David Hargreaves: Teachers must become networking wizards

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The Independent Online

Politicians have a new language for reform in education: schools are not merely to be "improved", but "transformed". The top-down approach of the successful literacy and numeracy strategies is reaching its limits and ministers now talk about the need for the next round of innovation to be developed in schools.

Yet they do not have a strategy for doing this or for spreading the improvements across 24,000 schools. No minister wants to be seen suggesting a return to a 1960s policy of "let a thousand flowers bloom". So they talk innovation but continue to practise command and control, preferring to roll out large-scale initiatives from the DfES.

The path to transformation requires schools to innovate, but in a disciplined way. This means working on agreed themes for innovation, such as classroom learning and teaching, student behaviour, the structure of the day. It also means schools should build on, and improve, what is known to be good practice. Yet there is no tradition of systematic innovation in schools.

Teachers naturally tinker with lessons as they adapt what they do to meet the demands of the situation. Yet much of this good practice is locked in the heads of individual teachers and not shared widely with other practitioners. Attempts to change this culture, through the "beacon school" initiative for example, have had limited success.

But successful models exist elsewhere, in computing, for instance - as in the hacker culture that created the internet, which started as a network of co-operating users. Its original conception in the late 1960s was to share computing resources between American academic centres, each of which acted as both server and client. In the same way, the web developed from a system designed to help physicists share data.

Hackers are not secretive, lone computer criminals - they are properly called "crackers". Rather, hackers are passionate innovators, who, through co-operation and free communication, played the pivotal role in the creation of the internet. Their goal is excellence, which determines the need for sharing and openness.

We need such a new model in education. The professional values and norms of teachers are quite close to those of the hackers. The low morale and loss of creativity among many teachers can be changed by a strategy for innovation that appeals to their deeper values. Teachers' innovation networks can capture the hacker culture - the passion, the can-do, the collective sharing.

It took just one man, Linus Torvalds, to get thousands of people to collaborate on the rapid development of Linux, an operating system good enough to challenge Microsoft. Teachers can do something similar. They can create a collectively-owned pool of innovation, offering their best practices as public goods, as an educational equivalent to the Linux phenomenon.

Secondary school teachers are passionate about their subject and often have more in common with teachers of the same subject in other schools than with teachers of a different subject in the same school. Here is an example of a potential natural teacher network which, with support, could be used to transform teaching.

Teachers should innovate and then spread the outcomes rapidly, like an epidemic, through the dense web of networks, supported by Information Communication Technology (ICT), that now link teachers and schools. The National College for School Leadership project on networked learning communities, about which teachers are wildly enthusiastic, provides the infrastructure for such a strategy.

At the heart of transformation are networks and on-line communities of educators who know how to transfer innovation. Like the internet, they need no central authority; the role of government would be not be to take control of them, or administer them, or even pay for them, but to help them flourish as a system for moving best practice laterally, and then simply let teachers get on with the job. Do ministers now have to courage to introduce into the education service the spirit of disciplined innovation that allowed computer hackers to transform the world of telecommunications?

The writer is chairman of the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta), and was formerly the chief executive of the exams watchdog, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. He is author of 'Education Epidemic' published by Demos today