Man with a mission

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

David Puttnam had a storied 30-year career as an independent film producer (The Mission, The Killing Fields, Local Hero, Chariots of Fire, Midnight Express, to cite just a few of his award-winning films) before he retired from film production to focus on public policy related to education, the environment, and the creative and communications industries. Lord Puttnam, who is now the UK Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to Viet Nam, Laos, Cambodia and Burma, the Republic of Ireland’s Digital Champion, and chair of Ireland-based Atticus Education, which delivers interactive seminars on film and other subjects to educational institutions around the world, quit school at 16. (“I was bored to tears,” he says. “It was night school that saved me.”) Marilyn Achiron, editor at the Directorate of Education and Skills, met with Lord Puttnam in early November when he was in Paris to give a keynote address to the CERI Conference on Innovation, Governance and Reform in Education.

Marilyn Achiron: In your keynote speech, you talk about creativity in using technologies in education. What do you mean by that? 

David Puttnam: Creativity, for me, is finding metaphors, finding ways of explaining things in an interesting manner. Innovation in teaching is more than just technique. It’s a way of getting teachers to understand that teaching is a wildly interesting, imaginative job; and the results you can get – as we used to call it, the “lightbulb moment” – when you find the right switch for that lightbulb, are absolutely remarkable. But unfortunately, because of curricula pressures, personal pressures, because of class size, etc., teachers find it increasingly difficult to individualise kids in that sense: one kid’s lightbulb is not going to be the same as that of another kid.

MA: In your travels, do you find that teachers are willing to learn new pedagogies, learn to use new technologies in the classroom, or is there resistance? 

DP: I chair the Times Educational Supplement advisory board. In 2008, we realised that we had a perfectly efficient social media site – TES Connect. And we wondered what would happen if we really opened it up to teachers, to try to encourage teachers to talk to each other instead of through us. Teachers place learning materials, lesson plans, ideas, questions on the site. We’ve now reached a point at which over a million teachers a day, from all over the world, are now accessing this one site. So the idea that teachers aren’t interested in talking to other teachers, or in learning from other teachers, or in passing on information to other teachers has been blown right out of the water. The day when you went to your classroom, closed the door, and jealously guarded your own pedagogy – those days are over, gone.

Having seen the extraordinary success of  social media sites – TES Connect, and others – one criticism I would make is of the overall quality of the resources that are available. Quantitatively, we’ve hit a gold mine; qualitatively, I think it’s operating at about 20% of what’s possible. You need to make sure that the resources posted stimulate really innovative and interesting work. One thing we’re looking into is the concept of copyright-free classrooms, which would mean that teachers wouldn’t have to worry about what they can and can’t use – movie clips, clips from television, whatever it might be – so that we’d in effect be challenging teachers to take material and re-use it, rather than looking over their shoulders wondering if they can. It would create an environment of “permissibility” for teachers to find out what’s possible.

MA: As a film producer, you had direct control over the process and your product, you had relatively quick reaction time from the people you worked with. Are you frustrated now in your policy work on education and climate change?

DP: Oh deeply. I no longer believe, in my heart of hearts, that the political will exists to turn things around – until we are faced with an evidential, existential crisis.

MA: What will that be?

It’s going to have to be pretty catastrophic to create lasting behaviour change; and it’s going to have to be something with a clear “read across” to other nations. It can’t just be inundation of coastal Bangladesh, or the vanishing of the Maldives. It can’t just be that. It’s got to be a situation in which every farmer in the [US] Midwest says: “It’s game over”. It has to shatter complacency at the UN; it has to shatter complacency within the OECD.

MA: How do we convince aging populations, particularly in the West, that improving education and maintaining schools are important? 

Anyone who is sufficiently a fantasist to think that good education systems are not a prerequisite to the health care they want, and the pensions they want, and the social security they want as they get older is bonkers, just plain bonkers!

As we discussed during the conference, the difference between the [highly innovative] medical profession and the teaching profession is quite simple. If you’re a surgeon and I come to you with a serious health issue, and you say to me, “You really do have a problem; however, I was reading the other day about a procedure which is really interesting. It’s been used several times and it could – could – save you”, I’m going to say, “Where do I sign?”

What you have is a process that constantly incentivises innovation, because through a series of relatively short-term wins you get long-term gains. The default mechanism in the education world is the opposite, which is: “How do we be sure it will work?” Because the crisis isn’t acute – or isn’t perceived to be acute. That, I think, is why the medical world has developed at an extraordinary pace – and continues to – and why education languishes.

Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)
Centre for Educational Research and Innovation: Conference on Innovation, Governance and Reform in Education
David Puttnam’s PowerPoint Presentation at the CERI Conference on Innovation, Governance and Reform in Education
Photo credit: © OECD/Marco Illuminati

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