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Handheld Learning and Individuated Achievement PDF Print E-mail
Written by Alex Roushias on Wednesday, 04 October 2006
/troubled.jpgEducation exists under ideological constraints.

In 1960s mainland Britain, according to the doctor-writer Theodore Dalrymple (2001), “the abolition of selective public secondary schools, on the grounds that they were socially divisive, resulted in a sudden halving of the proportion of public school students at the best universities.”

The same egalitarian concerns led to the teaching of mixed ability pupils in the same class. However, by the early 1990s a former Chief Inspector of Schools concluded that "most teachers aim for the middle: The bright children are frustrated and the ones at the bottom get left behind", and, in 2001, the inspectorate reported that almost all schools banded pupils by ability at secondary level, especially in the sciences and languages. Last year comprehensive schools in Glasgow and Hampshire received extensive press coverage, and government interest, for streaming children by ability instead of chronological age.


The general problem of adapting education to all could not be solved by putting all pupils in the same class - as is regularly satirized on South Park. This level of egalitarianism was not even implemented in the Soviet Union, where pupils were taught mathematics and sciences according to their ability. Nevertheless, in Britain and America, where education has not been a great success in recent decades, great anxiety exists over providing pupils with the sort of individuated education that they and the economy clearly need. The specialized public high schools of New York City, whose students gain entry by competitive exam, such as the Bronx High School of Science, are decried as elitist, and a 1997 Labour pledge to open similar institutions of excellence in the UK was seemingly buried under similar concerns. At the same time, standards in non-specialized schools continue to cause concern.

An ideological conflation of competition and elitism (or is it competitiveness and chauvinist imperialism?) seems to rest at the heart of the current concern over ‘the problem with boys’ - problems that led Christina Hoff Sommers (2000) to declare that feminized education is harming our young men. Co-operative group work, and extended course work, seems to alienate boys. A gender gap has been added to the race gap in educational achievement, and we have reached a situation where Trevor Phillips (2005) suggests that black boys (and not girls) be separated from their classmates. Girls have overtaken boys in terms of quantitative performance, but does this really offer a qualitative benefit for girls? At the time of writing, headlines on the first page of the BBC education website include Maths GSCE coursework axed (finally), ‘Free up curriculum’ teachers say, Next wave of scientists ‘at risk’ and Truancy rates at all time high.

Much will and has been said about the advantage of Handheld Learning as a tool which engages students because it is isomorphic with the out of classroom networking technologies they already employ. More than this, it offers us a solution to all the moral dichotomies in education. The huge advantage of Handheld Learning is that education can be adapted to the individual needs of the learner as well as being inclusive. When learning is not only networked but individuated, education can be simultaneously collaborative, ability-driven and entrepreneurial.

About the Author

Alex Roushias is a consultant with Handheld Learning.

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Comments from the forum:
Handheld Learning and Individuated Achievement
Tony    November 8th, 2006 - 7:12 PM
I admit I was slightly shocked at last year’s Handheld Learning conference at Goldsmiths when I shared a table one lunchtime with a group of committed comprehensive teachers and Alex confidently challenged our liberal antagonism towards selective education with the statistic from Theodore Darlrymple he quotes here.

At the time I was far too interested in the reaction of the teachers to collect my thoughts and respond intelligently, had I done so my instant reply would probably have been to leap to the defence comprehensive education, however, on reflection I can see that this stark comparison is too simplistic and emotive.

It is clear to me that comprehensive education has never been properly realised (in England at least) even now we still have selection by academic achievement in many areas, and by ability to pay everywhere, not to mention gender and increasingly religious segregation masquerading as comprehensiveness. From the start the experiment was ill conceived as a “Grammar school education for all” rather than more appropriate personalised learning for all.

So it is not the outcomes of the (hobbled) comprehensive experiment I would want to defend but the principle of a more appropriate and equitable educational experience for everyone. 

I have a similar “knee-jerk” need to defend mixed-ability teaching. I think you will find there is just as much evidence out there to defend it as there is to criticise it. The problem is that the issue is not absolute, it is relative to who you are and what you are trying to do. If you subscribe to a narrow, knowledge transfer view of education then setting and streaming may well squeeze more kids through your particular sausage factory. For me, learning has a broader remit than this and I would miss the dynamic of different perspectives brought to more active learning by diverse groups of young people.

I was at a meeting just after the public axing of maths coursework and (surprise) my first reaction was to defend extended project work. But yet again it is not that simple. Coursework was adopted to get at those procedural aspects of capability that are difficult to get at in a formal written exam. There are lots of them, they are very important, and they need to be registered and valued, but unfortunately coursework is not very good at doing this. Ministers may have different reasons for getting rid of it, but we need to make sure that we replace it with better ways of recording young peoples’ breadth of ability. 

So well done Alex, you pressed my buttons - again ;-) Unfortunately I am less optimistic that handheld devises in education offer instant solutions to any of the above. The educational establishment still holds the final say in school, and just as we have cocked up potentially exciting and liberating concepts like comprehensive schools, mixed ability teaching and coursework, I see no reason why handheld technology should be any different. Unless of course we use them to bypass school altogether?

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