The thing that became increasingly obvious during this year’s London Festival of Education last Saturday is that the ‘traditionalists’ still don’t get it. After all that’s been said and done about the developmental and learning needs of children and young people in the 21st Century, they simply don’t get it. Do these people have learning difficulties, or home circumstances that prevent them concentrating properly on the matters in hand? No – they have particular ideological, professional and/or personal reasons for holding to particular ‘traditional’ points of view – and so they have no intention of shifting from their mindsets and their existing educational paradigms. It’s literally a waste of time talking to these people, let alone debating with them.
According to the traditionalist outlook, the young people who succeed best in our system are those who are capable of going to the ‘best’ universities (it’s all about hierarchies and competition) and capable of not only appearing on University Challenge (a well-known institution in the UK) but also capable of wowing the nation with the size of their retentive memories and with their ability to instantly and accurately recall a mass of obscure ‘facts’. Through doing so they also win the admiration and the approval of the likes of Jeremy Paxman (another well-known institution and barometer of excellence in the UK).
Say what you like about the London Festival of Education (#LFE15), it offers every shade of opinion an opportunity to strut its stuff. 50 shades of grey matter are available within fourteen parallel hour-long sessions of presentation and discussion throughout a very long Saturday at London University’s Institute of Education. It’s a pity these inputs aren’t routinely recorded and posted on the Internet for the benefit of a much wider audience. There were so many we’d have liked to attend but found it impossible to be in fourteen places at the same time.
The traditionalists are very much a minority at these progressive gatherings, but they’re a very noisy one – as well they might be when they still have the ear of most politicians and most of our media. Their mantra is trite and tedious, and boils down to “passing on a body of knowledge from one generation to the next”.
What they fail to understand is that ‘progressives’ have no problem with children learning “the best of what’s been thought and said”. Our concerns are with who gets to decide what that content might be, how much of it might be inflicted on students in order to ‘drive up standards’, and the frequency with which our young people are made to perform in high-stakes tests in order to establish a hierarchy of test-passing ability and in order to ‘demonstrate’ that our teachers are also ‘performing’ well. We’re also a little more . . . ambitious for our young people, with regard to the breadth and balance of their all-round education. We think education should be about much more than turning out university fodder and the creation of test-passing automata. We know that schools can and should be more than exam-passing factories, and a lot of them already are. It so happens that the heads of some of our nation’s most prestigious schools such as Eton and Wellington College agree with us.
So here’s how it goes. You make your way to a session called “Neuroscience and education: the new dialogue”, and you listen to some very thought-provoking information about what neuroscientists are getting up to and how they’re connecting with people within other fields of expertise and enquiry in order to improve our understanding of how the human brain operates, how the human mind functions, as well as “the potential and actual impacts of neuroscience on learning and teaching”. Someone in the audience then stands up and in a loud voice says, “This is all very well but quite frankly it’s irrelevant to teachers who understand that children just need to memorise the body of knowledge that we need to pass on to them. It’s simply a matter of transmitting information between generations”. Or words to that effect. We kid you not. A bit like the guy who stood up in the cathedral to object to the ordination of the first woman bishop: he just had to do it.
One of the day’s best sessions was called “True grit. Whose job is it to build character?” In just five very stimulating and entertaining minutes Martin Robinson pointed out that we’re in a world of “what works?” and not “what is wise?” Our education system is still geared to the great god Utility – producing “optimum workers”, be they academics or road sweepers. Teachers have been reduced to “frontline functionaries and deliverers”. So how do “we” define and measure “usefulness”? And “what use is use?” Shouldn’t education be geared to an understanding of what it is to be human – to an exploration of the mysterious, the magical and the spiritual – to enable children to ask, “Who am I? Who are we?”
Traditionalist Claire Fox‘s response to this was to express frustration with educational “fads” and “techniques” since she insists our system needs to concentrate hard on a traditional “knowledge-based curriculum”. Clearly the down to earth Claire has no time for magic, mystery or anything that might be considered “spiritual”. Forget fancy and the metaphysical – stick to the physical and the practical, sir. Thomas Gradgrind would surely approve of Claire, who has no time for things like “useless anti-bullying campaigns and programmes” that are producing “a generation of cotton wool kids”. Sigh. Claire sees concern about and efforts to tackle bullying as mere “political campaigns”.
Peter Hyman, the head of School21 in East London, made an excellent contribution to this session, pointing out that children show “true grit” simply by “coping with the things happening to them in their everyday lives”, and “the sole pursuit of an academic agenda will not equip kids to build life skills.” When allowed and encouraged to find their “voice” and to develop self-confidence (regardless of their current academic ability) children are able to “develop in extraordinary ways”.
We’ll take a break here and return to the thoughts of Peter Hyman, Martin Robinson, Claire Fox, Judith Suissa and others tomorrow, in the interests of keeping this post relatively short. For now, Martin Robinson can have the last word: “Everyone brings ‘character’ to the school setting. The investigation of what it is to be human is the business of schools.”