The truth will set you free

But it won’t pay the bills

“No, his mind is not for rent, To any God or government”
Tom Sawyer, Rush

Being silenced came at quite a price when I was a kid. I was stubborn, bookish and outspoken. I lacked a filter as a result of a tic and I also exhibited obsessive hypomanic behaviours. Nothing weird just that I used to get super interested in certain subjects to the exclusion of others. I struggled, or was gifted, with what is today called ADHD with a side order of ASD for good measure.

I only say struggled because the treatment in those days was a beating. Beatings at home, beatings at school and, later on, metaphorical beatings at work. I was then, and continue to be today, baffled by family secrets and the reticence of people to point out the obvious. I spent a childhood, and indeed a lifetime, identifying with the kid in Hans Christian Andersen’s “Emperor’s New Clothes”. Today, I believe, that child would have ended up doing time in a Pupil Referral Unit.

Nevertheless, being reasonably “high functioning” as they say in the psychological professions as well as been born white and male (after the white patriarchy enforcing Trump victory, possibly now the most hated demographic on Earth) allowed me to establish a career out of my gifts.

Unbeknownst to me until recently I’ve slowly but nevertheless quite efficiently sabotaged this career. The unravelling started in earnest after I left Learning Without Frontiers and embarked on a research programme into global education and the comparative, qualitative study of education technology that resulted in the publication of Learning {Re}imagined.

Stephen Heppell

I’m indebted to my friend Stephen Heppell, who took me to one side at a conference we were both speaking at. He said to me that my research was, in some ways, the equivalent of a PhD. He explained that you start off with a hypothesis or something you believe to be true and then during the journey you discover things that so test your thinking and beliefs that you can often end up opposing them. Overthinking things or seeing things in alarming new ways can cause a kind of madness he suggested and offered up the story of French philosopher Louis Althusser as an example. Althusser was a structural Marxist whose life was marked by periods of intense mental illness. In 1980 he killed his wife by strangling her and was then committed to a psychiatric hospital for three years. Eeek!

The Wachowski’s philosophical masterpiece

I should point out, less there is doubt, I have no plans to off any family members or for that matter, anyone else. Nor do I believe that I have descended into some form of pathological psychosis. Like most people I wrestle the black dog on occasion but that’s about it. However those of you familiar with the Wachowski’s philosophical masterpiece, The Matrix, will realise that taking the “Red Pill”, embracing the painful truth of reality, comes at a cost when compared to the blissful ignorance of illusion that comes with the “Blue Pill”.

Althusser saw the world through the lens of his belief that the institutions of the state function in the long-term interests of capital and capitalism. That, I suspect, was his red pill. I think once you’ve looked behind the curtain it’s difficult to see the world in the same way again.

Toe in the Line

From EdTech hero to EdTech zero

From 2004 until 2012 I ran an organisation called Learning Without Frontiers. LWF began life as the worlds largest mobile learning conference and community. I had made mobile computers for education in the mid-80s but was ridiculously early, fuelled as a result of chance meetings with people like Seymour Papert, Alan Kaye, Jaron Lanier and others. Born in a golden age of science fiction, science programming and the Apollo missions I thought anything was possible. The motivation for creating LWF was to have new conversations about learning in a digital age. I think it’s fair to say that LWF wasn’t like anything else. The New York Times described it as:

“The 650 delegates to Learning Without Frontiers found themselves in an event that felt like a mashup of a music festival, a political convention, and freshman orientation at a college campus on a slightly more advanced planet.”

credit: Tim Price-Walker

Prior to all of this I had brought to market numerous EdTech products including a cloud based storage, content and app distribution platform offering free storage to every student that was launched at the Edinburgh Festival in 2006. Still too early, the UK EdTech agency of the time, Becta couldn’t see the point and declined.

But I digress, when I left LWF I had the opportunity to really think deeply about education and have conversations with some of the worlds leading thinkers and activists as well as visit diverse schooling environments.

I was also initially courted by a number of VC’s, accelerators and incubators who were about to venture into the EdTech sector. Many had attended LWF events and meetings. This was in 2012.

I was disappointed by the lack of ambition not to mention the lack of vision that these investors demonstrated. Rather than seek to transform our education systems they sought to industrialise them. Technology platforms would be deployed to drive efficiencies within an existing system rather than redesign it.

Naturally, I see the business wisdom in building enterprises that support existing needs — after all, this was the point about interactive white boards. But like the IWB space such narrow wisdom leads to an inability to respond to disruptive threats. Promethean struggled with this, how could they migrate to new platforms without cannibalising their IWB revenues? SMART Technologies had to pivot.

By speaking candidly about this lack of ambition as well as my concerns, born from visiting and meeting so many specialists and practitioners, about the direction of EdTech I was suddenly cast adrift.

A friend once introduced me at a talk I was giving thus:

“Graham is someone who when is in the tent continues pissing, he has achieved the accolade of having upset both the EdTech and Traditionalist camps”.

I’m not entirely sure how this happened.

I was an early skeptic of MOOCs, analytics, big data and algorithmic bias. Having travelled to some pretty tough places as well as visiting some transformative ones my sense was that we could do much better with EdTech.

Personalized Learning: Tailored or Taylorized? Courtesy of WISE

For me, EdTech has always been about transformative experiences and tools for discovery rather than a delivery system for test oriented content.

We have such impressive capability today and more money being invested in EdTech than I have ever witnessed surely we can think differently and redefine the notion of school?

Anyway, I’ve noticed that this message doesn’t go down so well on the conference/trade show circuit as it’s deemed controversial or not upbeat enough to shift boxes. It certainly got me bounced from being invited to attend the WISE event recently held in Beijing and the launch of the Chinese edition of Learning {Re}imagined. It may have been a coincidence that the head of Pearson-backed, uberfication edubusiness, Bridge International Academies was invited to give a keynote.

in response to @WISE_Tweets

Are we really going to ignore the imminent convergence of VR, AI, SpatialOS and neuro-interfaces so that we can migrate to AI driven LMS systems to distribute individualised content to improve test scores?

Forgive me, but I’m just not seeing the moon shot thinking in the current EdTech movement. It’s incredibly timid in the UK scene and BigEDU really has no clue other than buying up all of the schools and monetising the data.

There has been a lot of noise in the Twittersphere about project-based learning recently.

To tell you the truth I haven’t read all the data because I’ve spent time in schools and with children who were excited, confident learners. I was left with a validation of my own experience being that the learning that stuck was that which was experiential and situated.

I don’t see how this is opposed to subject-knowledge centred approaches. Subject knowledge is vitally important, it’s just that with a carefully designed project strategy this knowledge is distributed differently. I think also that the role of the subject specialist teacher would be one where their passion for the subject is infectious.

While we’re at it I would remove streaming by age and de-silo as much as possible, disrupt the assessment system by encouraging socratic assessment by skilled practitioners. The point is that children leave with a knowledge of how to do, as well as how to think. Resilience is formed by negotiating peer groups, working on projects and making stuff rather than simply reading about it. Whatever else, our children will require resilience otherwise they will never challenge.

But how do you do that on an industrial scale?

Some prominent EdTech thinkers have criticised the global education sector as a collection of cottage industries replete with “mom and pop” shops. If only it could be standardised this sector would be ripe for automating and thus reducing the investment necessary to meet the minimum standards of the SDG4. The secret sauce to sell the Edtech here was to own the schools rather than sell an app or open-source the tech. Strange when the stated mission was to alleviate poverty.

And yet at the same time that the word “abundance” is being thrown around at TED conference after-parties or at a face to face with Richard Branson, as part of an overpriced package holiday to Necker, what we’re actually witnessing is simply a change of ownership.

Is that all you’ve got?

Further reading


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More at:

Learning {Re}imagined

How the connected society is transforming learning

Graham Brown-Martin

Written by

Society, Innovation & Education + Foresight & Anticipation http://grahambrownmartin.com

Learning {Re}imagined

How the connected society is transforming learning

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