Purposeful Learning #7 #cong22


Purpose in learning is sometimes proposed to come from ‘real-life’ and ‘relevant’ curriculum. I argue that there is no replacement for learners developing purpose based on their interests, and the effectiveness and relevance will follow.

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Key Takeaways:

  1. ‘Real world’ in learning is not necessarily motivational or compelling;
  2. Learners can begin with their interests but will ultimately look outwards, seeking the best;
  3. Learners benefit from a critical negotiation to focus their learning;
  4. A learning community and a process curriculum can make it purposeful learning work!

About Richard Millwood

I am an educational designer, having made everything from apps to universities. I am now finding fulfilment with families in rural places all over Ireland, trying to encourage an interest in creative computing. The job is as a Research Fellow at Trinity College Dublin tied to an SFI ‘Discover’ project – OurKidsCode –  to design and develop workshops which encourage parents to see computing as a fulfilling choice for their children’s future.

Contacting Richard Millwood

You can connect with Richard via email, Twitter or via his website richardmillwood.net

By Richard Millwood

I had no purpose when, at the age of 20, I joined the teaching profession without any training as a mathematics teacher in an inner London secondary school. The school was desperate, I had given up on being an astronaut, the job was only four days a week so I felt it a good transition from full time higher education while I pondered what I would do for the rest of my life.

Forty six years later, I am still in education, having experienced every level as a teacher and as an educational designer, completely hooked by the harsh experience of those early days teaching bolshy kids, not much younger than myself.

Those early days, the late seventies, were full of the pioneering efforts to improve education. Mixed-ability classes, real world curriculum and independent learning were discussed and developed in the staff room, not handed down from governments. Teachers were actively and collaboratively designing materials and systems to tackle the problem of purposeless learners. The best of them, like the SMILE Mathematics project, enjoyed huge popularity in the London schools and further afield, but ultimately failed as the expense in teacher time and organisation of such a complex projective way to simpler, but no better solutions. My small part in SMILE was to make a computer game which (unintentionally) proved to give learners purposeful practice with angles.

It took me a while to discover that our attempts to use real world ‘relevant’ materials, like bus timetables to teach time, were failing. The theory sounded good, but our learners just weren’t interested, for the most part, in how long a bus would take to go from Tower Bridge to Rotherhithe.

Fast forward to the mid nineties. A decade had been spent creating decision-making simulations on the computer which learners could control the economy, a production line or a biology experiment. Despite the interactivity, some worked, others failed, for similar reasons as the earlier bus timetable. I came across a new challenge – to improve the education of a challenging group: truants, school-refusers, ill children, travellers, agoraphobics and others for whom school did not fit. We called it NotsSchool (in Ireland a current derivative is called iScoil) and did it fully online. Such children had thus far been dealt with by visits from individual tutors – expensive, disjointed and ultimately failing. The tutors’ purpose was to return such children to school – doomed, for the same reasons they had abandoned school! We explicitly made it clear that was not NotSchool’s purpose, and did our best to avoid the trappings of school that some learners rejected. We focussed first on learners’ personal interests, helping them to research those interests and create, in the media and genre of their choice, artefacts that pleased them. We called them researchers. We helped them to fulfil their own purpose.

Fast forward to the mid noughties. We found ourselves looking to expand our university student numbers by addressing those for whom university did not fit. We called it Ultraversity. Fully online, it helped those who could not afford to go to university, had no confidence in their ability to do exams, were working full time, were caring full time etc. We used all the experience we had gained from NotSchool, but this time we invited our ‘researchers’ (students) to investigate and improve their work (or caring) practice, a purpose they readily identified with. We helped them fulfil this purpose, negotiating appropriate tasks, whilst developing the knowledge, craft and character of a researcher.

Finally, in the mid teens, it was my turn to fulfil my purpose through a PhD by Practice – I had been too busy to stop what I was doing earlier in my career and do a PhD in the traditional manner. Instead I now focussed on my own professional portfolio and my development of design heuristics, which I formulated as theses for my claim for doctorate. My evidence was my contribution to a collaborative practice over a lifetime.

Some think I am talking about ‘discovery learning’ when I describe these approaches to education, often argued to be too challenging. I believe learning is always a challenge, but acknowledge that the craft of learning through research must be supported. In fact I am simply making a simple point clear: learning is most effective when it is purposeful in the mind of the learner.  Each case has demonstrated to me that study will inevitably gravitate to the authority and value of the bodies of knowledge that humanity has recorded as effective, as learners seek solutions to problems they care about, and then make that knowledge their own. The deeper they are drawn in, the more ready they are to tackle theory and generalised knowledge, as they learn to love learning itself.

At Christmas, in a month’s time, I plan to visit my first grandson, aged four months. I expect to be part of his first steps in learning, deeply driven by his immediate purpose to move, communicate and play. There’ll be no doubt about who own’s the purpose in learning to walk, talk to his loved ones and enjoy life to the full.

Learning from and with Nature #47 #cong20


We need to put nature at the centre of our education systems to resolve our climate crisis and avoid environmental catastrophe.

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Key Takeaways:

  1. We are part of Nature
  2. Nature should be central to our education system
  3. Doing so will help us address climate change and environmental catastrophe
  4. This is urgent

About Jimmy D'Arcy:

I am the Youth Leadership & Sustainability Manager with the GAA. As such I oversee the development and implementation of our non playing related contributions to the Primary and Post Primary curriculum as well as our bespoke youth oriented programmes. I also manage our GAA Green Clubs Programme aiming to support GAA Clubs to operate in a more sustainable way. I am passionate about learning, creativity and community.

Contacting Jimmy D'Arcy:

You can contact Colin via email, and LinkedIn

By Jimmy D’Arcy

The Western Educational system is out of touch with the world around it. It is too focused on passive consumption and lacks critical thinking; lessons are most often held indoors and students are disconnected from the environment around them. What if we could learn from and with nature? It is proven that being in nature can improve children’s development, their mental health and physical health and their imaginations.

Furthermore, society is facing potentially catastrophic crises such as climate change and biodiversity loss and we need to foster a culture of dreaming in order to transition to alternative and resilient futures. How might the educational system have to change in order to learn from and with nature, to understand our place within the ecosystem and to foster a culture of dreaming alternative futures?

Universities Need to Remain Relevant #15 #cong20


As universities become successful businesses focus has shifted away from the local community to the global consumer. Deindustrialisation, austerity and now Covid-19 are decimating communities. Universities need to shift some of their focus inward to ensure they remain relevant.

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Key Takeaways:

  1. Universities are tasked to serve the entire community
  2. They need to engage more with communities living with austerity
  3. Universities need to re-think access to learning
  4. Value lies in recognising the entire community as a learning canvas

About Joanna Norton

I teach creative research at a UK higher education institution. I work with the Departure Lounge, a contemporary art gallery in Luton to develop bespoke creativity sessions for communities living with austerity. I am also a teacher educator, app developer and artist..

Contacting Joanna Norton:

You can connect with Joanna on Twitter, LinkedIn or see her work.  

By Joanna Norton.

For universities to remain relevant, they need to deliver benefits for the whole community, especially for those who will never have the privilege of studying at one.  Stephen Ball from the Institute of Education argues that universities have become bastions of neoliberalism.  Higher Education in the UK has the second highest proportion of temporary, short-term and zero-hour employment contracts after the leisure and tourism industry.  Entry to higher education is increasingly governed by access to personal finance.  Escalating tuition fees along with the rising cost of study is causing a reduction in the diversity of the student body.  With insufficient income to invest in their education, lower middle class and working class students are disappearing from registers. To plug the gap, each school now has their own business team focused on tempting international students to their respective campuses.  While international students add huge value to learning, their presence has ensured university strategy has turned global, while the need remains local.

Austerity has ravaged communities. Its imposition on swathes of people forcibly separated from their industrial pasts has been brutal. As Covid-19 moves through these same streets, the ability of these communities to navigate their way to a 3.0 society is increasingly precarious. Universities are investing heavily to ensure their student-consumers are prepared for an uncertain future. While all stakeholders acknowledge that this uncertain future is coming, they struggle to predict with any great certainty when it will be. Yet, the lack of economic privilege along with the time to simply ponder such questions prevents underserved communities joining the debate. Indeed, many simply dismiss the question at hand. For such communities, the uncertain future that others are frantically trying to mitigate against, is already here.

We need to re-think access to learning. Access to learning journals remain locked behind paywalls, while wider debate, often ill-informed, rages online. Academic staff, mostly hourly paid, are tasked to serve the needs of the global elite rather than the needs of the communities in which they live. Obsession with shiny buildings ignores the increasing availability of learning spaces and local expertise within communities. Solutions to real-world challenges often lie outside academia, yet the exclusion of diverse voices increasingly undermines the relevance of universities. The following are some initiatives I developed to ensure knowledge is both relevant and accessible:

1. Luton 2050 is inspired by the concept of Paris 2050. Paris is committed to reducing greenhouse gasses by 75% by 2050 and proponents suggest architecture will play a crucial role in this process. With schools and members of the wider community we looked at:

  • the future of housing for a community of renters
  • converting disused buildings into urban farms as a solution to food poverty
  • sharing learning around aquaponics and hydroponics with communities in sub-Saharan Africa through the local diaspora

2. Learning in the launderette. A local Kashmiri woman has run the local launderette in Luton for over 25 years and has a hidden wealth of knowledge behind the science of washing clothes. She has repeatedly turned down offers to collaborate with scientific experiments because those who approach her use ‘too many big words’. Finding ways to connect her local expertise with scientific innovations is a learning objective for students. Identifying areas of expertise with the wider community is another.

3. As the fashion industry strives to become more sustainable students need greater exposure to successful models. Traditional practices within sub-Saharan communities along with the Asian subcontinent are part of the solution. Connecting fashion students to local designers to improve practices and share technical knowledge makes learning relevant. Business models that emerge from this process have greater potential to be sustainable. The local diaspora is the mediator.

Universities need to remain relevant especially in this precarious environment. They also need to remain relevant for those who will never set foot on campus. Using the community as a site of learning offers one possible potential.

Opening the door to creativity.… #55 #cong18


How many ideas are wiped from our whiteboards (and the students’ minds) every day. How does our education system foster these ideas? Does it allow for creativity and ideas to be developed?

4 Key Takeaways:

  1. What happens when we give time to ideas?
  2. Break the mould.
  3. Tap into the talent.
  4. Fail again, fail better.

About Eva Acton:

Biology, Chemistry and LCCS teacher.  Raspberry Pi Certified Educator & CS first tutor.

Contacting Eva Acton:

You can follow Eva on Twitter

By Eva Acton

This seed was sown for this blog in a bustling computer room. It was BT young scientist application time; thirty students, one teacher, the room a hive of activity. Each student working in small groups perfecting their applications. Somewhere in all of this noise, I overheard a discussion of SnapChat and how it was now becoming passé, but that students are continuing to use it because, well, what else is there?

I chimed in on this conversation, suggesting that they should come up with the “next big thing”.

“My goodness, with the crew in front of me, surely you could come up with something better than SnapChat or Facebook?!?” Within moments these students began to collaborate in a way I had never witnessed before. Pitching ideas back and forth, building on each other’s suggestions, this impromptu “think in” had a fluency, urgency and excitement to it that one does not encounter often.

All the while I had one ear on the ideas and one on the applications. I often reflect on what the outcome may have been if I had given those students both ears. These students were passionate about their ideas, and I believe they were driven not just by the relevance of the topic, but also the ownership. This was theirs. I had not dictated to them, I had not lectured, I had merely believed that they could and so they did.

That was, until the bell tolled. They picked up their bags and jackets and left the classroom; leaving with it their ideas. Those ideas may have been worth millions yet they were wiped off the board, ready for the next class to make its way in. My creative entrepreneurs became Pavlov’s robots, shuffling mindlessly to the next preordained wedge of ‘education’.

I began to think, how many other ideas are wiped from our whiteboards (and the students’ minds) every day. How does our education system foster these ideas? Does it allow for creativity and ideas to be developed?

In my opinion, as it currently stands, we do not. Each moment is mapped out from when the students enter the classroom to when they leave. Although this ‘set menu’ philosophy may be beginning to evolve in the Irish education system, will it be too late for the students of today, who need these creative, problem-solving skills more than ever? By its definition, different isn’t normal, and we as a society quash and quell ideas which stray away from the norm, with only the brave stepping out from the mould. The conformity of the normal is streamlining our thought processes, and it is beginning right at the heartbeat of society, the classroom.

My idea, such as it is, is simple. Make room in that mapped out, pre-planned timetable for ideas: safe spaces to think to foster those ideas, helping and encouraging students to inspire, to build and to create.

Equally, students must learn to fail. Every idea will not work, but you have been given the chance to try to engage with creativity and to embrace your ideas. This can start out small, and heavily linked to the current topic being covered in your subject, but can grow in a nurturing environment to unlock the potential of our youth, which is of course, limitless.