The soundbite generation needs a different approach

22nd March 2013 at 00:00
Social media has changed the way students gather information. It's time for exam pages to be refreshed

Evolution is a slow process and change is generally fast. There's a tension between these in education, obvious if you look at the work of two prominent researchers.

Sugata Mitra has just won this year's TED prize and in his acceptance speech he said he'd like to build a "school in the cloud" where kids could connect and learn from each other. His vision of self-organised learning environments is gaining more and more traction. It's a far cry from John Hattie's paradigm in which interactions with teachers are most effective in raising attainment.

But we are all part of the "soundbite generation". Social media and online spaces have re-energised learning, as we graze on information delivered to us in short bursts. Education is more than ever a lifelong discovery of our own ignorance.

If you're like me, you just can't help following the links on Wikipedia pages, on a trail of constant knowledge acquisition. But how do we make sense of it all? Why do we remember these freshly acquired facts and excel in pub conversations?

I'm sure it's down to self-direction. We're interested enough to follow links on things we know little about. Such random learning illustrates that if we want learning to be deep and meaningful, we have to allow it to be self-directed, as Mitra advocates.

Of course, there need to be parameters, but it could work well in an age of falling pupil-to-device ratios and BYOT (bring your own technology).

One problem is exams. Despite a new curriculum focusing on skills, teachers still bemoan the lack of guidance on exam content; we can't escape from teaching to the test, and thereby making exams about memory.

So here's an idea: let's ban any exam question that children could answer with a Google search. There's no point memorising things just to pass an exam when hardly anything is more than a few clicks away. Let's set the parameters in each subject and launch students on a voyage of discovery through the syllabus. Help them to develop skills of search, analysis of material, ability to attribute sources correctly, critical thinking, presentation and discussion.

If we must have exams, let them test these skills rather than memory for facts - because that leads to shallow and reluctant learning, while the former encourages a curriculum design that will engage, motivate and excite - and, all being well, a lifelong love of learning.

Jaye Richards-Hill is a member of the Scottish Government's ICT in Education Reference Group and former principal teacher.

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