London Connection Q&A: IOE academic Dr Clare Brooks

Institute of Education academic and MA in Education Programme Director, Dr Clare Brooks, talks about the ‘What future for education?’ MOOC
School children at British Museum
The 'What future for education?' MOOC challenges a number of commonplace notions
The discourse of the charismatic practitioner is very popular within our culture – think of Dangerous Minds and Dead Poets Society

What inspired you to produce the ‘What future for education?’ MOOC?
Having taught the ‘What is Education?’ module for the MA in Education, two things struck me as being really interesting. One was the opportunity to listen to a variety of academics talking about their work, and how incredibly insightful it was to see the variety of different of ways that they looked at the theme of education. Both myself and the students found that really engaging, challenging and exciting.

The second aspect of it was that the quite open nature of ‘What is Education?’ meant that a lot of people were talking about their own experience: of being a teacher, or student, or being involved in education in some way. And they were making sense of all these different ideas, through their own experience. I thought that was a wonderful thing that lots of other people would want to participate in, but – most significantly – people who weren’t necessarily teachers.

A lot of people have an interest in education – we’ve all been to school – and you talk about education with friends. Everybody’s got a view on it, whether they’re an education professional or not. What struck me was this was a great way of informing those debates: ideas about learning, class sizes, the independent sector, academies, anything like that. People always refer back to their own experience. What I wanted to do was to give them some theoretical frameworks, just to inform that a little bit more.

Watch an introductory video about 'What future for education?'

Could you identify some of the commonplace notions about education that the MOOC sets out to challenge?
Each week we take one theme and try to address one of these commonplace notions. The first one is ideas about learning: that there’s one particular way to learn, or that the best way to learn is with children sat in rows. The second week focusses on commonplace notions about intelligence – that you’re born clever, or that some people are genetically disposed to be particularly bright. The third one that we tackle is about teachers, and that there’s one way to be a good teacher. And there are others: What makes a good school? What is the government’s role within education?

"When you read anything about education in the tabloid press, statements are made about how we all think education should be. And, actually, we don’t all think education should be like that." 

Do you think these are all notions that need to be challenged?
Yes, I do think they need to be challenged. I like taking the tabloid press as an example. When you read anything about education in the tabloid press, statements are made about how we all think education should be. And, actually, we don’t all think education should be like that. There are commonplace notions about things like homework – homework is a good thing. Well, is homework a good thing? What does the research tell us about ‘Is homework a good thing?’ and why are we all so convinced that homework is a good thing?

Are there any issues that are currently being talked about in the tabloid press that are especially irritating to you as an education academic?
I wouldn’t know where to begin! Particularly at the moment, with our new Secretary of State for Education, there’s the question of ability groupings – that the best way to teach kids is have them in ability groupings. And that’s often juxtaposed with the idea of mixed abilities. The thing I find most annoying about that is the sense that there’s one right answer, and you’ve got different people drawing upon different bits of research that’s seemingly contradictory and they’re all saying that this is fact.

"We should be talking about good teaching rather than ‘the good teacher’. We personify this idea, whereas actually we all know as teachers that some days we’re good and some days we’re not so good."

In week 3 you interview IOE academic Professor Alex Moore about ‘What makes a good teacher?’ How do you explore this theme?
Alex has written a book, The Good Teacher, which I really enjoyed. In the interview for the MOOC he says, ‘Well, I don’t really talk about the good teacher, I talk about different discourses of the good teacher’. And his point is that it’s about good teaching. We should be talking about good teaching rather than ‘the good teacher’. We personify this idea, whereas actually we all know as teachers that some days we’re good and some days we’re not so good.

And do you explore the role of the teacher in popular culture: film or literature?
One of the themes Alex talks about is the discourse of the charismatic practitioner, and that’s a discourse that’s very popular within our culture – think of Dangerous Minds and Dead Poets Society. In Alex’s book he talks about how they all have similar qualities: they’re mavericks, they’re saviours. They’re always operating against the grain and they have to overcome some kind of personal tragedy, and then they turn everybody around. It’s a salvation story, but within it is a discourse of what a good teacher must be like – they must be inspirational. And, actually, good teachers are not really like that.

So is that image of the inspirational teacher a dangerous myth?
Well, I think it’s perfectly entertaining if you’re going to watch a movie – that I have no problem with. Where it becomes dangerous is when student teachers think that that’s what they have to be like in order to be good at teaching; that they think something is wrong with them because they’re not terribly charismatic or maverick. It’s a discourse of good teaching that’s not helpful in thinking about how do I become better at teaching.

"The most significant factor about whether a school is going to be in the league tables and is going to be doing well is the socioeconomic background of the people that send their children to that school."

Can we infer by the title of the week 4 course (‘Can schools make a difference?’) that, in certain instances, schools actually don’t make a difference?
That’s one of the reasons I chose that title. There’s a chapter in a book called Bad Education: Debunking Myths in Education (edited by Philip Adey and Justin Dillon) by Dylan Wiliam entitled ‘Are there ‘good’ schools and ‘bad’ schools?’, where he argues that schools can’t make up for differences outside of the school. It’s not the type of school that matters, it’s more significant as to where the school is geographically and what the catchment area is like. So the most significant factor about whether a school is going to be in the league tables and is going to be doing well is the socioeconomic background of the people that send their children to that school. And it does make you wonder, well, what’s the point of school then? If these things are self-ordained and we can’t change anything, what is the point of what we’re doing? And, of course, the counterbalance of that is that teachers can make a huge impact – but the impact they can make is probably on an individual, one-to-one basis, as opposed to a wholescale basis.

Participants explore the relationship between education and schooling in week five. What does this cover exactly?
When we talk about education we often confuse it with schooling. We talk about somebody ‘getting an education’, when actually we really mean ‘getting qualifications’ – somebody going through the process of schooling. A lot of education happens at school, but school is not the only place where education can take place. It can also take place in museums, art galleries, cinema – that’s the distinction that we make there.

What are some of the current utopian visions for education that you explore in week six, and do you think any of them are achievable?
In week 6 we draw predominantly from TED talks. They’re a fantastic tool for this sort of thing – people who’ve got an idea that they desperately want to share. And, by definition, those ideas are often aspirational and often based on something done at quite a local scale where it has been successful. The challenge is about the rolling out of such an idea. So we give people a range of TED talks to look at – for example, Ken Robinson’s incredibly engaging talk about creativity in schools – and then we ask participants: ‘Would it work in your context?’

Watch Sir Ken Robinson: 'Do schools kill creativity?' on TEDTalks

Could you say a little bit about how the learning journals will work?
We’re fascinated by this idea of learning in a MOOC. One of the essences of a MOOC which I think is different to, for example, a book, is that a book is a static repository of information and knowledge. A MOOC could be that, too, because it could just be a series of videos and readings that are curated and placed online. The difference is that a MOOC is a live event, and the ‘liveness’ is the participation in the discussion forums, the Google Hangouts, and your own engagement in thinking about these ideas and being challenged by some of the activities and things other people are saying.

"We’ll be looking at the learning journals and trying to pinpoint where learning has taken place, and what we’ve done to enable that learning to happen."

That’s what we want people to capture: the ‘liveness’ of that event. And one of the mechanisms for doing that is to write, and to use writing as an engaging process where you actually stimulate further thought. Then, at the end of the MOOC, we’ve asked people to send us their journals – and it’s entirely up to them whether they do share them with us. But we’re really fascinated to see what the impact of this has been, and what is it that helps people to learn. Is it seeing Alex Moore talking about good teachers? Is it the fact they’ve read something in somebody’s blog that stimulated them? Or is that they’ve engaged in a discussion forum or Google Hangout where somebody’s questioned them or challenged them about something? That’s what we’re interested in – where does that learning happen?

We’ve had a small amount of funding from the Centre for Distance Education to do some research on this. I’m working with a colleague, Eileen Kennedy, who is an expert on what’s called ‘learning design’ – how you design a thing so that learning takes place. We’ll be looking at the learning journals and trying to pinpoint where learning has taken place, and what we’ve done to enable that learning to happen. Apart from the initial instruction dimension of it, a MOOC is largely teacher-free. There are many academics who question if learning can take place in a largely teacher-free environment. And that’s what we’re trying to find out: if learning has taken place, what’s been the catalyst to enable that to happen, and how can we design future learning experiences to enable more of that to happen?

Dr Clare BrooksHow does the MOOC relate to the MA in Education offered through the International Programmes?
We describe this MOOC as a ‘teaser’ course for the MA, the idea being that the content is different from the MA module but the pedagogy is the same, the approach is the same, and the format is very similar. We want people to be intrigued and drawn in by the MOOC, and if they’re grabbed by it they may want to think about doing the Masters. We also want to ‘tease’ people with these ideas about education. The litmus test is that my partner read the course description and said, ‘Oh, I might be interested in that’. And he works in IT!