Thursday, April 16, 2009

Layer 147 Academia, Technology, Desert Island Discs and The New Learning Revolution.

Thursday 16th April

Bob Dylan’s take on academia goes like this:

You’ve been with the professors
And they’ve all liked your looks,
With great lawyers you’ve discussed
Lepers and crooks,
You’ve been all through
F Scott Fitzgerald’s books -
You’re very well read,
It’s well-known.

But something’s happening here,
And you don’t know what it is -
Do you, Mr Jones?

From Ballad of a Thin Man.


It’s been interesting, observing and studying the academics. What a strange world. Very different from the phase of education I’m used to, where you begin work as a teacher from the premise that you’re there to meet the needs of the pupils. At least that’s the way it used to be in the days when meeting the needs of pupils seemed to matter. Now it’s all about meeting government, local authority and governing body academic targets. In stupid-arse factory-school Britain, at least. So very bloody shameful.

Academia is about as curriculum-centred as you can get, which is pretty bizarre when you consider the high level of independent study skills most university students posses, and how capable they ought to be of pursuing their personal learning goals, given half a chance.

I was talking to Yoko last night about my lecture on Saturday, on 'the aims of education', and the problem that I have with not knowing my audience and their learning needs. It seems they’ll be pretty mixed ability - i.e. Masters degree students, some of whom have never taught, and some of whom are experienced teachers and school leaders.

Professors and lecturers seem to start from the egocentric premise that they have a brilliant mind and also have possession of a body of thought which an audience should feel privileged to have some contact with - and if the audience is too thick or too limited to be able to connect with it - well that’s their problem. I guess the role models for professors are - other professors.

Thinking about academia brings back memories of my own undergraduate days - those wonderful heady days of ’68 and ’69, demonstrations and sit-ins, Paris, Woodstock, peace and love. Liberation, counter-culture, protests, festivals, and wave after wave of incredible music. And going to live rock, soul and blues shows just about every week for almost no money.

In contrast to all that was also having to sit in dull, boring lectures listening to some dull-witted academic prattling on about stuff that was tedious enough in its own right without being regurgitated by someone who had no idea how to make it interesting or relevant.

How could anyone take that academic game seriously when there was a vast, exciting world outside where people were genuinely opening themselves up to new forms of knowing and feeling, and aspiring to join together to make a better world?

In those lecture rooms there was no intellectual stimulation, which is what I’d assumed university would be about. Partly that was down to the ‘vocational’ course I’d chosen, and so I decided to do the minimum necessary to get a degree, and in the meantime start to educate myself by embarking on my self-devised course of study in politics, philosophy and economics.

Getting to grips with sociology, psychology, Marxism, political theory and Eastern philosophy was what I needed to be doing. Arguably it’s what every university student should be doing, if they only knew it.


Living alone in a flat in a country where you don’t speak the language may well be the nearest most of us could or would want to get to living alone on a desert island. I thank goodness I brought my discs with me - all 4 gigabytes of MP3 magic.

Since I can’t get any English-language TV or radio programmes and have no Internet access at the flat, I’m cut off from the usual sources of stimulation.

In this situation music becomes the major source of spiritual nourishment and sensory stimulation. So yesterday there was a bit of a crisis when my malfunctioning Zen player decided to take itself off random play and limit itself to just 8 tunes. Having heard them a few times over it seemed clear the Zen wasn’t about to correct itself and go back to normal random service.

Fortunately I could get access to the memory of the Zen via laptop and USB cable, and so was able to start filtching my favourites tunes from it and pasting them into a “best of” folder on the laptop. Hooray for technology!

Writing this, I’m again listening to “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?” which must be one of the Stones’ longest and most complex tracks (Undercover of the Night is another), since it meanders through such a variety of sonic and rhythmic passages, and also uses sax solos to such good effect. I was listening to Springsteen’s “Radio Nowhere” this morning, and noticed the similarities between the two tracks which make them such classics of rock - a dynamic, ringing guitar intro; great vocals; dark lyrics; fantastic rhythm, and wonderful saxophone playing. Rock yer socks off.

Next up is Frank Zappa’s wonderful “Sexual Harassment in the Workplace” - something that good old priapic Frank seemed happy to put up with as an occupational hazard, probably to the end of his daze. It’s unbelievable how underrated Zappa still is as a guitarist and composer.

He was also a very good, very funny lyricist, with a true sense of the absurd, the bizarre and the ridiculous. Hot Rats was an album that completely blew me away when I first heard it - guitar-playing like nothing I’d ever heard; some kind of strange jazzy/bluesy/rock from out of nowhere. Even the album’s cover was brilliant and totally original. The extended guitar soloing was also kind of unique for its time, definitely veering towards jazz improvisation rather than the blues/heavy metal that was far more commonplace at that time. I felt so lucky to have seen and heard Frank and the Mothers of Invention playing live at the Bath festival of blues and rock.

Another outstanding track that I’d forgotten was on the Zen is U2’s version of “All Along the Watchtower”, from Rattle and Hum. It’s interesting how a song that started out as one of Dylan’s shortest and gentlest tracks became a true monster of rock, thanks to the brilliance of Hendrix, who had the intelligence, skill, imagination, creativity and sheer musical ability to seize on it as soon as it was released and turn its wonderful rhythm and melody (and lyrics) into something that’s never been equalled in the entire history of rock - lyrically, musically and dynamically it’s a perfect track.

Dylan, in turn, paid Hendrix the ultimate compliment when he started to perform the song when playing live with The Band in the style of Hendrix’s version.


I’ve decided to conclude my lecture on the Aims of Education by saying something about Dryden and Vos’s book. Just a taster to whet their appetites.

The New Learning Revolution.

Consider this. The first time I visited Japan, in 2001, I didn’t even bring my mobile phone. There was no point. It couldn’t work in Japan.

Nowadays wherever I go in the world I take this little machine with me. It enables me to contact anyone I wish to speak to from anywhere I happen to be on the planet. And vice versa. I can send and receive texts. I can send and receive emails. I can access the vast world of the Internet. It allows me to take and send digital photos, to record and to send conversations, to write notes, either using its keyboard, or by using a stylus to create handwritten notes on its screen. It will also convert my handwriting to text. It’s a global positioning indicator. It’s a satellite navigator. It has maps, it has spreadsheets, a calculator, a diary, a calendar, a database creator, and it can run Powerpoint presentations. Most importantly of all it carries my music collection and will play my favourite music through headphones or through a hi-fi, even using Bluetooth. It’s a computer that fits in my pocket.

Eight years ago such a machine was impossible to imagine, let alone buy. Nowadays these machines cost very little to manufacture, and are given away free by telephone companies when you sign up for their service for 2 or 3 years. After one year the phone company will exchange this phone/computer for a completely new, updated model. That’s how fast the world, and the world of technology, is changing. Of course Apple, Nokia and others make similar machines.

The subject matter of this book is new ways to learn, teach, think, create and communicate.

It is now the world’s biggest-selling non-fiction book.

10 million copies of this book have been sold in China alone.

The Chinese government has completely retrained its teaching force in order for them to teach on the basis of these progressive ideas about learning and teaching. This was a massive project, and represents a radical and progressive break with their traditional methods of teaching.

Why do this? Because the Chinese government has understood that learning has to be a dynamic process, driven by the needs and wishes of learners to be responsible for their own learning and to become equipped with creative thinking and communication skills.

This stands in contrast to traditional models of education which are based on the acquisition of a specified body of knowledge and the ability to pass tests on one’s memory of that curriculum.

In a world where information is available day and night from a laptop computer or even a telephone connected to the Internet, why should hundreds of millions of pupils and students be sitting in rows of desks facing their teachers in classrooms designed for a different age?

Very soon it will be possible for all advanced countries to provide every pupil with a cheap laptop computer. In eight or ten years time it will be possible for every pupil to own a pocket computer. Those who don’t possess this technology will be severely disadvantaged. I’m quite sure that you as a student or as a teacher or professor wouldn’t want to go back to a world without computers.

Traditional schooling is breaking down. In Britain this week there is news that record numbers of pupils are being excluded from school because of their undisciplined behaviour. Frankly, many of them are bored and cannot see the point in doing what schools are asking them to do.

Not only are many teachers and schools offering no intellectual stimulation, they are also failing to provide learning in social, emotional and spiritual intelligence.

In the foreword of this book Christopher Ball, the chairman of Britain’s ‘Campaign for Learning’, says, ‘This book explains what is going on in the gradual collapse of the old model of education, and the advent of the revolutionary new models of learning’.

He goes on to say, “The old school model is as dead as the industrial revolution that spawned it. The flight of both pupils and teachers from traditional schooling will soon become an embarrassment for governments in developed countries. Neither the curriculum (what is taught) nor the pedagogy (how it is taught) is any longer sustainable.”

“What lies at the heart of this book is a shift of focus from teaching to learning, and a recognition that a new philosophy of learning must lead the curriculum.”

In the 21st Century “the rewards of the good life will go to those who are most adaptable - who learn best. They will also go to those who learn to use and share the new world of interactive technology, instant communication, collaborative innovation and multimedia creativity.”

To that list I would add that the rewards will also go to those who learn to become emotionally, socially, instinctually, intellectually, physically and spiritually intelligent.

These are the clear goals of progressive education - an education that is needed for the 21st Century.

These are the goals we must reach if we are to become “a more creative, cooperative, sharing world society”. These are the true aims of education.

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