Exploring being human, be that real, digital, virtual or hybrid

The following blog arose from my attendance at the ISC Digital Strategy conference, on whose organising committee I sit and make a contribution. The 2019 Digital Strategy magazine can be found here, and my article on our school’s contribution can be found on pp27-30.

At the close of the 2019, Ian Yorston, Head of Digital Strategy at Radley College set a closing challenge in asking us to look at the purpose of education for humans, and how we should respond to the challenges posed by working in a ‘digital’ world, and then the ‘virtual’ world beyond. From the panel members, perhaps the firmest agreed response for educational direction to our children in our schools was that by Mark Anderson (@ICTevangelist) – “Above all, be kind”.

At my school we run a PSHE course through secondary, the focus being ‘Exploring being Human’, with 5 modules (Learning, Kindness, Relationships, Mindfulness and Resilience).  I suspect we wish the success criteria for all of these to be the same; that our students (and staff) get to learn to know what they think and do about each – in short, improving their meta-cognition and understanding meta-purpose.

Ian Yorston’s 3 Humans have already become 4 (the Hybrid), with the arrival of combination people/machines, though the spectacles, hearing aid and pacemaker have been joined by both robot and biological augmentations. Assisting our children through these ideas has always been one of the great purposes of literature, whether that be Aesop’s fables, Gulliver’s travels, Pinochio, ‘I Robot’ etc. You’ll recall that even at the dawn of writing as the first information technology, Socarates railed against it, ‘Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.”1

Through the focus of our Digital Strategy ideas and the locus of our 2019 conference, I think we have explored some of the key features and tensions in education, as well as showcased some of the possibilities for the future. This is the great ‘win’ in running a conference where thought leaders come together and think collectively in short rapid bursts. I did not attend the conference to be entertained but to learn, to become more aware and it has dawned on me ‘to be metacognitive about my next metapurpose’. To understand how AI is assisting humans just now, this article courtesy LinkedIn is worth a read:

Forbes continues their story on the Power of Purpose and Saqib Shaikh shares stories of people impacted by Seeing AI. (Part 2) https://lnkd.in/g9Jknbj

I know for certain why I won’t permit Year 11 and below pupils’ own small screens in use in my school; because the tendancy is for such screens to be always on and provide unfiltered and unfettered access to stimulants that engage and divert children’s attention. Adolescent addiction to screens is a major concern, because of the way they stimulate through dopamine release, though we know their digital tools can be of immense value. That’s why we provide wall-to-wall chromebooks at schools, so that access to the tools and data in the cloud is reliably available, within our ‘walled garden’ of @clairescourt.net of course 

Soldiers in conflict are now routinely provided with stimulants to ensure they are alert, more responsive and perceptive, and learn better in the same way we also medicate children with ADHD to gain similar improvements. We would not agree that all of our children should be medicated in this way because we know that running engaging and exciting lessons causes the same positive dopamine response, aiding learning without the need for chemical stimulant. Nor do we wish our students to suffer the raft of problems the soldiers post conflict now have to cope with, as indicated by the huge spike in PTSD in our veterans.  Correlation is not causation of course, but whatever we do we must aim to align positive educational outcomes with positive ways of working and, where possible, spot and block recommended solutions that encourage inappropriate endorphin release during the active learning cycle.2

At boarding school, I was caned relentlessly, and can’t and don’t speak of my alma mater with any affection at all. It was the arrival at university, where I encountered for the first time in 5 years a learning environment that was not built on fear and loathing, where I rediscovered my love for learning first gained at the prep school, where I now lead. Sir Anthony Seldon is surely right now in shining a light on the apparent peer-group requirement that University students should engage in social drug taking on entry to their first year.3  Seldon argues powerfully that these late adolescents are only emerging adults and need stronger pastoral care than currently on offer.  I feel we should keep our light shone fully on emerging technologies, specifically where they are suggested as lubricants for learning, not just because they could be ‘snake oil’ but because they will remove our students from the childhood they deserve to enjoy for a little longer. 

I am told that some secondary state sector colleagues are in a new frenzy around the curriculum because their regulator Ofsted are requiring them to gather the arts and technologies anew.  They no longer have the benefits of a ‘benign state’ providing them with one already prescribed. Many independent schools have this frenzy too, but they won’t shout the odds of course because “why, how and what we teach” has always been our responsibility. As cloud technology is now used though across the piece in our best schools, I suspect we have the courage to determine that children in our schools can enjoy their childhood with the support of this set of tools, not in spite of them, gathering all the benefits that biology, technology and hybridisation can bring. In the same way a ‘reveille’ can be a gentle shake or a trumpet blast, I feel the ISC Digital Strategy leaders can be ‘Heralds’ for 2020 too, optimistic for the future for all children in our schools’.

James Wilding, Claires Court, 29 November 2019




About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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