Monday, March 18, 2013

Google Gracious Me

This is a guest post by Philip Arneill, a year 6 teacher at the British School in Tokyo. This post was cross posted at 

Philip also has another excellent blog at 

There’s a joke which appeared in TIME magazine some years ago. It goes like this: “Rip Van Winkle awakens in the 21st century after a hundred-year snooze and is, of course, utterly bewildered by what he sees. Men and women dash about, talking to small metal devices pinned to their ears. Young people sit at home on sofas, moving miniature athletes around on electronic screens. Older folk defy death and disability with metronomes in their chests and with hips made of metal and plastic. Airports, hospitals, shopping malls–every place Rip goes just baffles him. But when he finally walks into a schoolroom, the old man knows exactly where he is. “This is a school,” he declares. “We used to have these back in 1906. Only now the blackboards are green.”
Or white. Or interactive. But has much else really changed?
According to Sugata Mitra in his recent TED talk, not really. He claims that our current, exam-based education system – originally devised as a way to effectively administer and maintain the then global British Empire without planes, computers or telephones – isn’t broken, in fact it functions perfectly. It’s just it no longer has any useful purpose in the world in which we live. It is, in his word, obsolete.
So what will the schools of the future look like? How will they function? Who can really say with any certainty? As I lugged a plastic brick of a Walkman around in the pocket of my school blazer twenty years ago, balanced out by 5 or 6 cassette tapes on the other side, and packets of AA batteries strategically hidden in smaller pockets, I would never have imagined at some point in the  future it wouldn’t be necessary to even physically buy music anymore, and I could listen to hundreds of albums instantly from a Cloud in the sky on a slimline device I can also make phone calls on. It  would have genuinely seemed like the stuff of sci-fi.
What we do know however is that children will not be required to write things by hand, and may not even need to type them. They won’t be expected to work sitting at desks in pre-assigned seats for seven hours a day, acquiring ‘knowledge’. They will need to read, to filter information, to create, to solve problems, and more than likely at their own pace, in ways and environments using tools which are personalised to their particular learning styles. Most likely all this will take place in a paperless world. In the words of Will Richardson in his book ‘Why School?‘, they will need “to connect, organise, share, collect, collaborate and publish. Does that sound like school to you?”.
The biggest catalyst for this revolution in education has undoubtedly been the development of virtual communication technologies, and a bewildering array of increasingly powerful Web 2.0 tools which facilitate it at ever greater speeds. I was lucky enough to attend the recent Google Apps for Education conference, and the immediate and empowering effect on learning can already be seen in Year 6 with our recent Poetry Pockets website. It is our hope as a team that this is one small step in creating not the new schools of the future, rather of the present; for the environment in which the children live is the one which Richardson describes above. Is it not the responsibility of school to both reflect this world and prepare the children for working it?
Our project started very simply by e-mailing a BST Primary poetry competition inspired by Ian McMillan’s “10 Things in a Wizard’s Pocket” as a Friday home learning task. This HL task was created using Google Docs, which children had been using in ICT that week. Having created a personal copy of the Doc, and written their own poem, they then ‘shared’ the Doc with their class teachers.  Through the amazingly user-friendly Google Sites, we were then able to copy and paste all the poems and create a website to share their writing with the wider world. Through the Google accounts which BST provide the children with, this has enabled them now to also begin collaborating on a class website, and in turn their own personal sites to link to that.  Additionally, by simply sharing this weblink with Mr.Thurman, all the Year 6 children were able to enter the poetry competition, something that we could never have achieved through mere teacher encouragement and enthusiastic cajoling! And so the loop continues: connecting, organising, sharing, collecting, collaborating and publishing.
All that, and not one sheet of paper used. Surely that’s a trick even a wizard doesn’t have in his pocket…


  1. As an educator, I'm excited for the possibilities that technology presents for my classroom. However, if Rip Van Winkle fell asleep today, isn't it more likely that in one hundred years, he would still recognize a school? I question whether technology is really a catalyst for genuine school change, or whether it will be just be new tools for doing the same old things.

  2. I completely agree, and I think that's the point Benjamin. It's so easy to teach the way that we were taught, but the world around us just doesn't compare, so I think we must not fall into the trap of doing 'the old things the new way', but rather doing completely new things!
    If you're interested please check out this site I have begun working on: