Friday, September 16, 2011

David Puttnam on Educating for the Digital Society

Film director, Labour Peer and noted educationalist David Puttnam spoke at University College Cork this week in a talk entitled Educating for the Digital Society: How Ireland can raise its game and how its universities can help?

In a broad ranging and entertaining talk and discussion, Lord Puttnam struck an optimistic note but did not shy away from stating the problems plainly. Puttnam made a decision some fourteen years ago to leave the world of cinema where he had worked for 30 "happy and, I hope, very productive" years in engage with a very different world of public policy. In that time, he says, he has had "no regrets".

If he had "one disappointment", the BAFTA-winning director and West Cork resident said "it's the growing absence of what is probably best described as wisdom" in the society around him.

"Developing that kind of wisdom in the current social, political and media environment is far from easy. 24/7 news cycles, economic and employment figures that are scrutinised every quarter, or in Ireland's case, every fortnight. A world so interconnected that a slip of the tongue in one hemisphere can literally reek havoc in another".

Speaking at the invitation of Ionad Bairre, the Teaching and Learning Centre at UCC, Puttnam said his work in education has been very rewarding because "it has offered me the opportunity to engage with people who, every single day of their working lives are attempting to mould the building blocks, the quality of which will determine our ability to secure our own future - the next generation of teachers."

Using a military metaphor, he described teachers as the only infantry in a war between "our largely failed present and the possibility of an altogether more imaginative, and I hope more innovative future."

"One of the problems with our current system, especially in the UK," according to Puttnam, "is that the 'Chalk and Talk' model has been carried through to a point where it is now very, very close to its sell-by-date".

Resistance or reluctance to fully embrace digital innovation in the classroom, he said,  means that an "increasing disparity has opened up between life in the lecture hall or classroom and the daily experience of technology beyond the college gates".

"Surely few of us would dream of going to a doctor who was less than conversant with the very latest developments in whatever ailment we believed ourselves to be suffering and yet we found it incredibly difficult to persuade policymakers that if we are to win back the trust of you who are already students,then we need to engage far more effectively with your world, the students world. We need to view technology, and the way in which they relate to it, through their eyes."

In a message to the next generation of educators, Puttnam stressed the importance of the authenticity of teachers:

"It is vital for teachers to remember that, no matter how gifted or charismatic they may be, they will never successfully influence or teach anyone who doesn't believe them to be utterly authentic. Authentic in the sense that they hold on to and exemplify the values that they teach. Of all the things I've learned in dealing with the teaching profession in the last 15 years,  that is probably the most singly important."

Importantly, he said, if we always do, what we've always done, we can expect the same results:

"Merely digitising old practices is, in effect, simple seeking to get the same or similar results only faster. If all you do with technology is use it to support existing methodologies and practice, then why and on what possible basis would you expect to get new or better results?"

"Digitising what is and developing a digital pedagogy" are two totally different ways of looking at the problem, according to Puttnam.

Finally, Lord Puttnam outlined 6 crucial lessons for educators and society in general:
  1. Getting education right should be the number one priority.
  2. No education system can be better than the teachers it employs
  3. Ongoing teacher training is essential. "It is absurd", Puttnam noted "that you can graduate in a subject aged 24 and still be relevant at 44 or 64 [without ongoing training]"
  4. Educating women is essential. Educated women are the fulcrum around which you can build educated families.
  5. Government must spend a minimum of 7% GDP on education. All other spending should be designed to make this happen.
  6. Teachers and pupils work best in surroundings they are comfortable and respect. The physical infrastructure of some primary and secondary schools should be a cause of national shame.


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