First published on November 2011.
In his recent MacTaggart lecture the CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, spoke of the energy and inventiveness of Victorian Britain as ‘… a time when the same people wrote poetry and built bridges’. Most of us want that kind of richness and diversity to run through our communities. We all know that any worthwhile process of education must attend as much to things spiritual and social as to things material and intellectual. We want an education that teaches us how to build the bridges between these different realms, not re-enforce their separation. And we know that bridge-building goes well beyond debating what should or should not be included in the syllabus for an EBacc, because we learn throughout our lives, not just while we are in formal education.
Despite the inspiring achievements of individual institutions right across Britain, the philosophy that underpins our education and learning systems, our ‘basic assumptions’, are now so inadequate that they are beginning to deliver multiple systemic failure – failing to acknowledge the radical changes in the labour market, failing to address the social changes in our communities, failing to embrace the digital revolution and, in consequence, failing to engage many young people. Here are some of the perspectives we need to keep in sight, if we are going to change for the better.
We must embrace risk– there are no safe bets any more.
We are tinkering with change. Our learning and education systems are moving inexorably towards a narrow focus on employment and, in doing so they hold out a false promise. In his contribution, John Tusa sets out and challenges the traditional route – Why do well at school? To get to a good university. Why go to university? To get a good job with a good salary. But we’ve known for at least a generation that those good jobs with good salaries represent a rapidly shrinking part of the labour market. Which means we’re teaching young people to cling to a sinking wreck rather than learning how to swim – which would itself be a much more invigorating proposition for any school or university. Other countries around the world are throwing out preconceptions about learning and authority to embrace what they perceive to be the brave and bracing new world of creativity and the knowledge economy. The great irony is that many of them have looked to our country for inspiration in that process. Meanwhile we seem to be heading off in the opposite direction. As Geoffrey Crossick puts it – if skills become about ‘security rather than risk, the strength of the creative economy will be undermined’.
Technology is transforming interactions and expectations
It’s become an almost tedious truism that the Internet has transformed the way we learn and share knowledge. But far from jumping on this revolutionary vehicle for advancement, the world of formal education has been suspicious, grudging and reluctant to do anything more than see it as a prop. As David Puttnam writes ‘If all you do with technology is use it to support existing methodologies and practice, then why, and on what possible basis, would you expect new or significantly better results?’ The interactive world encourages users to – well – interact, rather than passively consume. It engages people. In his piece Niel Maclean writes of the internet’s power to enable ‘learning by producing’ – ‘If you want young people to understand music, movies, mammals or the solar system, get them to make one.’ Meanwhile, the 200 million regular gamers around the world are participating in the biggest self-regulating examination system the world has ever seen as they battle against themselves, and others, to drive up their skills and scores and move up to the next level. The writer John Lanchester recently observed that video games are the only contemporary art form in which the consumers routinely complain to the creators that they’re not making the experience sufficiently challenging.
Learners are not ‘consumers’ but co-owners
Almost every essay in this book talks of sharing, exchanging, adapting and exploring as key concepts in effective learning – all of them experiences that give learners some sense of ownership of the journey on which they are embarked. Rose Luckin writes ‘I know that I have to construct knowledge from the evidence available to me, that it is not handed to me by others, though they can help me along the way…’. That is how most of us use the internet, but it is also how previous generations used libraries; places to explore and experiment, with an occasional helping hand. The model of the educational institution that has endured throughout history is that of the community. Communities support their members, giving them confidence and a sense of common purpose, an idea given expression by Justin Spooner and Simon Hopkins when they ask, ‘how can we create an environment in which it is socially acceptable to improve each other’s ideas?’ That is the very antithesis of a market approach to education in which learners (or their parents) shop around in the hope they are buying success, even if it is at the expense of their neighbours. To ‘buy’ success is to slam the door on the possibility that failure is as good a teacher, yet we are moving into a time when many of the world’s most successful companies encourage their employees to experiment, with the attendant risk of failure, as the most effective way to build long term success. Cisco tells its staff ‘Better to ask forgiveness than seek permission’.
Making and doing takes learning to a higher level Christopher Fraying quotes J-J Rousseau: ‘If, instead of making a child stick to his books, I take him to a workshop, his hands work to the advantage of his intellect, he becomes a philosopher, while he thinks he is simply becoming an artisan.’ We have divorced learning from doing even though every one of us knows from our own childhood experience that doing trumps all other forms of learning. The fact that Rousseau was describing a world utterly different to ours, in which the workshop and the artisan were at the core of economic and community life, only serves to emphasise how important it is that we do not lose the connection between making and learning. Whether what is being made is a painting, a cake, a film, a business or, indeed, a community – we learn best when we get our hands dirty, literally or metaphorically, not when we get an A-C grade in a multiple choice question exam.
A MeBacc may be a more valuable measure of achievement than an EBacc
Trying to accommodate a broad measure of success – in creativity, money and love – within an Ofsted sanctioned league table is problematic. For most of us, the things we really value from our own formal education or training experiences are almost always those elements that defy standardized measurement. At the same time, natural competitive instinct drives us to rank ability, whether it’s academic, sporting or any other on some objective scale, and such rankings will always be part of assessing a learner’s achievement and potential. But they only give part of the picture. Several of our contributors address this issue, asking how to steer between the extremes of crude objective measures that give us a very partial picture and fuzzily subjective measures that do the same from the opposite end of the spectrum. Joe Hallgarten’s proposal of a ‘MeBacc’ which ‘asks students to explain to themselves and others why they’re studying what they’re studying’ is a reminder that to be effective the learning process needs to be owned by the learner, not the institution in which they happen to find themselves, or the examination board that assesses them. As we wrestle with new ideas of value such as ‘well-being’ and ‘happiness’ we ought not to forget that in terms of confidence, ability and potential, our own assessment of ourselves may be the most significant and certainly the most enduring test of what we’ve learned.
Making jobs will grow the economy more effectively than taking jobs
The expectations that underpin the whole of our education system are of waged employment at the end of it. Industries collapse, whole sectors of the economy disappear, the factory worker is replaced by a robot, the bank clerk by an ATM machine, but we continue to believe that a combination of Tescos, hairdressing salons and foreign-owned investment banks will somehow guarantee our children jobs for the future. This is not a rational assumption. Acquiring the skills and confidence to create a job, not simply to look for a job someone else has already created, is how our economy is most likely to face future challenges and still prosper. As Geoffrey Crossick writes, we are ‘educating graduates for jobs that haven’t yet been invented’. The skills they need are the skills to invent jobs, rather than succeed at job interviews.
According to research by NESTA, and by Creative & Cultural Skills, the creative industries are expected to grow more rapidly than the rest of the economy. There is no slackening in the pace of technological change. Culture continues to be of increasing importance in our sense of self-identity, our relationships with other people, and the way we make our living. Against this backdrop of both incremental and disruptive change the perennial truths of human existence – our search for creative expression, money and love – remain.
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