“Innovation in Education”
Lord Puttnam CBE
Final Draft
To be delivered:
Cavendish Conference Centre,
22 Duchess Mews,
London W1
Wednesday, May 23 , 2012
Good afternoon, it’s a genuine pleasure to have been asked to come to
speak to you.
Almost fifteen years ago I made a huge personal decision to leave the
world of cinema – after thirty happy and, I hope, productive years to engage full-time in the very different world of public policy – most
particularly as it relates to education, the creative industries, media
regulation and, most recently, climate change.
Unsurprisingly, this has involved a steep learning curve, and a fair
number of personal and domestic compromises.
But the result has been a new life that's offered a deep sense of
satisfaction and even, from time to time, cause for actual celebration.
What's certain is that I've absolutely no regrets; and all in all I’ve been
left feeling pretty good about both the decision and the outcome.
It's also allowed me the opportunity to engage with people who, every
day of their working lives, are attempting to mould the ‘building
blocks’, the quality of which will determine our ability to secure the
These ‘building blocks’ are, of course, our children; and the people I
find myself working with are their ‘teachers’.
And if (certainly as I see it) the future looks increasingly bleak, a kind
of 'battle' if you like - then teachers are pretty well the only 'infantry'
available to us!
This ‘battle’ I’m referring to is between what I’ve increasingly come
to see as our largely failed present, and the possibility of an altogether
more imaginative future.
It’s not that I simply want a more imaginative future – it’s more the
case that - at least in my judgement - there won't be much of a future
of any sort unless we're prepared to become significantly more
imaginative - most particularly in respect of the way in which we
educate people.
If we truly are prepared to take on the immense challenges of the 21st
century, then I believe we’ve no choice but to embrace the equally
immense power of the most recent digital technologies in learning at
every level.
And to do so in a way that makes our present rate of progress look
exactly what it is – pitifully inadequate.
Let’s face it; in many respects life in the UK as in most other parts of
the world has been quite literally transformed in the past twenty years
or so.
Digital technology – mobile telephony and the internet in particular –
has fundamentally reshaped the way in which people of every age
connect with, make sense of, and engage with society.
Rightly or wrongly, people expect an entirely new form of
relationship with the world around them; one that doesn’t simply rely
on accessing information, but on creating new knowledge, new
products and even new resources.
Learning is no longer something that needs to happen within
particular hours, in a particular place, or even with a particular group
of people.
The immense power of the worldwide web means that a fantastic
‘knowledge resource’ is just a click away - in schools, colleges,
homes and on the move - to the extent that anyone with an internet
connection has the power to access this extraordinary treasure trove of
knowledge within, literally, seconds.
Any time. Any place.
These digital technologies have allowed us to store, share and search
knowledge in ways that our predecessors could barely have dreamed
In every sense the world’s ‘digital library is always open’.
Yet it’s equally true that the existence of this extraordinary
cornucopia of knowledge makes the need for teachers and curators of
information - in essence, ‘trusted learning guides’ – more crucial than
In the New York Times a few weeks ago, there was a quote from
Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the Programme for International
Student Assessment (PISA) for the OECD.
What he actually said was:
"Knowledge and skills have become the global currency of 21st
Century economies, but there is no Central bank that prints this
But I'd argue that it's our schools find themselves playing an
absolutely central role in making that currency generally available.
Young people in particular may be very smart about using the
technology – a good deal smarter than most of us I suspect.
But in today's society, access to communication is no longer confined,
as it was in the past, to any one small elite.
Today anyone can join a social network or set up a blog and,
potentially, reach out to other interested souls – distance no longer
being an obstacle.
Needless to say there’s also a downside; all too often it feels as
though the very loudest voices succeed in drowning out the most
reasonable, the thoughtful, the moderate – sometimes to a point at
which it makes you want to scream with frustration.
Some of the comments put up in response to newspaper articles, or to
video clips on YouTube would appear to demonstrate the presence of
a kind of ‘digital lynch mob’ – a new and ever-more present threat,
and one that needs to be guarded against vigilantly!
On the other hand, it’s refreshing to see, on Twitter for example, those
who use racist taunts or other language which constitute a criminal
offence in an online and offline world, quickly identified by other
users and brought to justice.
A digital society is, or should be just that – a society – a society in
which we thoughtfully balance our rights, with our responsibility to
respect and, most importantly, learn from others.
Teachers, as the 'custodians of knowledge', have a crucial part to play
in helping steer young people toward the type of information that's
most likely to help them develop as well-informed citizens, equipped
to play the fullest possible role in a 'digital society'.
By its very nature, a traditionally tolerant civil society such as ours
cannot afford the luxury of being reduced to some kind of anarchistic
free for all!
Surely we need to create learning environments in which informed
responses to the challenges of the 21st century are encouraged and
nurtured – this would be a world in which prejudice and ignorance
would hopefully become rather better understood for exactly what
they are – a blight on any society worthy of the name!
Yet despite endless speeches about the degree to which our future
global economy is dependent on the development of creativity and
imagination, can we honestly claim to be doing anything tangible to
locate and release those talents – at best I’d have to say, ‘nothing like
Tied as we are to our existing structures and precepts, I’m not sure
we're even entirely sure how to go about releasing them!
Students starting school this year will enter the world of work at
some point between 2025 and 2030; and retire around 2075 assuming they can afford to!
Given that we can’t, with any degree of certainty, predict what the
world’s going to look like in five, let alone ten years’ from now,
we’ve certainly no idea what it’s going to look like in 2075!
Take just one example of the pace of change; is there anyone in this
room who would have predicted, 3 or 4 years ago, that Facebook
would have 850 million daily users – or that it would pay 1 billion
dollars for a photosharing company that employs just thirteen people!
So the very best we can do is prepare today’s students for a world of
increasing unpredictability, equipping them with the necessary degree
of co-operation, agility, compassion and intelligence to anticipate and
deal with the many, and mostly unknown challenges, of the next halfcentury.
[Improvise RTE point about ‘half a dozen’ careers in a lifetime, and
the need to educate a different type of person, for a different world
than that which existed 40 years ago!].
The American commentator, Tom Friedman, in an article for the New
York Times in March, argued that:
"In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could
earn an average lifestyle".
But, as he puts it; like it or not, "today, 'average' is over".
He goes on to say that, "everyone needs to find their own 'extra' their unique 'value contribution'; that 'special something' that makes
them stand out in whatever field of employment they happen to find
themselves - today 'average' is definitely over..... because the best jobs
already require workers to have a better education, and more of it, to
ensure they make themselves above average "!
All of which begs the fundamental question; are we fully conscious of
the fact that, never before in human history, have a single generation
of educationalists been asked to meet and defeat anything like this
level of competition and complexity.
[Improvise RTE point: "2030 is the key year.
By then we'll either have reached the 'right side of sustainability' or
It's therefore critical that, by 2015, we need to start to get things right,
and put ourselves in a position to anticipate our longer- term future.]
Happily we are not without support; as I suggested earlier, it
is 'digital technology' - in its various forms - that's likely to be the
driving force behind many, or even most of the changes we'll be
wrestling with in the months, years, and even decades ahead.
However, addressing them is going to require, not only a wellthought-through and continuing policy of public and private
investment, but also a 'vision', or at least a 'framework' that's
sufficiently coherent to ensure that every policy, right across
Government is robust enough to ensure the UK is able to keep pace
with the progress of other technologically and scientifically ambitious
For, as we are now only too aware, the advent of high-speed
broadband in educational institutions, from primary schools to
universities and colleges of further education, opens the door to a
faster, richer, more interactive and more informative Internet
experience than has ever been possible with what we have, rather
complacently, come to think of as conventional broadband capacities.
The truth is that the streaming of videos, plays, movies and animation,
can now be seamlessly incorporated into just about every aspect of
day-to-day teaching and learning – including distance learning.
Surely our immediate task is to explore and harness all of these
opportunities in addressing the many, many challenges we as
a global and digital society already face.
So, in these difficult financial circumstances, with jobs at an absolute
premium, how can the UK be encouraged to 'up its 21st Century
Well, let's start by accepting that 'change' is the only certainty that
confronts us.
One example of the type of 'change' I'm referring to is the fact that
many of those currently in education are likely to spend the vast
majority of their working lives in environments dominated by Voice
Recognition Technologies – with all the ‘productivity benefits’, along
with changes in working practice that will inevitably bring.
But it's rare to find anybody seriously engaging with that as an
'educational issue' - let alone a problem?
Yet the concept of ‘Oracy’ was developed - almost fifty years ago by a British educational scientist, Andrew Wilkinson – specifically to
help identify the importance of oral skills in education.
So what better way to address this than by introducing, into our
classrooms, a pedagogy designed to optimise familiarity with voicedriven technology, and all of the additional disciplines of speech and
thought that go with it?
And before anyone is tempted to shove this problem back in the 'too
difficult box', let's take a look at what the world’s leading technology
companies are already doing.
Well 'Google voice' has become a standard functionality on the latest
generation of Android phones; just a few months ago, Amazon
bought its own voice recognition technology company; and Apple has
introduced its 'Siri' system in its most recent iPhones and iPads - and
is rumoured to be adopting it for its next generation of television sets.
Needless to say, this technology is, as yet, far from perfect.
As ever it has to survive the sometimes tortuous path that leads from
creation, through technology hype, to widespread adoption - followed
by a tangible impact on productivity.
And before anyone accuses me of suggesting the abandonment of
keyboard skills; they will undoubtedly remain relevant, although in
my judgement, progressively less so.
I'm told that remarkably little R & D effort is being expended in
developing a new generation of computer keyboards - they are quite
likely as good as they're ever going to be - no, the large manufacturers
would appear to see the transition to 'voice recognition' as an
inevitability - and they are planning their and our futures accordingly.
In this context, it's worth noting that a recent report by an expert panel
leading a review of the UK curriculum devoted an entire chapter to
the way in which 'oracy' has to become, in their words, "a strong
feature in teaching".
They go on to say that "it should now be promoted more widely as an
integral feature of all subjects" because, "encouraging higher levels of
quality discourse, and its associated cognitive development, is not
solely an issue in the teaching of English".
The report's conclusion is that teachers have to become better at
listening; that pupils have to become more articulate, and that 'oracy'
is for everyone, not just the English Department.
In fact as Michael Shaw observed in the Times Educational
Supplement a few weeks ago: "Believing pupils should leave school
with strong spoken-language skills is not a brand-new idea. The Art
of Rhetoric was written 2,400 years ago by Aristotle, yet is still the
first book speech-writers turn to, and can be found today on Amazon's
best-seller lists!
More recently (if you can call it that!) it was the great teacher,
Quintilian who, in AD 95, called on schools in Rome to ensure that,
above all else, they helped pupils to become "good orators".
Yet here we are, nearly two millennia later, teaching a curriculum that
continues to give remarkably little weight to oral skills.
Today's concept of 'oracy' represents a far greater challenge than
simply speaking persuasively in school or inter-school debates.
It comes far closer to being a crucial 'life-skill'.
It's fundamental to employment; to relationships; to social mobility,
and to the way in which we actually structure thought.
So why have so many attempts to promote it in schools failed?
One reason is that it requires letting pupils talk more, and teachers
rather less, and this of course is where the traditionalists begin to sit
up, and register alarm.
Much more reassuring to return to the comfort zone of the 3 Rs; so
reading, writing and ‘rithmetic continue to dominate primary school
tests, giving teachers little if any incentive to focus on the spoken
In 1975 the U.K.'s then highly influential 'Bullock report' estimated
that teachers were so long-winded that, on average, each pupil only
got about 20 seconds to speak during a lesson!
I sincerely believe things have improved since then, but the
development of 'oracy' badly needs to be re-prioritised in this digital
I don't think I'm being wholly unfair in suggesting that there's been
something of an 'institutionalised' reluctance - or is it resistance among politicians, and well as teachers and educationalists, to
fully embrace, optimise and anticipate the potential of digital
innovation at every level of the educational system – certainly this is
true in the UK, the US and across much of Western Europe.
One of my deepest concerns is that we've not adequately prepared
ourselves for the rate, or the consequences of change; and that far too
many policymakers are continuing to look at education as they wish it
to be or, more to the point, as it used to be!
As a consequence, an increasing disparity has been allowed to open
up between life in the lecture hall or classroom, and daily experience
of the role technology plays beyond the college and school gates.
To my mind, the roots of the profound change which many of those
working in education are being challenged to address, run very deep,
and one of the casualties is that technology has not, as yet, been
allowed to make anything like the significant impact on the process of
teaching and learning as has proved possible in most other fields of
human activity.
And it is not just teaching as such which can be transformed by
We should also be harnessing the power of ICT to help transform the
way we undertake assessment.
For example, there’s the opportunity to provide far more regular and
detailed feedback on the progress of students at every stage of their
New assessment technologies have been developed which can be
harnessed to provide a much more sophisticated understanding of
what has been learnt and what has not – and to give us a far greater
insight into how, and why.
As I suggested at the outset, we simply have to know more, much
more about the ‘learning potential’ of every young person we seek to
As Albert Einstein once put it;
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb
a tree, it will live out its entire life believing it is stupid.”
In all honesty (and possibly as a result of being in Opposition!) I'm
finding it incredibly difficult to persuade policymakers – with a few
honourable exceptions - that if we're to win the trust and respect of
our students we need to develop a far better sense of the
challenges they face - we need to engage more effectively
with their world, and learn to view it, and the way in which they relate
to it, through their eyes.
Which is probably as good a moment as any to raise the fact that,
during the course of the many years I've been pursuing this argument,
the affordable yet powerful technologies I've been talking about
have become embedded in the everyday lives of a whole new
generation of teachers and educators!
Begging the question, why on earth are we continuing to make such
heavy weather of transforming learning?
In essence, the problems surrounding the adoption of advanced
technologies as part and parcel of day-to-day teaching practice stem
from two very different approaches to the technology itself.
The first seems designed to support or reinforce existing, or in many
cases outdated practices - some of which are only changing at a
glacial pace!
In some respects it's a little like putting the man with the red flag back
in front of each automobile, and encouraging him to jog a little more
Merely 'digitising' old practices is, in effect, simply seeking to get
the same or similar results - but faster.
Which takes us to the real heart of the problem. If all you do with
technology is use it to support existing methodologies and practice,
then why, and on what possible basis would you expect new or
significantly better results?
I’ve long been suggesting to anyone who'll listen that what's required
to drive educational improvement is a second; much more radical
approach – we need to consider what a major, positive and creative
'disruption' in learning and teaching might look like.
That's to say, what advances could an entire digital pedagogy achieve
- as opposed to simply 'digitising' the existing curriculum?
Obviously much of what I'm proposing inevitably challenges WHAT
we teach; as well as HOW it’s taught – and even, in some cases,
WHY it’s taught!
This in turn underlines the fact that significant investment in the
continuing development of the profession as a whole is absolutely
critical if we’re to enable our very best teachers to grow and remain
confident in a rapidly changing educational and technological
And I do mean every form of investment - personal and professional,
as well as financial.
With all of that in mind, if we are to navigate our way to the type
society we would wish to see emerge in the ever-more difficult world
I've been describing, let me conclude by re-assessing the crucial
lessons I've learned during these past 15 years working in Parliament.
Unsurprisingly, in one sense and another they all revolve around
Firstly, like it or not, getting our education systems right is not
just one among a number of social and political priorities - education
is far closer to being 'the whole ball of wax' for us and every
ambitious nation on earth.
Secondly, no education system - and therefore no society - can ever
be better than the quality of the teachers it employs, and
the constantly improving standards it requires of them.
Finally, there needs to be an undisputed national and global
acceptance of the importance of the education of women.
As I discovered during my seven years with UNICEF, women are the
fulcrum around which can be built educated and healthy families –
and those families will invariably be smaller, and better cared for.
There is absolutely no magic in any of this.
The reality is that a world-class education system can, over time,
deliver the economic underpinning for world-class health and social
security, whereas the reverse can never ever be possible.
The good news is that this sector continues to throw up excellent
people, from just about every nation on earth who instinctively
understand that education at every level will be both the
'cause and the consequence' of any possibility of regional, national or
global renewal.
It's just that people like me need to get about more, and become far,
far more persuasive in getting that message across!
I think we all now acknowledge that, as a human species, we know
more than we've ever known, about ourselves and our natural
environment; so if I may I'll leave you with a quote from the
environmentalist and futurist, Stewart Brand which, whilst ostensibly
flattering, is also very cautionary:
"We are as Gods; so we'd better start getting good at it!"
Thank you very much for taking the time to listen to me.
(3,647words - about 25 minutes)