have created a problem that involves knowing some science but also involves knowing how to get a dialogue with another person represented by an avatar."
The testing of skills such as communication is seen as essential in Sir Michael's third report on global education, Oceans of Innovation. Published in August, it argues that to enable "humanity to succeed in the next half century", education systems will need to adopt a new approach to the curriculum.
Sir Michael sums it up in a "simple mathematical equation": "well-educated = E(K+T+L)".
E stands for ethics, K for knowledge ("know-how as well as know what"), T for thinking and L for leadership (encompassing skills such as communication and collaboration). "The equation is getting a really good response out there," he said. "It is attractive and interesting to people."
A major challenge will be for schools to work out how to assess not just K but also T and L, Sir Michael said, which is where computer games technology could come in.
"If you are an airline pilot, you learn a lot about flying a plane in a simulator before you go in a plane. If you were to crash the plane, the simulator would tell you and that is assessment in a way," he said. "All of those things have been traditionally expensive, but technology gets cheaper and doubles in power and halves in costs every 18 months, so this is becoming possible."
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CV: MICHAEL BARBER
1955: Born in Liverpool.
1974-77: Read history at The Queen's College, Oxford.
1979-85: Taught history at Watford Grammar School and then at a high school in Chitungwiza, Zimbabwe.
1989-93: Head of education at the NUT.
1993-95: Professor of education at Keele University.
1995-97: Professor of education at the Institute of Education, University of London, where he wrote the blueprint for New Labour's education policy.
1997-2001: Chief adviser to education secretary David Blunkett. Oversaw numeracy and literacy strategies.
2001-05: Head of the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit.
2005: Joined McKinsey.
2011: Joined Pearson.