As I write I have a sixteen year old daughter downstairs, revising for her GCSEs. I say revising, but it looks more like 'creative procrastination' to me. I see no mind maps, no textbooks. Instead there seems to be an inordinate amount of time spent staring at one of kind screen or another. We have made a pact not to discuss her progress, as my entanglement in her affairs only ends up driving us both nuts. I have noticed however, that since she began "revising" she has also managed to load our new home phone with numbers of relatives around the world, taught herself how to make a flourless, sugarless, eggless version of banana bread (good, if a little dry), gotten a little Munchausen-y about our dog's health - and as a result is also teaching herself basic veterinary biology. Yesterday, I went into her room at lunchtime because she hadn't yet emerged. (I am definitely a bunny mother.) Upon seeing me in the doorway, she announced enthusiastically from under her duvet, "eBay is amazing!" and later on in the afternoon, "Did you know that today is National Sibling Day? "
When I finally did catch her making some notes on a piece of paper, I saw it as my chance to enquire how it was going, without raising the Gila. I wish I hadn't. Apparently, her chemistry teacher at her fee paying school has taught her nothing and she is going to have to learn the entire GCSE syllabus on her own. Ditto for biology.
In an effort to get out of the house and away from the blood vessel popping effort to keep my mouth shut, I recently went to hear the wunderkind of modern education speak at Portcullis House. In case you are old and backward like me, his name is Salman Khan and he thinks young people should be looking at screens. Educated at MIT and Harvard Business School, Khan believes education becomes more human and more effective when we move it online, where students can learn at their own pace.
Khan's story is as charming and impressive as he is. His book The One World Schoolhouse is definitely worth a read. As of right now, 75 million students are using The Khan Academy's secondary school curriculum to educate themselves in 216 countries. Fifty million of those students were added in the last twelve months. And the snowball is building. As his mission statement says, a first class education will soon be "available to everyone, everywhere"- as long as they have access to the internet. Khan believes we do best when we become agents of our own learning. He's being proved right. I've seen the graphs.
At the end of Khan's talk a young woman who is teaching herself her A level courses online, asked him what the difference was between schooling and education. In Khan's mind, classrooms should be places where kids come to collaborate; to learn from and to teach each other with focused intervention from teachers. He is passionate that students be dynamic in this way. He insists that learning should be creative as creativity is the key to how we live now. He makes the point that developed economies used to need a large labour force and a small creative class, but now it is the other way around. We need our scientists, developers, engineers and innovators and we need them to know how to work together. Students behaving like good little soldiers, regurgitating information from a textbook, has gone the way of the quill, in his view and of course he's right. An education, he says, "is something each of us needs to live a fulfilling life. It is borne out of curiosity and effort. Being educated allows us to appreciate and participate in the world around us. Democracy demands an educated public."
As for that university my daughter is supposed to be working so hard to get into, Khan believes higher education needs to change too. He sees a future where people earn micro credentials in specific areas rather than elitist diplomas. When I report all of this back to my wee one, she is in total agreement. It turns out, all that screen time I was so worried about was actually her teaching herself French - well, in between watching videos of her best friend's four year old sister jumping on a bed and uploading pictures of the dog in a cowboy hat.