A new renaissance in learning

First published on November 2011.

I graduated in the early ‘70s. It should have been an era of mass factory education, following the post-war baby boom. At one stage, that era saw a new school opening daily in the UK. Every school had near identical galvanized steel windows. Yet when my partner was in the second year of her degree, her whole faculty were given a day’s ‘holiday’ in celebration of the unexpectedly creative finals paper of a third-year undergraduate. Professors were literally running down the corridors in excitement and gushing, ‘We didn’t expect this!’ The fresh-thinking student was awarded a rare first-class degree. Everyone was inspired by the whole event.

Despite the mass expansion of education, originality and fresh thinking were valued and celebrated. Indeed, when I was teaching during the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was still the case that staff rooms would debate and try new ideas. Not to do so was to be left behind as we learned how to do education better. RoSLA – the Raising of School Leaving Age to 16 in 1972 – and TVEI – the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative in 1982 – were major initiatives leaving teachers to discover and exchange radical new ways to teach. They weren’t told – they were asked what might work.

Fast forward to the current decade and things have changed but, bizarrely, despite the reduced pressure on numbers, education has moved towards mass standardisation and uniformity. At university level, and elsewhere, there is now a detailed mark scheme. To achieve a first-class degree, one’s output needs to match precisely the content anticipated by that mark scheme. To a very large extent, it has to be the least surprising essay of all to be proclaimed the ‘best’. In schools, the pressure of high stakes testing and the accompanying league tables have led to similarly prescriptive lesson plans with a generation of coasting children asking, simply, ‘Is it on the exam paper?’.

The fresh and creative ideas of 400,000 teachers and their 9 million students have had to defer to the opinions of single education ministers. In less than 40 years, we have moved from rewarding originality, ingenuity and creativity to rewarding conformity and uniformity. Indeed, I doubt whether that celebrated fresh-thinking first-class honours graduate of the ‘70s would have even been allowed to graduate today.

Now, this would already be a social and intellectual catastrophe if nothing else had changed but the world around us is increasingly filled with dramatic surprises and the unexpected. We face a constancy of change, the certainty of uncertainty. This is largely a by-product of technology. It allows us to live dangerously: to drill oil at depths where we can’t mend leaks, to pare the margins on banks’ loan security. The consequence is that the slightest upset can precipitate a chain of significant, unanticipated events. Individual errors are magnified hugely with unexpected consequences: a catastrophic oil spill, a global economic disaster, riots in London. It won’t stop happening and it seems self-evident that if our learners are to be ready to cope with these dramatic events, they must have evolved strategies that prepare them for the unexpected. They need to be challenged and surprised daily. If we astonish them in their learning, then they will evolve the capacity to astonish us back. Sitting in an exam hoping that there are ‘no surprises on the paper’ does not sound like preparation for our world of uncertainties. Indeed, it is a complacent preparation for economic disaster, to sit alongside the social and intellectual one. In confirmation, the top half dozen nations in the treasonably dull PISA league tables of global school performance look currently the least likely to have the capability to react rapidly to an unexpected event, or to invent the next YouTube or iPad.

How did this happen? Did someone decide that original thought had no value? Was replication placed ahead of origination? Clearly not, or our art galleries would be full of carefully preserved photocopies. In fact, for the public, the opposite seems to have happened. The carefully created ‘perfect’ studio recordings from the music industry have been spurned by a young generation who value, and pay highly for, the fresh experience of a live performance but freely exchange and place no value on mass replicated pre-recorded copies. The music industry might see this as a gross infringement of copyright but others see it as an encouraging breach of a cartel that sought to standardise originality. Live music is flourishing and evolving. The mantra to chant here is that people plus technology breaks cartels.

Fortunately, of course, education is also an enormous cartel. Systemically, it too is hugely out of step although some wonderful teachers and many heroic children daily challenge the morbidity of a system built around its own processes rather than to set learners’ imagination and ingenuity alight. As an example, a majority of children report their main ‘learning’ activity to be replication: copying from a board or from worksheets, taking dictation – yet ironically, when those same children complete their homework tasks by copying from Google searches, it is seen as cheating! Education remains the only place where, by ringing a bell, we might expect 1,000 teenagers to be simultaneously hungry. It is systemic madness.

It is, however, not only the youngsters crying ‘enough’ this time. A slew of reports – for example, the IBM survey of 1,500 CEOs in 2010, or the Livingstone- Hope report Next Gen for NESTA – all make a powerful case for students who can be creatively disruptive, who can heal the compartmentalisation of subjects like art and computer science, who can score highly on innovation, who can alter the status quo and be comfortable with ambiguity. Currently, not only are schools failing to foster and nourish such individuals, but many are actively excluding them!

This is not a counsel of despair. As we have seen in Egypt and elsewhere, technology has first given individuals a voice and then enabled that voice to be aggregated and amplified. Children, employers and parents are reaching the point where a ‘pedagogic Egypt’ is not just plausible – it is likely. If education is looking perilously like a structurally declining industry, society has embraced learning as über cool. The media are full of people learning to cook, learning to dance, learning to learn. Whole genres of new media – such as reality TV – are built on the ambiguity of presenting dull and D-list stars with unexpected circumstances and watching them cope. Process has replaced product as the focus of our curiosity. It is the beginning of a new renaissance in learning; but sadly, education doesn’t look likely to be around long enough to learn from it.

Creative Commons LicenceCreativity Money Love: Learning for the 21st Century by Creative & Cultural Skills is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Illustrations by Paul Davis - http://copyrightdavis.blogspot.com/