06 April 2023

Dr. Ryan Bramley from the University of Sheffield: If teachers don’t care for young people’s feelings, wants, and needs, then that crucial element of education gets missed out

Interview with Dr. Ryan Bramley from the School of Education at the University of Sheffield, a grantee of the first and second phase of the Holistic Think Tank program on developing the IDS (Interdisciplinary Subject). Dr. Bramley is a lecturer in Education, filmmaker, and arts-based researcher.

Author: Maria Mazurek,


Dr Ryan Bramley

What does today’s school teach? 

It mainly prepares students to pass the exams. In the UK, it will be a preparation for SATs or GCSEs, but it’s a global phenomenon; all over the world, students are mainly learning to take more and more exams. 

What, then, is missing? 

Preparing students for life in the outside world, looking at themselves as global citizens, as part of multiple communities. They can be physical in person, but also virtual communities: social media, gaming, and things like that. It is a mistake to underestimate them. We started to investigate whether there is a way to improve children’s digital literacy skills in all sorts of ways. There are so many different kinds of literacies nowadays. Gone are the days when it was just a matter of reading books or writing letters. Now we’re talking digital literacy, and we’re talking media literacy, we’re talking multi-modality, all these beautiful forms of literacy that in many senses children are engaging with anyway on their phones, when they stick their TV on, or when they’re at the computer at school. They are engaged in these activities, but we should provide a framework and a structure for learners. Teach children how to move through these virtual worlds in an aware, responsible way.

Was it the idea behind the concept of your curriculum for Holistic Think Tank? 

Yes. That’s why myself and my colleague, Dr. Sabine Little, had this idea of generating an interdisciplinary subject around this collection of themes and dividing our curriculum into three parts: My Media, My Power, My World. Our main interest was examining whether schools provide enough information to learners, to young people, on navigating digital spaces. For example, if children can determine the reliability of news stories online. Can they decide whether they are reliable or not? Can they decipher whether it’s a fake news story?

Can they? 

No. A recent study by the National Literacy Trust in the UK found that only 2% of children in the UK actually had the skills and equipment to tell whether a story was fake or real. So we organized our subjects around these three themes. 

Let’s discuss them. 

My Media was very much a kind of manifestation of our sense that actually children today are not just consumers of media, but they’re producers as well. That could be anything from an Instagram Reel to a TikTok video. My Power was trying to instill a sense of agency, so actually to prepare children for their engagement with digital landscapes, such as social media or gaming. 

The last was My World, which sees children as being connected with the world around them. That could be the microcosm of the classroom, but also further beyond that. We have a diverse, multicultural makeup of students, and assimilating everybody into one way of being in many senses doesn’t give people – who’ve come from diverse communities and cultures – that chance to express themselves.

While working on the curriculum, you gave the children much agency. Why? 

The majority of curricular activities are developed by adults for children, so we wanted to give young people agency and allow them to have a say in what they were being taught. For this purpose, we used two youth advisory panels: one in-person at a school in the north of England, and the other virtual, made up of children from multiple schools across the UK. We wanted to gather various perspectives and take their ideas on board. Students were asked questions such as, should we teach this, should we not teach that, and could things be taught in a different way? Their input related to more than just the themes and topics we were covering but also extended to how we would teach this. Do you want presentation slides? Do you want links to YouTube videos? Their input was crucial to what we did.

You believe that students should have more agency. So how do you see the role of the teacher in modern education?

I see the role of the teacher in 21st-century education needs to be more of a facilitator and enabler than a dictator.

And now that role is very different?

Now classrooms, sadly, often looks like this: teacher occupies this space of the knowledgeable, omnipotent person who will transfer content to the people in front of them. The learners in front of that person will sit, listen, and take on board. “Good Day,” a brilliant film produced by the Holistic Think Tank, really sums this up perfectly. This idea that here’s a workbook, here’s a worksheet, copy something from here on to there. What are you getting from that other than possibly handwriting skills?

I wish that teacher is somebody who, yes, has the knowledge to impart but also tries to bring about a three-way process: knowledge being imparted from the teacher to the young people and then vice versa, from the young people back to the teacher, and then also with one another. We would share insights and knowledge because everyone can teach others about something. We had a great experience with both of our youth advisory panels, where students taught us stuff from who’s the most prominent YouTuber at the moment to what worries young people. If we, as teachers, are going to dictate a curriculum and don’t care for young people’s feelings, wants, and needs, then that crucial element of education gets missed out. 

As an education activist, what gives you the strength to fight for this? For better, more humanized education? And don’t you ever lose hope? 

Believe me; there have been some difficult and rather lonely moments. I think there are for any academic, especially ones working around curriculum development. What helps me is reflecting on what I went through myself as a student. This weekend, during the HTT Summit 2023, I’ve been speaking to educators from Poland and the US. Those personal experiences, those journeys that we’ve had, lead us to so many points of connection between those narratives and those stories. And one of the big themes of HTT Summit 2023 was storytelling, making meaning through narrative and sharing those commonalities with one another. And for me, that’s what keeps me going, and I know that’s what keeps many of my colleagues going as well — this sense of solidarity. We are not alone. We are not the only people fighting for better education, and Holistic Think Tank and its community are absolute evidence of that. 

Can you expand on the thought? 

When I first came across Holistic Think Tank, my face lit up. If there were anybody else in the office when I looked at the HTT website, they would’ve seen the light shining down on me. I was excited about the principles and the mission of HTT, which aligns with the work we are doing in the School of Education at the University of Sheffield. So I love the opportunity to work with this fantastic organization and these brilliant partners, to try out what we’ve learned and researched at the University of Sheffield so far. One thing that excites me about Holistic Think Tank is the idea that, at this moment in time, global approaches to education are not working. The teachers, on the whole, are doing incredible, but there’s something missing in terms of the curriculum and the approach to education. A lot of educators, lot of researchers, and a lot of academics are saying very similar things around the world. So I think that Holistic Think Tank’s vision resonates with us but also with academic departments and faculties all around the world. And it’s great to be at a fantastic university today, Ohio State University, to share those ideas, the energy, and enthusiasm that we have to improve education worldwide.