Aisling Brown: Researching is More and More Important as We Have More and More Knowledge Available to Us
Aisling Brown is an educational technologist at Stephen Perse Foundation. The foundation’s six schools are known for their diverse, inclusive communities that prepare students to become independent thinkers and doers.
Are schools teaching the skills students need?
I think it’s very difficult to make a group judgement on that, because there’s so many different practices going on. It’s really interesting where you draw the line about where we’re teaching students, because informal learning is now becoming more and more important, which is a very interesting field. Flipped learning is something that a lot of our teachers are using very effectively to start the learning process before they ever arrive through the school gate.
It’s also an interesting question about whether you teach one specific skill. We do a lot of things where we don’t dictate how students learn things. So if we’re looking at the fall of the tzars for example, one student might go and explain everything by annotating sources, another might do a Facebook exchange between Tzar Nicholas and his wife just before decapitation, and someone might do a comic book because they like anime.
So we’re not really dictating, and I think it’s important for schools to nurture that diversity and use that. There are core skills we need to learn, but the diversity around that and not insisting on one specific way of manifesting those skills is really important.
What are the skills we need to be teaching our children?
The three skills that I would think are most important are ones that have always been important, but I think perhaps technology has made them more and more relevant. Those three I would say are researching, critical thinking and creativity.
Researching is obviously more and more important as we have more and more knowledge available to us. You can google something instantly, which brings critical thinking into play. Whether you are evaluating the source and examining not just the bias that might be there in that resource, but actually thinking internally: ‘What are my prejudices that I’m bringing towards that.’ That’s a really important skill for us.
I think creativity is vitally embedded in both of those two skills, because you can’t be creative in isolation and you can’t be innovative in isolation. You’re building on what came before and the research and the critical thinking are what came before. That’s the case for students, teachers and innovators everywhere.
I think that’s the great thing about technology, that we’re in this age. It’s almost like a democratic digital age where you have teenagers inventing things to identify pancreatic cancer, anyone can access the information and tools that they need to invent a whole new range of things.
What is the role of the teacher?
I think the most important role is that of a learner. We can’t possibly teach if we don’t show that we value learning and the very best teachers are always learning and reflecting their learning and constantly thinking: ‘How can I be better? How can I improve my subject knowledge, my teaching knowledge and how can I make sure that I’m increasingly relevant to everything that the students do, to their lives and culture?’
As part of that the teachers need to be a part of the global community and that’s where things like Twitter come into play. It’s not just a case of learning from the teacher who is in the next classroom along from you. It’s a case of learning from the teacher who’s in the next continent along from you or from a teacher who’s in a whole different field or in higher education, or people who aren’t in education at all but applying different principles from all over. I think that learning is absolutely key.
If we don’t show students that as teachers, and as an overall community, we value learning and treasure and enjoy it, then our students aren’t going to learn to enjoy it and that is the most important thing.
Do you think standardized testing is an effective way to assess learning?
I think it depends. If you look at something like PISA, I don’t think PISA is actually a bad system for testing what it tests, but people draw too much out of it or interpret far more than they should do from it. It also tends to imply that that test is the ‘be all and end all.’
If we’re looking at trying to be the top in the test, we’re not necessarily looking at being the best in learning and to support the students the best we can. It also means that some students are being pushed in a direction that they might be capable of, but they’re not enthusiastic about and it’s not right for them, which I think is a very difficult line to draw.
We’ve got to assess in a certain way, but I think we should be moving towards a more qualitative style of assessment. For example in a lot of further education Arts degrees, assessment is subjective and identifies areas for improvement, but it’s not trying to make everything about the testing; the ‘be all and end all.’ It’s about the process of learning and not that arbitrary end point.
Should government have a role in educational changes?
I think it’s a difficult question to answer, because it’s very different from government to government. Perhaps it should be listening and monitoring and making sure you’re taking all the views into account and that it is constantly revisited. I don’t mean constantly revisited in terms of changing curricula constantly, because that just adds to the burden of teachers, but listening to what the innovations are and about the ways and systems of teaching that can be made easier, which can really support and individualize teaching for students. So I think listening rather than dictating is what the role of the government should be.
5. Personal memory
What was your favourite moment in your own education?
I had loads. I had some brilliant teachers which is why I got into education, but the one that sticks out wasn’t actually one of my own teachers. My physics teacher was away so we sat in the back of an English lesson. This teacher was called ‘Bulldog’ because he was so passionate. He was striding up and down this tiny, traditional, stuffy, little room and they were talking about Wuthering Heights and he was talking about Heathcliff. One of the girls said: ‘Oh, he’s so romantic!’ and he leant down into her face and said: ‘No he’s not! He’s a mentally ill stalker! He’s like that moronic Edward from Twilight.’ For me that’s exactly what teaching needs to be. It’s passionate, it’s involved, it’s relevant to the culture. Referencing Twilight and things like that.
It’s also about thinking outside the box. There wasn’t any technology there, but he was thinking outside the box and extending and making it relevant and that’s really why it stayed with me.
6. The next 100 years
The next 100 years of Finnish education should… continue to reflect, because I think that’s the most important thing about learning, that we’re thinking and reflecting. Even this project shows that we’re thinking and reflecting about what’s happening and where we’re going forward. I think that’s the most important thing to make sure that we improve for our learners.