Edtech storytelling

Those who want to see education systems 'transformed' through technology are big on stories.

There is a library of compelling tales designed to persuade policy-makers and the public that what they want to do to schools is the right and only way to go.

These stories are distracting. Hypnotic even. And when we focus on them, it means we aren't looking around at what else tech might be doing in and to education.


Most edtech reform stories start with the same establishing scene, which goes like this: Schools today are broken, unfit for the 21st century and failing to equip children with the skills they need to thrive.

Two images capture the scene. Both have been widely shared by reformers – online, in presentations and in the press – to underline what is wrong with education and why it must change.

The first is a picture of a classroom today compared to a classroom 100 years ago. It apparently shows how little schools have altered in a century, despite rapid technological change in the rest of society, and how urgently education systems need to catch up.

‘Classrooms have not really changed in the last 100 years,’  Bill Gates , January 2016  (picture credits:  theirhistory ;    James F Clay )

‘Classrooms have not really changed in the last 100 years,’ Bill Gates, January 2016
(picture credits: theirhistory; James F Clay)

Here is Bill Gates’ telling of it. ‘Classrooms have not really changed in the last 100 years,’ he wrote last year. ‘Sure, new classroom technologies are available, but most students still sit in straight rows with a teacher at the front of the class.’

Michael Gove formerly in charge of England's schools, put it like this: 'A Victorian schoolteacher could enter a 21st century classroom and feel completely at home. A teacher still stands in front of the class, talking, testing and questioning.'

This is the old industrial model of schooling, according to reformers like Gove and Gates: children sitting in rows, listening compliantly as a teacher lectures from the front.

It’s an environment designed for a different age, they argue, when schools created uniform workers destined to do repetitive jobs on an assembly-line.

Standardised, impersonal and dull. And just look how miserable the children are.

Except, it’s not true. It's a caricature, as anyone who has recently visited a school knows. It’s also not historically accurate, as the edtech historian and US blogger Audrey Watters points out: ‘The “factory model of education” is invoked as shorthand for the flaws in today’s schools', but there is ‘nothing especially historical about these diagnoses.'

The other stock image that is used to tell the story of the damaging effects of this one-size-fits-all, factory school system (that we're told we have) is a quote ‘by Albert Einstein’. Again it has been widely circulated.

It’s very shareable, it’s kind of funny and seems to get to the heart of the problem. The unfortunate fish is doomed by a rigid system that favours standardisation over the needs, interests and ambitions of the individual. The factory model of education, in short.

As Apple’s education chief, John Couch told an edtech audience in 2015, having just quoted Einstein (above and here at 12m30): ‘When you think about it, we ask every student to do the same thing, but each student is uniquely different.' If only learning was ‘personalised’ with technology (more on this below), teachers could ‘meet the individual needs of each student,’ he added.

Except there is no evidence of Einstein ever saying it, or anything like it. It seems it was only recently attributed to him, presumably to add weight. The allegory looks like it has been around for more than a century to promote various education reform ideas by depicting the current system as ridiculously flawed.

The story told by these popular, but simplistic images is that the current school system is antiquated, resistant to change and unsuited to today’s world. It is damaging to children, impervious to and incapable of meeting their individual needs. Broken in other words.

This is the opening sequence for the reformers’ story. It sets the stage well for the next act: the various visions they have put forward of what a reformed system might look like to replace the broken one. More on these visions in a bit.

What's important to notice first is that these reformers are following a storytelling template, a model laid out in 'how-to' guides aimed at reform-minded leaders around the world.

Here's a section from one: a reform ‘playbook’ produced last year by education’s ‘global thought leaders’ at the World Economic Forum (WEF), led by Michael Barber, the man described in 2015 by Fortune as perhaps ‘the single most influential educator on the face of the earth'. It outlines a series of ‘plays’ to spur education reform.

From '  Unleashing Greatness: Nine Plays to Spark Innovation in Education ',  World Economic Forum White Paper, July 2016

From 'Unleashing Greatness: Nine Plays to Spark Innovation in Education', World Economic Forum White Paper, July 2016

According to this, number one on any reformer's to-do-list is to create a ‘persuasive vision’ for a reformed education system.

To begin, leaders need to: demonstrate that the current status quo cannot endure.

Once everyone understands the need for change, they should then: provide an alternate, compelling vision of the future.

And use it to: stimulate public demand for reform.

WEF’s education experts that gave this nugget of wisdom their backing, besides Barber, include edtech torch-bearers Jose Ferreira of Knewton; Joel Klein at Rupert Murdoch’s edtech venture, Amplify (since abandoned by Murdoch); and Dino Varkey of the world’s largest private school operator, GEMS, as well as consultants from McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group.

Microsoft’s Anthony Salcito echoed this need for leaders to have a vision to an audience of education ministers at the 2017 Education World Forum in London. It is, he explained, the 'most critical’ component in Microsoft’s blueprint for reforming schools with technology.

The Cisco and Gates Foundation-backed reformers at the Global Education Leaders’ Partnership (GELP), which works with governments around the world on reform efforts, provides similar advice. In their book Redesigning Education, they identify ‘a powerful and compelling case for change’ as the ‘critical first step’ on the road to reform.

According to GELP, the 'best and most compelling cases for change' include the following features:

'They critique the current system as being appropriate to the past, but inadequate for the future'; 'They combine a rational and emotional appeal', using 'personal stories as well as surveys and statistics'; and 'They use a variety of formats, with short and arresting videos perhaps the most common for general usage'.

Michael Barber adds in his 2015 book, How to Run a Government, that these stories need to have ‘moral purpose’. 'Someone – ideally the leader – has to tell a good story,’ he writes.

What we can take away from these handbooks on 'how to do system change' is that storytelling is a priority and that the stories are designed to be persuasive. Their purpose is to enlist support for reform, not describe reality.

In that light, let’s test another of these reform narratives against what we now know of reformers’ strategies.

This is a story of why school reform is urgent. It is about our children’s future and the uncertainties they will face in the world of work. Listen to Google's James Leonard tell it to an audience of edtech firms, government officials and teachers in London in 2016:

The story boils down to this:

1. Jobs in the near future will be 'completely different' to those we see today. According to one popular statistic, cited in the 2016 World Economic Forum report The Future of Jobs (mentioned by Leonard): '65% of children in preschool today will work in jobs or careers that don’t yet exist'. Disruptive technologies and other factors will have a 'profound impact on the employment landscape over the coming years', it says. As Leonard says, putting a personal spin on it, even his job at Google 'didn’t exist four years ago'.

2. Our children are going to need a different set of skills to be successful. Sometimes referred to as 21st century skills, these include: problem-solving, communication and teamworking, critical thinking, computational thinking and creativity. According to Google and many other reformers, this is what kids will need to learn to survive and thrive. That and how to code.

3. This requires that our schools change to focus on developing these skills. The World Economic Forum report, for example, calls for a complete 'rethinking of education systems'. In particular, it says, businesses need to get more involved in shaping what is taught in schools and how. Google, for one, says this 'skills' thinking informs its education products.

This sounds like a compelling reason for schools to reform: the world is radically changing, and so too must schools if they are going to prepare our children for it. But, just pause a moment.

For starters, I have no idea what the job market will look like in the next few decades, but as Leonard says, neither does he. It is worth noting, however, that rapid technological change and fears of an uncertain future have long been used to support education reform efforts. This doesn't undermine the argument, but is worth knowing.

Let's look, though, at some of the claims being made today that reinforce the case for change, and at one statistic in particular that confidently predicts a radically different future labour market: 65% of children in preschool today will work in jobs or careers that don’t yet exist.

This statistic is everywhere – thanks in large part to its inclusion in the World Economic Forum report – and where you find it, it will almost certainly be used to justify an urgent need to reform schools mainly through technology.

It was in the Scottish National Party’s manifesto, and is why, as the SNP’s James Dornan told fellow MPs, Scotland’s education system ‘must change’. It was repeated in early 2017 by the CEO of Hewlett Packard accompanied by the message that ‘it is critical to transform both what and how we teach our children in school’. EY (formerly Ernst & Young) cites it in a blog urging parents to encourage their children ‘to interact with technology’ and ‘embrace change’. Most recently, the chair of the Tata Group was reported using it to call for more digital schooling in the Indian system.

So, it is a widely used statistic, repeated by politicians and corporate executives, but is it true?

The World Economic Forum's source for the figure is, by its own admission, a 'popular estimate' made in a viral YouTube video. The film's creator, a teacher, describes the data he used as 'third hand and shaky'. A 2013 report by PwC, which also uses the figure, gives the source as a US Labor Department report... from 1999. That would mean that two out of every three people who left school in roughly 2012 went into a job that didn't exist just before the millennium, which isn't true.

And James Leonard's job that didn't exist four years ago? He's employed to get UK schools to 'pilot, deploy, and scale' Google's education products. Today's schools could probably equip someone for what broadly sounds like a sales job.

While it sounds convincing as a statistic, then – particularly coming out of the mouths of the global elite – its job is not to enlighten, but to persuade. 

And if the diagnosis is fiction – an antiquated, one-size-fits-all school system that fails to equip children for 21st century jobs – could the reformers' solutions for how to improve education be just persuasive stories too?

Let's look at one story, which reformers neatly wrap in the term 'personalised learning'. What is meant by this (in this context) is personalisation through technology. What it commonly means in the classroom is the use of software to deliver educational content and to monitor and record pupil progress. It is the digitisation of education (or substantial parts of it).

This is not, though, the story of personalised learning – the vision – as told by high profile advocate/investors like Bill Gates, who has reportedly backed personalised learning to the tune of $250m, and Mark Zuckerberg, who believes that digital, personalised learning will lead to children learning '100 times more than we learn today'.

Here's Facebook chief product officer, Chris Cox's succinct telling of the personalised learning story from 2016:

'Have you guys heard of personalised learning? So theres a movement in education reform towards a model of a classroom where students are directing their own learning, they can move along at their own pace... It's a model where the student is much more engaged in what they're doing and why, and they're making a lot more decisions of what they're going to work on, and then they're using the internet and other online resources, just like adults do, to figure out how to answer their questions.'

'Personalised learning is a really cool idea,' concludes Cox.

This is the compelling vision: an education system where technology – like the Facebook-built software, or 'self-directed learning experience', currently being rolled out to state schools in the US – creates a generation of capable, motivated autodidacts.

'A lot of the best minds in education think this is the future, because it's not using the factory model of teaching,' adds Cox.

Personalised learning is presented as the perfect antidote to what we are told is wrong with schools today.

The status quo (factory schools) is unendurable.

Here's a vision of how to fix it (personalised learning).

Both are just stories.

Or, as Professor Neil Selwyn, an academic who has been immersed in the world of edtech for decades, puts it: ‘Much of what is said about education and technology can be classified fairly as bullshit’. It’s not lying, but ‘the result of people talking loudly, confidently and with sincerity regardless of accuracy, nuance and/or sensitivity to the realities of which they speak’.

The purpose of these stories is to stimulate public demand for reform.

All the while we are distracted from discussing some very real changes in schools that are associated with the introduction of more digital technology: the push for maximum efficiency and how this leads to a narrowing of what and how children learn; the drive to reduce everything that happens in schools to data points that can be measured and compared; privatisation and the creep into schools of companies that provide the products and services that promise to deliver greater efficiencies and measurable results.

These things warrant much greater public debate. They really do have the potential to transform public school systems. Not necessarily in a good way.

BETT 2017: UK edtech trade fair

BETT 2017: UK edtech trade fair