In 2010 the energetic and forward-looking (then) secretary of Victoria's Education Department invited me to discuss educational innovation and Web 2.0 with senior departmental managers.
We spoke about the worlds of activity for students opening up from the free resources burgeoning on the web - such as doing historical research while they correct text errors from Australia's historical newspapers on Australia's National Library newspaper digitisation website. Or mashing up details of their local environment on Google Maps. Or helping optimise the school timetable with open-source tool FET.
But that's just kids' stuff. The web and social media can take students to the forefront of science. They can classify distant objects on NASA's Galaxy Zoo. Or play Foldit, a dangerously addictive computer game that you win by finding the cleverest ways to fold toy proteins on the screen. Competitors on Foldit have already helped uncover the structure of an AIDS-causing monkey virus and more besides.
Despite this explosion of possibilities, as my children have gone through school I've been amazed at how, if you strip off the various genuflections to political correctness, so much of the curriculum is unchanged from the one I completed decades ago. Shouldn't we be using such things as spreadsheets not just as occasional tools for computation but like blackboards - as a ubiquitous pedagogical vehicle for students to visualise the maths they're learning. Wouldn't stats and data science be more useful than, say, trigonometry? Shouldn't students get some familiarity with computer languages at least as electives within maths or languages curriculums? After all, building unambiguous instructions to a computer to execute complex tasks is as demanding, as rewarding and enlightening as learning French or Chinese.
I remember the shared enthusiasm around the table. And I remember saying something like this: ''Some upskilling and recruiting of specific teaching skills is necessary. But access students' skills. Rather than discouraging the best and brightest students with group work in which the more opportunistic students prey upon their enthusiasm, find ways to make the space and give the credit necessary for students who know this stuff already to mentor others - not least by reverse-mentoring teachers.''
It seemed like a good idea, but how to make it happen? I suggested it should start small and grow. A few months later the departmental secretary invited me to attend Listen2Learners, which celebrated students' achievements in Web 2.0 projects. There I met Ben, a year 8 student who had built a simple iPhone app to help hone his older brother's mental arithmetic skills. After asking Ben how he found year 9 maths (Boring! We keep doing the same stuff), I asked how he would like to teach other students how to write iPhone apps (Awesome!). Then I told him to wait right there. I introduced Ben to the departmental secretary, who called his innovation officer over and emphasised: ''Let's start on this tomorrow!''
At the beginning of the next year I emailed Ben and asked him what had happened. I still have his reply: ''Nothing really went anywhere with my school, didn't really surprise me.''
Today the secretary and his innovation officer have moved on. So has Ben.
I didn't write this column to suggest that nothing's happening, or to belittle theirs or anyone else's efforts. But it does underline how heavy the tyranny of existing routines can be. My guess is that most people in the system liked the idea, but there were no specific programs or routines that could be ''pegs'' on which to hang Ben's mentoring other students. Which rooms would he use? Whose class would he miss?
Innovation is almost invariably fragile in existing institutions. Of course it takes leadership from the top, rather than slogans. But even then Ben's story shows us that innovation cannot thrive unless there are enough people within the system prepared to endure discomfort of varying existing routines, with the courage to experiment and risk failure and the perseverance to learn from mistakes even while the opposition of the day and the media will be waiting to pounce on any slip.
But don't fear for Ben. He left high school last year for home schooling. He will have a double degree from the Open University of Australia in IT and business by mid-next year. (He would have been midway through year 11.) Then he'll be taking on the world. So at the macro level our education system was pluralistic enough to work, even though other school students missed out on what Ben had to offer them.
Still, the web is barely two decades old. I'm optimistic that it won't be too long before our schools gorge themselves more fully on the embarrassment of riches that lies before them in the vast and ever growing expanses of cyberspace.
This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on August 22, 2012.
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