Chapter Eight

Open Learning in Education

There’s a widely-used activity favoured by consultants whenever educators are taking part in training programmes. It’s called ‘Significant Learning Experience’ and it usually goes like this: 

1. In groups, discuss the most significant learning experience you can recall from your youth – this may have taken place in formal education (school/college) or informally.

2. Try to identify any common characteristics of that experience.

3. Discuss how often those characteristics are present in the learning you lead at your school/college.

I’d invite you to do this exercise yourself, now. Just put the book down and cast your mind back to something that had a profound impact upon you, changing what you thought you knew, or thought you could do. Think about who else was involved, what circumstances lay behind it, and the context in which the learning took place. As you’re probably reading this book alone, ask someone nearby to do the same thing (don’t worry, they won’t mind – people love talking about their learning). See if there are any commonalities. Come back to me when you’ve done parts 1 & 2…

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve done this exercise with people and heard the same conversations, seen the same scribblings on post-it notes. What follows are typically the key points to emerge, and I’d invite you to see how many of these accord with your own memories. 

Most of the powerful learning experiences happened outside school or college (e.g. learning to swim, ride a bike, process life-changing events). They involve some kind of mentoring, backed up by some form of study group. They arise from some form of project – putting on a play, realising an ambition – that blends thinking and doing. They involve challenge, risk, and learning from failure. They force us to put ourselves outside our comfort zone, working through our doubts and fears, often by trial-and-error. There’s invariably that light-bulb moment, followed by a gain in confidence and pride. People frequently recall some form of public presentation helping to cement the experience in our memories.

There’s often an uncomfortable silence and much looking at shoes when I ask them to share how often they see these characteristics in the learning activities they lead. I make a point of doing this exercise as respectfully as I can because, firstly, I’m not the one who’s in a classroom trying to coax learning out of a reluctant bunch of 14-year-olds on a wet Thursday afternoon; and secondly, because the aforementioned loss of autonomy has affected educators as much as it has call centre operatives. Their freedom to inspire learners has been curtailed by increasing prescription from above. But I also have to remind them that, having done this exercise with thousands of educators, I’ve yet to meet one that had their most significant learning experience from completing a worksheet. 

Occasionally, I’ll get asked for my most significant learning experience, and I’ll share it here by way of introducing a chapter which, after looking at the many challenges facing education, shares some of the secrets of great learning institutions, and the traits of their learning leaders.

I was around 13 years old when my cousin, Alan Price, visited us at my parents’ house. He had recently left a pop group called The Animals, at the peak of their success (their biggest hit, House of The Rising Sun, reached No 1 in both UK and US charts), and was recuperating from exhaustion back in the north-east of England. Naturally, as a kid who was learning to play the piano, Alan was something of a hero to me. My mother was quick to push me on the piano, to stumble through my most recent attempts to read music. It was terrible. Alan, however, was suitably supportive, but then asked a question I had never even considered: “It’s good, David, but did you ever think about playing music without the notes?”

Of course I hadn’t. Every piano teacher I’d been to, and every music lesson at school, reinforced the idea that music was read first, and then played. Alan, however, had never learned to read music, so, for a couple of hours he proceeded to show me how to play by ear. It’s fair to say that those couple of hours of informal learning changed the course of my life. 

From then on, I used to borrow all of my sister’s records, work out the chords by ear, and by the evening I could be playing them on the beat-up old piano in my local youth club. Girls began to acknowledge my existence. I had, to quote Sir Ken Robinson, found ‘my element’.

This immediate, trial-and-error, hands-on, project-based form of learning needed to be reinforced and stretched by a study group. Except we called it a band. We organised our own gigs, argued over song arrangements, harangued people to come watch us play and, inevitably, embarrassed ourselves in front of our peers. But, at the age of 15, we thought we were the coolest guys in the whole of Hebburn – maybe even Jarrow, too. And I got my first girlfriend. I might have been a little smug at that time, I can’t remember.

Meanwhile, back in the learning enclosure, I was being lectured about the lives of dead white guys like Bach and Mozart and singing traditional English folk songs like the ‘Miller of Dee’. That we would be remotely interested in the life of a selfish, alcoholic miller in the 18th century (“I care for nobody, no, not I, if nobody cares for me.”) never seemed to occur to my school music teacher. She knew nothing of my extra-curricular music activities, and that was fine by me, because I had decided, a long time ago that I would drop music as an academic subject as soon as I could and before I died of boredom. 

I hasten to add that I had nothing against ‘old’ music. When I was about 14 years old, I remember watching someone I later discovered to be Leonard Bernstein conducting Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’, and bursting into tears at the passion, complexity and visceral audacity of the sounds I was hearing. We just weren’t getting any of that blood, guts and sweat in the music classroom. Too busy singing about arrogant millers in bloody Chester...

I was lucky, therefore, to have a pop-star relative to impart my most significant learning experience, but it still carried all of the characteristics mentioned earlier: out of school, confidence-building, involving a mentor, challenging, practical.  

As I realised later in life, people have been learning to play music informally, practically and successfully since Adam sang to Eve, and yet it wasn’t until 2002 that the first significant study of those informal learning processes appeared, when Lucy Green, a Professor at the Institute of Education in London published, ‘How Popular Musicians Learn: A Way Ahead for Music Education’. Until then, nothing.

The Power of the Informal

Shaped by these formative experiences, almost all of my work in learning has been to look outside-in, to see how the ways in which we learn socially and informally can be brought into more formal learning environments, in order to spark the kind of passion for learning that most of us experience in the social space. 

I was lucky, in that my significant learning experience was really significant. I was able to make a career out of music, so it changed the shape of my life. Though not always of this magnitude, most people’s significant learning experiences are usually of the informal variety. So why is there such reluctance to acknowledge the power and processes of informal learning? 

We have come to accept that the most effective form of learning comes from the top-downwards, embodied in logic and deductive reasoning, with little room for intuition, abstraction, and tangential thinking. And, of course, for many learners and learning challenges, these formal methodologies work well. But not always. 

Ricardo Semler, author of ‘The Seven Day Weekend’, recounts a meeting with a planning director of a major oil company. Charged with the job of predicting the future price of a barrel of oil, he explained the complex calculations, factoring in geo-political criteria, geological surveys and the chances of war, that were just some of the variables his team of 110 people took into account. 

And after all the number crunching, their prediction turned out to be more than double the actual price of a barrel of oil. The oil executive’s hunch, on the other hand, had the price of a barrel of oil to within a few dollars of the actual price. Ricardo couldn’t resist:

“Why couldn’t he rely on the intuition bolstered by his experience in the oil industry? He cocked his head like a mystified poodle and said ‘imagine me telling a board that I’ve been sitting by the pool, debating with my dog, and concluding that oil will be $23 dollars in five years time?’”

But why are you still in your job, I asked, if your official forecasts are so off the mark? 

“Ah said the man... I have the right to be wrong, but only so long as I am precisely wrong!”53

I am not suggesting here that gut instincts are superior to logic, evidence gathering and rationality. Simply that some rebalancing would be advisable.

I had this vividly brought home to me when I worked with Sir Paul McCartney in helping to set up The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, a tertiary college, which opened in 1996. Being the lead patron, and a significant funder, Paul took a keen interest in the college’s early development. One day I met with him to look over the curriculum we’d designed and to discuss how he might play a part through occasionally teaching there. 

It’s not every day that a business meeting starts with an ex-Beatle doing an Elvis Presley impersonation while playing the actual double-bass which was used on ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ (I admit it, I was impressed). He was, however, less confident when it came to what he might teach:

“I suppose I could show them how I write songs (thoughtful pause)... but, actually, I don’t know how I’d do that, because I don’t know how I write, and I’ve never really analysed it, in case it disappears.” 

Sir Paul never learned how to read music, and never went to university. Recognising a working-class ‘impostor syndrome’ at work, I suggested to him that he did have a technique, he may just not have been conscious of it. The story of how McCartney came to write ‘Yesterday’ – by waking with the song fully formed in his head – is part of pop music mythology. Except it isn’t true. 

Yes, the tune was pretty much all there, but the words weren’t. In the days that followed, Paul was to be heard singing ‘Scrambled eggs, all I really want is scrambled eggs…’ As I explained to him, this frequently adopted technique is known as a ‘dummy lyric’ – a piece of nonsense to hang the melody on, so that constant repetition can suggest more meaningful lyrics that scan, rhyme, and make more sense. 

It was at this point in the conversation that I heard a voice in my head saying, ‘you really think it’s a good idea to tell the world’s most successful composer how he writes songs, do you?’  Fortunately, Paul took no offence and still regularly teaches at the Institute. His mantra, ‘trust your instincts’ is as applicable to students as it is to him. 

We may not yet understand the neuroscience behind instinctual decision-making which informs oil executives and creative artists alike, but that’s because, until recently, we didn’t value it.

‘Hacking’ Education

For 150 years, formal education has adopted an ‘inside-out’ mindset – schools and colleges have usually been organised around the needs of the educators, not the learners. In areas such as research, this is nothing to be embarrassed about. Ground-breaking inventions and pioneering new thinking often arise from the selfishness that informs so-called ‘blue-sky’ research. Defending such freedoms from the external drive for practical and commercial implementation has often encouraged a necessary insularity.  

The new landscape presents a significant upheaval. Inventors and researchers are increasingly working independently outside academia, finding collegial collaboration in the Global Learning Commons. Learners also find themselves in the driving seat because formal education is no longer the only game in town for those eager to learn. How colleges and universities adapt to the customisation and personalisation of education will largely determine their survival. Let me explain.

The challenge presented by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is a high-profile example, but not the only one, of a desire for us to ‘hack’ our own learning. The development of MOOCs has been likened to the creation of online music stores. The emergence of the mp3 allowed listeners to assemble their own playlists of music. 

Whether paying for it, or pirating it, suddenly, they didn’t have to buy a whole CD to get to the one song they really liked – they began to ‘hack’ their music listening. And we all know what a cataclysmic event that was for the music industry. It has to be conceded that they did themselves no favours by persecuting 13-year-olds, when they should have been rethinking their business models to reflect consumer preferences.

Similarly, educational institutions have to grasp that having enjoyed an historic monopoly as the go-to-guys for learning doesn’t mean they always will. As we gained control of our listening with the arrival of the mp3, so we will increasingly gain control of our learning, thanks to the arrival of MOOCS, social media and informal learning. We will want to determine whom we learn from, and with whom, at a time of our pleasing. 

Although this upheaval is currently taking place in tertiary education, schools are far from safe. As we find ourselves increasingly able to ‘hack’ our own education, I would expect, for instance, the homeschool market to expand rapidly. Once the possibility exists for students to study informally, at online (and offline) schools, compiling their own learning playlist, putting together units of study that appeal to their passions, the one-size-fits-all model of high school will appear alarmingly anachronistic. So, if educators want to keep their students engaged and inside their buildings, they have to look at the way they learn outside, and bring those characteristics inside.

Schools In Search Of A Purpose

If schools are coming into direct competition with the learning opportunities available in the informal social space, it has to be said that this is a pressure, which barely registers within the political discourse. Indeed, the gaping hole in the middle of the public debate on schooling is that we can’t even agree on what schools are actually for. Do they provide a set of skilled employees for the labour market? Or are they about developing the ‘whole’ child – emotionally, intellectually, creatively? Do they serve to ensure national economic competitiveness? Or are they about civic cohesion through cultural education? These are questions around which there has been no public consensus, as absurd as this may seem, given that in the US and most of Europe we have had state-organised systems of compulsory schooling for over 140 years.

This failure to define a clear purpose has fatally held back progress in understanding how we learn best. For if you can’t agree on a destination, how can you possibly agree on the best route? Instead, what we’re left with is a public discourse permanently afflicted by the curse of binary, oppositional arguments. 

The either/or positioning isn’t helped by constant political interference, resulting in a series of pendulum swings with every change of administration. Polarised arguments prevent real progress being made: selective vs comprehensive school systems; instruction-led teaching vs inquiry-led; head vs hand; academic vs vocational; knowledge vs skills. Can you imagine doctors in the 21st century arguing over the use of flu vaccines?

With No Particular Place To Go

It goes without saying that, if we don’t know our destination, and therefore can’t agree on the best route to get there, we might struggle to measure distance travelled. When I look at the radically differing educational strategies currently being adopted by most developed countries, I think back to how I learned to drive a car. Please allow this diversion. It has a point. 

It was the late 1970s, in the Republic of Ireland, at a time when, inexplicably, learner drivers were allowed to drive unaccompanied. Working in County Clare, in the south-west of the country, my employer let me drive his car so I could prepare for my driving test on my return to England. One day, I was driving down winding country roads, and realised I was hopelessly lost - anyone who has experienced Irish road signs will know this is easily done. Stopping a passing farmer, I asked if I was on the road to Kilrush, my destination. The farmer paused for some considerable time, looked up the road, then down at me, and pronounced “You are, but your car’s pointing the wrong way...” 

So it is with educational policy. When the political pendulum swings in western nations, getting ‘back to basics’ in education (shorthand for focusing upon literacy and numeracy) becomes an easy exhortation. If confirmation is needed that ‘progressive’ methods have failed, one only has to cite steadily declining performances in international comparison tables like the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). This decline is then contrasted with nations like Singapore and South Korea, who excel in these assessments.

 What is being measured is entirely dependent upon the intended destination. While the UK and US urge their schools to be more like those of Pacific Asian countries, the pressure there is to travel in the opposite direction. Addressing teachers in 2012, Heng Swee Keat, Singapore’s Minister for Education, argued for a radical shift in policy:

“The educational paradigm of our parents’ generation, which emphasised the transmission of knowledge, is quickly being overtaken by a very different paradigm. This new concept of educational success focuses on the nurturing of key skills and competencies such as the ability to seek, to curate and to synthesize information; to create and innovate; to work in diverse cross-cultural teams; as well as to appreciate global issues within the local context.”54

These comments came shortly after South Korea’s ex-minister for education Byong Man Ahn cast doubt on the usefulness of a high PISA ranking, despite Korean students ranking first in reading and maths, and third in science, in the 2009 PISA survey:

“While Korea's students excel at learning, they believe its purpose lies not in self-development based on personal interest or motivation, but in entrance into a highly ranked university. Students have no time to ponder the fundamental question of "What do I need to learn, and why?" They simply need to prepare for the test by learning the most-effective methods for digesting tremendous quantities of material and committing more to memory than others do.”

Both Heng Swee Keat and Byong Man Ahn were, effectively, repeating the advice given to me by that Irish farmer. Their respective countries had travelled a long way, but they’d realised that their car was pointing the wrong way. 

We in the West want to be more like those in the East, who, in turn, want to be more like we in the West. We call for learning fit to meet the challenges of the 21st century, while recommending teaching methods belonging to the 19th century. We have no clearly agreed purpose for education, but agree that spurious international comparisons should inform future educational policy. In short, we’re really, really confused. 

The Pioneer Mavericks

You may have gathered by now, that, in general, we shouldn’t look to our policy makers and politicians for either insight or inspiration when trying to imagine future learning. We could, however, make an exception for the aforementioned Heng Swee Keat. In the teacher’s address mentioned earlier, he identified five traits of the 21st-century teacher:

1. Ethical Educator – a role model to students demonstrating integrity and moral courage.

2. Competent professional – continually developing new knowledge, skills and dispositions to lead.

3. Collaborative learner – engaging in professional conversations, enhancing the teaching fraternity.

4. Transformational leader – inspires colleagues to reflect and innovate, builds trust, manages change.

5. Community builder – understands local and global issues, developing students’ sense of social responsibility.

If you don’t spend much time in schools, these traits might not seem particularly radical. Trust me on this one – they are. Most teachers in an average high school would struggle to see themselves in those capacities – not because they don’t want to be that kind of teacher, but because the system neither values nor cares about those traits. 

There are, however, educators who not only demonstrate the traits of 21st-century teachers and leaders, but have also reconfigured learning in their institutions so that they are becoming true Global Learning Commons. In researching this book, I visited some of them, watched how learning happens under their leadership, and asked them to share their innovations and aspirations. To a greater or lesser extent, they are mavericks – in education systems that make a virtue out of compliance and conformity; it’s almost inevitable that innovators will be seen as such. 

School of Communication Arts 2.0, London

The School of Communication Arts 2.0 is tucked away on a run-down housing estate in Vauxhall, London. There are no smart reception areas, no glass atriums – there isn’t even a sign above the door. This is intentional because each year each new cohort of students takes the shell of the building and fashions their own learning environment out of it, from scratch. It’s a tertiary level school, but offers no qualifications and has no university affiliations. Despite an unprepossessing fabric the school promotes itself as ‘the best advertising school in the world’ – and it probably is. 

The school is led by Marc Lewis. If Marc were ever going to head up a tertiary organisation, it would have to be one he created himself. He has no degree. In fact he has virtually no high school qualifications either, having been expelled from school at the age of 16. Not that a lack of qualifications has held him back. After building a chain of comedy clubs in South Africa, he returned to England to develop an internet start-up in 1997. Three years later, he sold it for just under £20m. 

Although Marc established a reputation for digital mobile technologies, his training was in advertising. He gained a scholarship at what was the original School of Communication Arts, headed up by the man who became Marc’s mentor, John Gillard. The 1.0 version closed in 1995, when John became too ill to continue. In 2010, Marc was able to relaunch the school, based on a highly innovative design:

"I was in Boston when I had the Eureka moment. I had a technology business that was selling to retailers, and I was in a drug store head office in Boston. They had all these plasma screens, on which were lists of schools together with who, in the head office, was mentoring in these schools. The US has a culture for mentoring, for transferring knowledge from A to B as directly as possible. And that's not in our culture in the UK. So I had a Damascus moment, I guess."  

The school is built around a model of ‘Heroes and Legends’. The two legends are industry giants, Bartle, Bogle and Hegarty, and Abbott, Mead, Vickers. Together, they offer the school sponsorship and industry credibility. A larger group of Heroes also offer money and their time and expertise. Combined, this financial support enables half of the school’s students to receive a scholarship, and buys a stake in an investment fund, which supports graduate start-ups. 600 mentors provide masterclasses, guidance and briefs for students to work on. This unique model also provides for easy access to industry employment for students – most are snapped up by mentors.

All of this creates a blurring of the boundaries between study and work, but it’s SCA 2.0’s approach to learning that is perhaps the most radical. It is an approach that brings together three of the four values/actions of the Global Learning Commons: share, open and free. 

Marc’s design for SCA 2.0 was in response to the dilemma facing all universities – how to stay relevant, given the arcane approval processes which governs course creation and modification:

“The university system is built on an industrial age economy, where knowledge evolves very slowly. In an information age economy, knowledge moves very quickly and areas of specialism are discovered more rapidly. If you’re joining a course today, you’re taking a programme that was probably written five to ten years ago, so a lot of that knowledge is out of date, irrelevant.

SCA’s solution is an open source ‘curriculum wiki’. Anyone – heroes, legends, mentors or students – can propose, design, or amend a course unit. They are also invited to contribute resources: stories, articles, books, videos. These are all made public on the SCA 2.0 website:

“Once a year I pause curriculum wiki. I write it in educational language – learning aims and outcomes – and I write a delivery plan. Mentors are all around the world and may, or may not have a hand in teaching, but they do have a point of view about what should be taught. Students share in curating the curriculum wiki with the industry. As stuff gets uploaded, it gets tweeted, so anyone in the world can consume this knowledge. Every day Saatchi & Saatchi or Ogilvy can go on to the wiki, and define what the next group of students need to be learning. So our curriculum is always in flux, always changing."

Because of this collaborative hacking, mentors and students can see that the course is both current, and relevant to the needs of the communications industry. While a unit or project brief is in progress, students are required to share their reflections publicly, through blogs and other social media. And the extensive use of social media not only makes the learning public, it serves as a marketing tool for SCA 2.0. In 2012, they received 2,000 applications for the 36 highly-sought-after places. 

Students are expected to work on about 50 briefs during their course of study. These, according to Marc, fall into three categories: "Live (competitive and remunerated) briefs are about learning how to sell your work to a client, and earning some reputation; portfolio briefs are about showing how revolutionary your thinking is.” The other briefs are akin to Facebook ‘hackathons’: 24-hr intensive challenges, that enable students to experience working under pressure. The quality, and ingenuity, of student responses to the briefs is astonishing. If you need proof, visit the school’s homepage: it’s impossible to tell which campaigns are real and which are simulations. 

The near-guarantee of a job at the end of their study, or seed funding for a new business seems to more than compensate students for not having a degree to show for their work. In keeping with some of the other schools featured here, there is a common implication: as the link between having a degree and guaranteed employment weakens, cultivating entrepreneurial, creative and collaborative skills in students will become paramount.

Marc is convinced of the transferability of a model of open-sourced curriculum and mentor-led delivery, and plans to set up similar schools in other sectors: "My belief is that university is the wrong place to teach vocations, period. The system is broken and if we can demonstrate the relationship between the industry, learner, and place of learning, then we can take it into other domains.”

Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning (SCIL)

You wouldn’t typically expect to see a hothouse of educational innovation in a quiet, middle class, leafy suburb of Sydney. But that’s exactly where you’ll find the Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning. Located on the edge of bushland in the city’s Northern Beaches district, SCIL is perhaps what would have happened had Thomas Edison been an educator, rather than an inventor. A classic commons environment, it serves to ensure that ideas are ‘free-range’, brought into the commons from anywhere in the world, shared and tested among innovative practitioners, and then sent back out again.

SCIL is located within Northern Beaches Christian School (NBCS), whose principal is Stephen Harris. Stephen is a deceptively modest and quietly-spoken leader harbouring big visions and ambitions. In talking to Stephen, you get an overwhelming sense of a restless mind. He seems to find inspiration for new ways of designing learning everywhere he looks. A beautifully-designed airport terminal? That’s how a school’s central area could look, with students choosing their destination for today’s learning. On a visit to the UK, I once took him to a pub in Hull on a cold, wet, windy, late summer’s day. By the time we’d passed through an historic English urban landscape – Hull’s deserted Museum Quarter – Stephen had redesigned it as an engaging set of learning locations. 

He took over NBCS as a struggling k-12 school in 1999 and engineered its transformation through a culture of sharing, openness and, crucially, trust. Understanding that teachers would need a safe space in order to model much-needed, new teaching approaches, SCIL was originally envisaged as an internal professional development initiative, led by Anne Knock. Anne, a pragmatic completer-finisher, is a perfect foil to Stephen’s 10-ideas-before-breakfast. She summarises SCIL’s three areas of interest as ‘people, places and pedagogy’ and all three impact upon each other. 

Believing that ‘you can’t teach new skills in old boxes’, Anne and Stephen have systematically set out a programme of radical transparency, destroying learning enclosures by knocking down walls, and building new, large, airy spaces that look more like Googleplex than a conventional school. 

For Stephen, this radical opening of space (classes are frequently held for 180 students at a time) fosters a ‘de-privatisation’ of teachers’ domains and work practices (six teachers need to work as a team with those 180 students).

Management consultant Peter Drucker famously said that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ and school cultures can be notoriously resistant to change, so getting teachers at NBCS to abandon their desks and behind-closed-door practices could not have been easy. By encouraging teachers to work in teams, in classes with mixed-age groups, with a greater emphasis on students following group inquiries, rather than filling in worksheets, Stephen claims that cultural shift became inevitable: 

“If teachers were doing an MBA, they'd get pushed into collaborative teams. But no university, no courses are teaching our teachers to do that. Once they recognise the pressures that come off them as a result of working in collaborative teams, they very rarely want to go back."

Stephen, Anne, and other teachers at NBCS, travelled the world in search of innovation. As a result, the pace of change quickened and staff began to see themselves as professional researchers as much as teachers. As word spread that something different was happening at NBCS, Anne’s role became more outward facing:

“My job is now with the educational community outside our school gate. The chance to play a part in influencing education more broadly is very exciting. When people come here they come because they think they're seeing buildings… and then they talk with random students and teachers, and say 'I thought I was coming here to see a building. Now I know it's so much more’.”

In today’s culture of high-stakes accountability, freedom to innovate is only tolerated if student outcomes improve. NBCS can point to improved results, year-upon-year, at all levels throughout the school since the transformation began. But how were parents persuaded to be part of the change process?  And how did new students take to a school with significantly greater freedom given to students, but significantly greater responsibility expected of them?  

Crucially, that’s where trust comes in. Parents need to be willing to trust SCIL’s judgment on which innovations to adopt, and which to reject. Teachers need to trust their students, and everyone needs to trust the process, even if things appear to get worse before they get better. Losing faith in the process, according to Anne, is one of the reasons that innovations get abandoned too soon:

“Ultimately the parents are trusting what we're doing, and we've got to respect that trust. From a teacher perspective, those first few weeks are terrible, just helping kids to get into that different way of thinking and behaving. Then the kids get it, and they settle. But sometimes people try to change, get frightened, and then they stop too soon."

Stephen’s visionary leadership has created the context and culture for innovation to flourish. After that, he simply trusts teachers to use their professional judgments in order to realise what he calls ‘multimodal’ learning:

“We're living in a world where one laptop per child doesn't capture it. They're using three or four devices (mobile, laptop, iPod, etc.). Students need to be able to switch seamlessly between online learning and face-to-face, and teachers need to deploy multiple forms of input. I’d want to influence teachers to realise that the more students own their learning, the quicker the journey will be. But I'm not about to tell teachers how to do that."

SCIL offers a provocation to the concept of the compliant teacher, passively implementing learning designs created by others. Through SCIL, a profound culture shift has taken place in NBCS. Teachers have become designers of learning, and of the spaces in which learning happens. Innovation now drives the learning. It has taken a nascent learning commons culture and made it global: 

"SCIL started off as an activity within the school. We're now thinking of reversing that, so that SCIL is the body, of which Northern Beaches is the flagship school. That then frees us up to start growing new ideas of what school might look like. That might be a school for adolescents that runs from 4.00 p.m. to 9.00 p.m. to match their circadian rhythms. It could be an inner-city warehouse school; it could be a school in Rwanda or Cambodia. Eventually, the idea of 'school' is going to transform to become, at heart, a functional community, that becomes a base station for kids  as they launch into life."

High Tech High Schools, San Diego County, USA

The final of our three case studies is a group of schools in and around San Diego. They span elementary, middle and high schools, each containing a maximum of about 450 students. Their founder and CEO is Larry Rosenstock – an ex-carpenter-cum-attorney from America’s east coast, who moved to Southern California to run the Price Charitable Fund. Having previously worked in very traditional high schools in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Larry had a good idea of what he felt didn’t work with urban high schools. So when the chance came to set up a small school in San Diego, he jumped at it.

Larry is a leader who preaches what he practises: he developed a sharp analytical mind through his legal training, but his first love is working with wood. This love is apparent from a visit to his house in La Jolla, just outside San Diego. He showed me the cabin he built himself out of redwood and cedar. It’s a thing of beauty, entirely fashioned to host a small window, originally owned by Frank Lloyd Wright, found in a junk shop many years ago. 

Larry is a living embodiment of the MIT motto, mens et manus: mind and hand. He leads by example: at High Tech High you will never find a separation of students based on academic ability and (further down the pecking order) those deemed ‘good with their hands’. Both skills are seen as important, both are nurtured.

As soon as the first school filled up, the school’s board approved another. And another. Having opened the first High Tech High school in 2000, they have averaged one new school a year. School graduation rates are 100 percent. Almost 100 percent of students go to college, with an average of 80 percent completing four-year university programmes. 35 percent of their students are the first in the family to go to college. 

All of these stats are impressive of course, but to really grasp why High Tech High differs from most schools, you have to see it for yourself. I’ve visited on numerous occasions and I’ve yet to walk around one of the schools without a student asking to show me his, or her, work. If you ever visit schools, you’ll know how unusual this is. And work is the operative word here. There are few conventional classrooms, rather they have workshops or studios. Student work is on display everywhere you look, largely because High Tech High’s main vehicle for learning is ‘the project’.

High Tech High is probably one of the world’s leading exponents of project-based learning (PBL). If you’re unfamiliar with PBL, it’s frequently (and usually wrongly) associated with a generalised approach to learning by ‘topics’, which was popularised in the 1970s and vilified thereafter for its laissez-faire, anything-goes, laxity. In the hands of expert practitioners, like those at High Tech High, PBL is what most of us do for a living: we have a need, a client, some complex questions to answer, and we come up with a collaborative solution – all within a timeframe. 

The student projects at High Tech High are usually located ‘out there’ in the community: The Blood Bank Project for the San Diego Blood Bank to raise awareness of the need to donate blood; students developed a DNA bar-coding system for identifying illegally-traded meat from protected animals in Tanzania; The San Diego Bay Study has been a 10-year project which produced books (with forewords written by conservationist Jane Goodall); built gardens; produced original research findings… you get the idea. The shorthand term for PBL is ‘learning by doing’ but, in the right hands, it’s much more than that. 

It’s clear that judged by their exam results, High Tech High students produce the required outcomes. But the depth of their knowledge – and their capacity (as Professor Guy Claxton puts it) ‘to know what to do, when you don’t know what to do’ are the main reasons why so many get accepted onto university programmes. At High Tech High, the learning is found in the work that students do, and it’s work that matters.

By now, it should come as no surprise to see that student engagement doesn’t come at the expense of high-performance, but rather is a precursor to it. The Holy Grail – in business or in education – is creating the environment and the organisational structures that secure engagement. My view is that High Tech High is one of the most successful schools in the world, because it’s one of the best examples of a Global Learning Commons I’ve seen. 

For Larry Rosenstock, the creation of an open, shared space intellectually has to be mirrored in the physical spaces where learning happens:

You don't want to warehouse kids away from the world they're preparing to enter as young adults – so we have lots of kids doing internships and community service. You want the walls to be as permeable as possible.”

The openness of the building design allows for the integration that drives High Tech High’s intellectual mission:

“We're integrating several things: we're integrating students across social class (there is no streaming at High Tech High and students are selected by a blind post-code lottery); we're integrating head and hand (there are no vocational streams: technical skills are valued equally alongside academic learning): we're integrating school and community.” 

A key strategy for Larry and his lifelong friend and colleague Rob Riordan (High Tech High’s ‘Emperor of Rigor’), was to develop a design process which was more concerned with what they wouldn’t allow, as what they would, in order to create a grown-up, responsible, learning culture. Consequently, no bells signal the ends of lessons; no staff-student-segregated bathrooms and no need to ask if you need to use it:

“What tends to happen in schools is that rules get added, but they don't get taken away. So, there's less and less oxygen. And a lot of the rules are really not necessary. The more rules you have, the more rules you can get around. We only have really have one rule here: do unto others as you’d have them do to you.

And there you have it. The stripped-back simplicity of a place like High Tech High has become almost counter-intuitive, so expectant are we of organisational complexity. We’re frequently told that schools, like many businesses, are complex places. But it’s only because we’ve allowed them to be. We created the silos, we created the faculties, we created the organisational manual. Over time, we just accept that it’s the way things get done. 

As High Tech High prove, the more complex the organisational conditions, the more basic the thought processes within them. Conversely, the simpler the structure, the more room there is for sophisticated, cross-disciplinary thinking. The beauty of having such simple structures is that the relationship between learners and teachers deepens. Most projects are team taught, so two teachers, working exclusively with 50 students over weeks, rather than hours, leads to work of the highest quality. It also means that students feel ‘known’, and no-one slips through the cracks. And when the project reaches its conclusion there is always a public ‘exhibition of learning’. 

These are extraordinary events where hundreds of parents and community members interrogate students, who have to literally ‘stand by’ their work, explaining concepts and recounting challenges. Students at High Tech High will tell you that there is nothing that incentivises them more than seeing better work, better appreciated than their own – they don’t just tolerate feedback, they demand it. 

Of course, lots of schools would claim that their students are deeply engaged in meaningful work, that parents, employers and community members play a key role in supporting students. But hardly any achieve High Tech High’s level of success (Bill Gates has described it as his favourite school), mainly because they can’t, or won’t, make the space for collaborative planning time:

“That's one way in which we're not going to allow them to slip back into being autonomous high school teachers. Here, we see teaching as a team sport. If you want to do great work, teachers need to meet. When we built High Tech High we said 'we're going to have teachers meet with each other every day of every year, in different teams’. So, on Friday, everyone in the whole school meets, on Wednesday they look at student work… we have different configurations of common planning time which allows people to feel like, and behave like they're treated professionally.”

Larry Rosenstock is in no doubt that it’s easier to start a new school than to transform an existing one. Even allowing for that, what has been achieved in this series of schools close to the Mexican border is remarkable. By defying convention (Larry’s favourite catchphrase is ‘planning is for pessimists’) and keeping their vision simple, yet steadfast, High Tech High schools are living proof that engaging students first pays dividends in terms of outcomes.


SCA 2.0, SCIL, and High Tech High have all created vibrant, innovative and outstandingly successful learning environments. Is it purely coincidental that they have done so by putting the four values/actions that drive ‘open’ (share, open, free, trust) at their core?

Here are their common success strategies: 

- By insisting that their teachers and mentors share their learning, all three have de-privatised teaching and learning. 

- By opening up the commons, and by designing workspaces without walls, they have brought Edison’s ‘machine-shop culture’ into education.  

- By bringing into the commons, experts, parents and investors, they have given an authenticity to the work of their students that is impossible to simulate in an enclosed classroom. 

- By modelling collaborative working to their students they have fostered the peer learning which is at the heart of ‘open’. 

- By emphasising adult and real-world connections, they ensure that students are preparing for the world beyond school by being in that world.

- By making their expertise and intellectual property freely available, they have created high demand from their peers and ensured that knowledge travels fast.

- By seeing technology not simply as an aide to learning but as the imperative for change, they ensure that their programmes are relevant to societal needs and societal shifts.  

- By trusting in their staff and students, and by giving them freedom and responsibility in equal measure, they have fostered a culture of learning that rewards respectful challenge, shuns unnecessary deference, and therefore constantly stays in motion.  

There is a further characteristic which unites these schools: they are determined that the ‘open revolution’ should not stop at the school gate. They embody the six ‘Do-Its’ and are determined that they should work with these engagement triggers and incorporate them into their learning designs. Most schools, sadly, have sought to exclude them.

Above all, these three case studies in creating a Global Learning Commons are inspiring examples of what happens when leaders of vision and passion are given the opportunity to defy convention. Their achievements, however, are all the more remarkable when one considers that they have been swimming against the tide of national policies in the UK, US and Australia. 

All three countries, to a greater or lesser extent, have seen the route to educational transformation through varying combinations of high-stakes testing, bringing market forces into education, narrowing the range of what should be taught, and introducing payment by results. I regularly work in all three countries and to see, and hear, the effect such policies have on the morale of the teaching profession is distressing. 

When most schools feel compelled to comply with top-down pressures, SCA 2.0, SCIL and High Tech High all demonstrate leadership qualities that are not deflected by such pressures, because they are driven by higher pursuits. 

Driven By Moral Purpose

Our three case study leaders have a clear, distributed purpose and it is unashamedly a moral one. They believe in education as a force for social equality – Marc Lewis sees his school as a catalyst for diversity and equality in the communications industry (a notoriously white, male, middle-class occupation). They believe in values-driven learning – Larry Rosenstock is fond of quoting Thomas Jefferson’s famous quote: "The purpose of public education isn't to serve the public; the purpose of public education is to create a public."  And they see it as their duty to ensure that the ideas behind their successes don’t remain in the petri dish, but spread virally throughout the system – witness Anne Knock’s sense of responsibility to educators across Australia. They all see themselves as part of a social movement to redefine education, not simply to lead it in their own schools.

They would also, I suspect, feel comfortable being described as mavericks, but it’s only because education has such a deep-seated resistance to change, that what to them seems logical appears radical to others. 

The scale of innovation that we see in these three case studies represents the exception, rather than the rule. The vast majority of schools innovate incrementally. To a certain extent, this is not their fault. It takes a brave school leader to resist the pressure of government to conform. Governments generally don’t do radical – at least not when it comes to how kids learn. Innovation, therefore, needs to come from schools themselves, and unless innovative new approaches become more disruptive, the reality is that they will fall further behind the pace of change of ‘open’.


My own experience in attempting to innovate in education came through directing two experiments in learning. The Musical Futures Programme grew out of an attempt to engage more kids in music learning. My involvement, if I’m honest, came from the personal dissatisfaction I had with the way music was taught when I attended high school, exacerbated 30 years later when my two sons had similar experiences. Funded by a UK national charity (the Paul Hamlyn Foundation), we drew on how young people learned to make music informally – in garage bands – and, thinking ‘outside-in’, brought those techniques into the classroom. 

The heart of what we were trying to do lay in the principles laid out elsewhere in this book: making music a social and practical activity; encouraging independent and inter-dependent learning; sharing student work publicly through a specially created website. We began experimenting in about 40 schools in England, and were met initially with hostility and suspicion. How could young people play instruments without learning theory and technique? How could they improve without an expert to teach them? How would they ever learn what ‘good’ music was, if we ‘pandered’ to their tastes in hip-hop or rock music?  

Gradually, through teachers seeing the transformative effect Musical Futures was having on the engagement of their students, and then spreading the word to other teachers, more schools began to adopt the approach. In 2013, 10 years after we started, we reached tipping-point: over 50 percent of all school music faculties in England had adopted Musical Futures in their teaching, and there are sister programmes in seven other countries.55 

It’s a remarkable example of how radical innovation needs to be caught, rather than imposed from above. As more school leaders saw Musical Futures in action, more of them asked ‘why shouldn’t this work across the whole school, in all subjects?’ So Learning Futures was born, and I was again asked to lead its development. 

Learning Futures followed the same principles as Musical Futures, but with a greater ambition: to see enhancing student engagement as the driver for whole school transformation. This was the point at which I realised it was one thing to change a music faculty, but quite another to change a school. 

Though the conceptual base behind Learning Futures was sound, and its impact on student learning well evidenced, its spread has been hampered by one simple reality:  at an organisational level, you can’t change how people learn, without also changing the culture that supports innovation. The conceptual model behind Learning Futures had four essential elements:

1. Project-based Learning as the prime – but not sole – method of learning, so as to maximise student engagement.

2. Extend Learning Relationships – learning is intensely relational, so we should widen the range of mentors and experts with whom the learner has contact.

3. School as Basecamp – learning becomes authentic when it is for a purpose, has impact beyond the school and supports students’ communities.

4. School as Learning Commons – as seen in Chapter Four (and below).

Most of the school leaders we worked with could cope with the first three of those elements, but felt unable, unwilling, or unlicensed to commit to the fourth. That said, an increasing number of start-up schools in the UK are working with the Innovation Unit to turn their schools into learning commons, because they can see that, if schools want to see engaged students, they need to be attending an engaging school. 

An ‘engaging school’ is one that sees the school as an integral part of its community; that welcomes mentors, experts and families into its learning spaces; is radically transparent and freely shares its expertise with others; and stimulates conversation about learning – which isn’t framed within a language of targets and numbers – with the widest possible audience. 

Creating a learning commons culture isn’t easy, but those that have succeeded have a surprisingly consistent set of ‘non-negotiables’ that help to define that culture:

A culture of collaborative enquiry – educators see themselves as researchers and developers. They are encouraged to look outside education for inspiration and innovation. They are required to share those enquiries, involving students, parents, and other staff. Their learning spaces welcome the disruption of visitors, because, as Stephen Harris says ‘the more students have to articulate their learning, the more they live it.’ They are expected to experiment and don’t face censure if their experiments don’t always work. Above all else, they are given adequate time to do this.

A culture of co-construction – educators design their learning activities with learners, not just for them.

A culture of democracy – rules are kept to a minimum. Students and their parents have a right to be engaged in making decisions.

A culture of enterprise – students engage in work that matters. Schools see themselves as social enterprise hubs, creating value for their students, and their communities.

A culture of service – their role is seen, not merely to successfully move students on to the next stage of learning (important though that is), but to serve their needs as they develop as individuals, and to help them discover their responsibilities as global citizens. Equally, learning is seen as purposeful and ethical. Educators become Heng Swee Keat’s ‘community builders’.

‘Above all, try something’

This has been a deliberately broad sweep of the challenges facing education, and educators, today. The global context described in Chapter One should demand the attention of school leaders and policy-makers everywhere. Yet the public debate on the skills teachers will need to foster in students, so that western developed nations remain economically competitive, is all but absent. 

I don’t want to give the impression that political leaders don’t understand the importance of innovation. But you can’t build innovative minds through increasing standardisation, and high stakes tests that measure little more than students’ power of recall. Establishing a yardstick that can tell us how literate and numerate our young people are, compared with other nations, gives us important data that we’d be foolish to ignore. However, gauging the strengths of an education system by PISA and TIMSS comparisons alone is like assessing the health of a patient by only taking their temperature.  

The US academic Yong Zhao brings a unique perspective to the education and economic competitiveness connection. He was schooled in China, but is now one of the foremost writers on global education systems, working out of America. At the end of 2012 he published a provocative but compelling blog post: ‘Numbers Can Lie: What TIMSS and PISA Truly Tell Us, if Anything?’

His hard-to-refute argument is that American students have performed badly at international tests of academic ability, for more than 50 years. Yet during that time they have led the world in creativity and enterprise: fifth in global competitiveness; second (behind Sweden) in the global creativity index; first in the number of patents filed. The current giants of US innovation were schooled at a time when American education was proud of its liberal arts tradition. The clear and present danger must be that, 10 years from now, the products of the current, more conservative, exam-focused system will be ill-equipped to maintain the reputation of the most innovative nation on earth.

Even those who lead schools with high rankings are aware of the long-term dangers of being driven by numbers. Paul Fisher, Head of Oakridge Primary School in Stafford, England, saw his standardised test scores among the best in the country in 2012. Dismissing the showering of praise, Paul instead argued for the removal of formal testing, claiming that their students’ successes owed more to the 90 field trips they’d undertaken rather than relentless test preparation. “It is a shame in this country that we’ve got a Government that’s trying to take us back to the Edwardian period with a focus on feeding children facts. Do we want a society that’s great at pub quizzes or one that’s great at thinking and problem solving?”

I’ve argued throughout this book that we need to radically rethink how we manage learning, in education and the world of work, in response to ‘open’. The changes that have transformed the way we learn informally are also the ones that have shifted the balance of economic power globally. In many countries we appear to be responding to the challenges of the knowledge economy, by reinforcing the industrialisation of education. This tactic might have worked well when we needed factory hands, but it is failing us now. 

Giving the commencement address at Oglethorpe University in 1932 (a period of great economic uncertainty) Franklin D. Roosevelt, remarked:

“The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”

You may not agree with my arguments here, but there is surely little doubt that we need to try something new. Because what we’ve been doing in recent years in most developed countries is to reheat 19th and 20th-century thinking and serve it up as a forward-looking approach. The world, however, no longer conforms to 19th and 20th-century models of development. Why then, do we think that we’ll find the answers by looking backwards? 

As the great educational philosopher, John Dewey, once said, “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.”


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