Rubbish in, Rubbish out

My older brother studied physics, while I studied literature. He now works as an IT consultant, while I continue to study literature (and teach it a bit too). Over the years, our divergent intellectual paths have led to a fruitful exchange of metaphors. I even made use of the different theories of light (wave versus particle) in my PhD thesis on postmodern poetry.

Brains may not be comparable to computers, but there are still many principles of computing that can help us think more clearly about education.

Rubbish in, Rubbish out

This is my favourite. It doesn’t matter how clever your coding is: if the end user feeds your elegantly designed software with rubbish, they will not get good results. The actual content fed into the system cannot be ignored.

In teaching, content is often relegated to a footnote in discussions of how to improve. Vague abstract notions about pedagogy and transferrable skills for the twentieth century, or technological fads, or the harvesting of spurious data according to mythical notions of ‘progress’, prevent teachers from actually examining the content they are teaching, or spending time improving their own subject knowledge.

Nor does it matter much how a school is governed or whether it selects academically, if the content of the curriculum is still packed full of, for example, ideologically driven anachronistic gibberish about how Shakespeare was a feminist, or a socialist. And no matter how many exciting activities you design, no one will know much about the geography of Britain after five years of doing the geography of shopping or the leisure industry.

Whatever your methods, whatever your governance structure, the principle remains: rubbish in, rubbish out.

It’s a Software Problem

Most of the computer problems that cause us so many headaches arise from software issues, not hardware. Computer hardware is actually very reliable, but the complexity of the hundreds of different programmes running on it, the endless updates and patches and security threats and compatibility problems, not to mention the above mentioned tendency of users to mess things up, lead to myriad issues which can cause us to conceive an unjust desire to throw at the wall the poor innocent piece of metal suffering under all this oppression.

That’s how the discussion can go with schoolchildren too. Instead of examining poor methods of instruction, poorly designed curriculum, slack discipline or self-serving school leadership, we are too eager to place the blame on the hardware: the children themselves. ‘What can you do with these children?’ teachers ask. ‘Of course I’d like to teach them proper academic content, but they wouldn’t cope,’ many claim.

But it’s not a hardware problem. With effective methods of instruction, a coherent curriculum and strict discipline, every child can learn a huge amount of important knowledge. The normal human long term memory is almost limitless. The bottleneck is the working memory. We’ve just got to stop crowding it with distractions and trivia, and then we can harness the true power of the hardware which every ordinary child possesses.

Reboot and Start Again

My older brother once recounted to me an episode from a comedy series where IT staff changed the recorded message on their computer help desk, to include the suggestion ‘Have you tried turning it off and on again?’ Their workload decreased dramatically.

So often the seemingly insoluble difficulties we experience with our computer equipment resolve themselves when we just make a fresh start. Right now, the state education system is going through a system reboot. Many schools will fail to start up again after the power down, but it is to be hoped that many more will emerge refreshed and able to shed the rubbish that has been clogging up their processing power and causing them to freeze up at the crucial moment.

The brand new laptop that is Michaela shows us how things should be functioning. They haven’t spent years installing unnecessary software that just slows down the system and produces nothing of value.


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