'Why schools should embrace the Google philosophy and push kids to pursue their own projects'

A former schools minister was disappointed to find that TES' April Fool article last week was satire. A "free learning hour" is a great idea, he writes.

Jim Knight

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Last Friday at midnight, TES published a story saying a "free learning hour" was to be introduced in all schools. The journalist was Polly Fradosia, a nice anagram of April Fools' Day; sadly this was just a seasonal prank.

This saddened me because it is so close to what I would like to see in schools. Meanwhile the outcry over Tom Bennett’s comments on watching “a full movie” in school rumbles on in the media, reflecting a divisive debate over how much teaching can and should change with the times.

I confess, I am a big fan of 20-time in education (the idea, based on a Google employee initiative, that students should spend 20 per cent of their time working on an off-curricular pet project). Similar are the "genius hour", "moonshot Mondays", and "investigation Fridays" – all describe the gains of finding time for cross-curricular, and often problem-based, learning. 

I believe such ideas represent a modest change in schooling and argue that they would help develop the skills and character we need for children to thrive in adulthood. We need more balance between knowledge and skills acquisition, and with good implementation of technology this is more possible than ever.

I spent the last couple of days of term at Shireland Collegiate Academy in Smethwick for FlipCon 2016, a conference/masterclass on flipped learning. This outstanding school has a highly sophisticated use of technology for teaching and learning, and data for management insight. It also has its Literacy for Life curriculum.

The school describes its work as: “A unique curriculum created for our key stage 3 students. It is taught through integrated themes and makes up the majority of the students’ curriculum. Our philosophy incorporates competency-based, personalised and flipped learning. In order to facilitate accelerated learning, our curriculum uses technology to extend learning beyond the classroom.”

When I visited, pupils were then working together to explore ideas such as the Easter story or whether robots could have souls, topics they had first researched at home using the internet. There was no question of them using the technology for anything distracting: they were too engaged with their learning.

Maybe their homework would have been to watch an appropriate full-length movie – Her or Ex Machina would have worked well.

One of the excitements of seeing well-implemented flipped learning was the extra time it gave for the learning. I understand why Tom Bennett might not justify the time for a whole film in school time. But good use of home time allows the power of the film “empathy machines” that Michael Sheen references.

When Andreas Schleicher, head of education for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, spoke to the International Symposium on the Teaching Profession he said “the kind of things that are easiest to teach are easy to automate, digitise or outsource.”

Developing empathy, character and those more human skills will be of increasing importance as robots take jobs of brain as well as brawn. A system designed around the qualifications that universities use for admissions may not be fit for purpose as artificial intelligence takes away a swathe of graduate careers.

We must embrace using school hours differently – from flipped learning to 20-time. The inconvenient truth is that the world is changing and as we are now seeing the emergence of problem-based work, do we not have an obligation in education to keep up?

Lord Knight is chief education adviser to TES’ parent company, TES Global, and a former Labour minister of state for schools. He tweets as @jimpknight

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Jim Knight

Lord Knight is chief education adviser to TES's parent company TES Global, and a former minister of state for schools 

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