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Learning Library Blog Lord Jim Knight describes his dedication to a noble cause
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Lord Jim Knight describes his dedication to a noble cause

By Julie Randles
October 1, 2015
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Most ISTE members recognize James Phillip Knight as the chief education adviser at TES Global Ltd. where he works to grow the organization’s online learning business. But despite his insistence on being called simply “Jim” by colleagues and inquiring reporters, Knight shoulders a hefty official title: the Right Honorable Lord Knight of Weymouth, aka Baron Knight of Weymouth.

Knight spent the first part of his career doing what comes naturally for a noble: In the 2001 general election, he was elected to Parliament by 153 votes in the Conservative Party’s only Labour gain. He became the longest serving schools minister in the United Kingdom led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Knight’s portfolio included rural affairs, schools, digital and employment. Queen Elizabeth made him a lord in 2010, establishing his life peer status.

But that’s where the traditional background stops. Today, his political career has given way to a deep curiosity and commitment to technology in education and employment. He previously worked as an adviser with ITN Consulting, Apple Europe, Alderwood Education and Step-A International Ltd. – not to mention a trustee of the e-Learning Foundation and chair of the Tinder Foundation, the leading digital inclusion delivery organization in the United Kingdom.

In the fascinating tidbits category, Knight can detail his involvement in developing solar-powered digital projectors for wireless use with iPads in schools in Africa and Asia, and share the progress on malaria diagnosis using smartphones. He knows that TES enjoys one download or more every second of the day as teachers share resources around the world.

And occasionally, he will say something that might get your dander up. “By and large we have not [done a good job of training school leaders on the nuances of online learning],” he told a writer for the website edCircuit. “All the evidence on the impact of educational technology on learning shows that good leadership of the use of technology by school leaders is crucial. But we are not seeing the widespread adoption of online learning in most of the world. There are parts of the U.S. that are embracing this new world, but most are wedded to an older pedagogy.” He is keen to see a collaborative style of peer-to-peer learning.

Before entering politics, Knight was a director of a small telephone directory publishing business and the manager of a small, state-of-the-art theater in Basingstoke. He’s known to still step on stage a time or two.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? From whom?

When I was first elected to Parliament, Frank Dobson, a member of the Parliament for the United Kingdom, told me to never agree to do something in a few weeks time that you wouldn’t be keen to do if it was tomorrow.

I have to keep reminding myself what good advice this is!

How did your childhood set your path for leadership?

As a child I loved performing, including over 100 performances in “Oliver!” in London’s West End at the age of 12. That gave me the confidence, independence and empathy that are all critical for leadership.

What led to your commitment to education?

As a member of Parliament, I was meeting with a constituent when my phone rang. I took the call knowing it was Tony Blair. He asked me to be minister of state for schools. Up to then, I had only ever been a pupil, a parent and a governor of a secondary school, so I knew nothing. But I said yes, and have never looked back.

What surprised you when you took on the role of a minister in the House of Lords?

I was a government minister in the House of Commons before my elevation to the Lords. In the end, the biggest surprise was how only a little bit of knowledge confidently asserted can serve you well when scrutinized in Parliament and in the media – but never in front of children!

What were a few of your key accomplishments in that role?

Three stand out.

First, I conceived of, consulted and successfully legislated to raise the education leaving age from 16 to 18, so that everyone has to keep learning until they are adults.

Secondly, I oversaw the Building Schools for the Future program to replace or refurbish all secondary schools over 10 years in an integrated design, construction and technology approach. This was never completed, but there are now some stunning cathedrals for learning, regenerating our most disadvantaged neighborhoods in England.

Finally, I delivered the innovative Home Access Program. In a speech at Bett, the U.K.’s equivalent of the ISTE Conference & Expo, I promised to end the digital divide among school-age children. I then engaged hardware and software companies, school leaders and retailers to co-design it with government.

The solution was to send a Visa card to those eligible, with government money already on it, and a list of five local suppliers. It boosted business, had negligible fraud and achieved its learning objectives.

From your unique vantage point, what are the most impactful opportunities that lead to significant education transformation globally?

What consistently works is raising teacher capacity. That means better teacher preparation, sustained professional development geared at teaching quality and better learner outcomes, alternative teaching career options and well-led implementation of technology for teaching.

What are the biggest barriers to attaining the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – the eight international development goals established following the Millennium Summit of the United Nations in 2000?

The goals have been a success, but there is still much more to do to tackle levels of global poverty and the consequences of climate change. The MDGs were renewed this September by the world’s leaders in New York. I have been part of efforts to try to deliver and raise awareness of the World’s Largest Lesson, an effort to foster global citizenship in schools; support students’ learning across a range of subject areas such as science, geography, citizenship and technology; and develop big ideas including human rights, poverty and environmental issues.

This is now ongoing work as we all have a part to play in global education and in learning about the importance of universal education, water quality, basic health and so much more.

Some countries are so focused on standards, testing and meeting academic benchmarks. All of these are important in their own right, but what advice do you have about how to gauge a young person’s grasp of non-academic skills? How important are these skills to success in college and career? We have an overemphasis on summative assessment and using these tests for accountability. This is getting in the way of teachers teaching other important skills that employers crave – confidence, collaboration, creativity, character, etc. These are best assessed by performance, as we are used to doing with music and dance grading exams.

These skills are of increasing importance and the leading jurisdictions, such as Singapore and South Korea, are now designing them into their schooling. Without them, our countries will get left behind.

Tell us about one or two of the most innovative models of learning you’ve seen. What impact are they having? Are they replicable?

Two schools come to mind. The f irst is Essa Academy in Bolton, in the Northwest of England, which is virtually paperless. They have replaced textbooks with iPads and teachers make their own textbooks on iTunesU, saving a fortune in paying money to publishers and photocopier companies. They have also replaced interactive whiteboards with much cheaper plasma screens and Apple TV, to put interactivity in the hand, not the wall. 

The result is a very engaging, dynamic style of learning and teachers developing and sharing great content. It is also a great value for the money.

The other is School 21 in East London. The founder, Peter Hyman, has implemented oracy as the basis of the curriculum. All pupils regularly present to each other and they have built a confidence to speak and great attention for listening. They then use drama in other subjects – such as teaching the Cold War through the medium of Brechtian theatre technique!

Both of these are scalable with leadership, professional development and time for teachers to adapt.

Regarding policymakers and educators, how frequently do the needs of educators come up in public policy debates?

When it comes down to brass tacks, how much influence do educators really have on the process? I think policymakers know the importance of teachers, but they tend to rush to the stick rather than the carrot when it comes to influencing teachers’ behavior. On both sides of the Atlantic, there is a crisis of retention in the profession, in part because teaching is not sufficiently respected as a profession.

Collectively, teachers should both demand that respect and command that respect. If we want change, we must be willing to change individually and collectively.