Sean Connery, in his thoughtful memoir Being A Scot, tells the story of finding himself on a plane seated next to a compatriot, a young woman. Talking to her, he found that she was a literature student at the University of Edinburgh, and that she was currently studying Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
“Do you see any parallels between Roskolnikov, in the Dostoevsky novel, and the character of Robert Wingham, in James Hogg’s Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner?” he asked her.
“Oh, I haven’t read that,” said she, “I’m in the English Literature Department, not the Scottish.” Connery was bemused, but presumably did not bother to ask why, given her odd perspective, she was studying a novel originally written in Russian.
Connery had left school at 13 with little to show for his eight years in Scottish education other than an ability to read. But early in his acting career, a fellow-thespian had suggested a list of books that the young Connery ought to read, and he had subsequently embarked on his own education in fine literature. His young travelling companion, on the other hand, had successfully completed seven years of primary schooling, five or six years of secondary schooling, and by the time Connery met her at least a year or two at university. So what was the difference between the famous actor with his paucity of formal schooling and the literature student with a decade and a half of institutional education behind her?
In the literature student, I believe that we can see something of the schooled mind at work, in this case someone for whom the books she read were prescribed by others and for whom reading was largely a means to an end. In Connery, a lover of literature, we can see the independent mind of someone who has taken control of his own learning, someone for whom reading was a pleasure in itself, and nothing to do with passing examinations or gaining qualifications.
It is interesting to ponder the differences between the truly autonomous learner and the schooled mind, to explore the nature of learning in an age where, although the opportunities for self-directed learning are expanding immensely as the tendrils of the Internet extend into every facet of our lives, the enduring institutions of the school and the college and the university (all of which I am happy to refer to collectively and conceptually as ‘the school’) remain stubbornly tenacious. This durable social construct, one that has been shaped and adapted continuously throughout history to suit the needs of time and place and wealth and power, has allowed the myriad social, political and religious entities that have sustained it, and that continue to sustain it, to retain an often insidious and reductive grip on the minds of those who pass through their hands. And, despite that constant refrain of ‘the school is dead’ that we have heard in different times and in different places, the school is arguably stronger in some ways today than it has ever been.
Of course, the tale of Sean Connery and the young literature student raises more questions than answers: the gulf between the autonomous learner and the schooled mind is rarely identifiable as a simple dichotomy between the free spirit and the captive will. The reality for most of us is that we find ourselves, throughout our lives, shifting back and forth along a continuum somewhere between the two extremes, although we night hope that, as we grow older, we become more aware of the dangers of the schooled mind, and therefore develop a greater capacity to break free of the constraints placed on us by the school in our early years. Connery’s self-taught love of literature was perhaps not entirely free of instrumental intentions: as an actor, he recognized that an appreciation of literature would be useful to him in his career, but it was his own recognition, not one suggested by others or imposed from without. Equally, the young woman, we hope, would have taken up her course in English Literature because of a love of reading. But between those two routes into books, and most certainly in the student’s response to Connery’s question, there lies a discernible difference between the approach that each had previously taken to their mutual love of literature. Connery, consciously or otherwise, had discovered that there is a higher and deeper and wider significance to learning than can be gleaned from submitting to the strictures of the classroom. The young woman had allowed herself to be persuaded that, like the overwhelming majority of ‘educated’ people, she had little choice but to accept those strictures as seemingly the only available path to an education in the discipline that she enjoyed.
The road taken by Connery was one that led not only to a knowledge of fine literature but also, I would contend, to a greater chance for attaining a degree of self-knowledge that, if not actually denied by school, has rarely if ever been an explicit aim of schooling. The school, historically, has not actively encouraged independence of thought, nor has it cultivated the truly spontaneous or creative mind. We develop such traits despite school not because of it. School is fundamentally about training the mind, developing the intellect (as opposed to intelligence), passing on the knowledge deemed important by a society to those whose role it will be to perpetuate and preserve that society at all levels. As such, the school continues what already is and what has been; its function, whatever the rhetoric, is essentially backwards looking, seeking to maintain the structures and relationships from the past and present on into the future with minimal change.
But given the ubiquity of the school, we cannot simply equate the schooled mind with attendance at school. To do so would be ludicrous. If the schooled mind were to be identified merely by dint of someone having attended school there would no chance of escape from the condition for most of us. But schooling does imbue the student, the scholar, with certain characteristics that the learner has to find the means to overcome either while at school, or more likely once schooling is complete.
I will come back to what that schooled mind is all about, why we must not be content with the intellectual framework that school bestows on us, and how critical it is that we are able to overcome at least the most deleterious and pernicious aspects of the school’s legacy on our own development as rational, free-thinking human beings.
The knowledge necessary to function successfully and follow a career was seen to already exist: it could be handed down from experts and leaders to learners and workers. In the Industrial Age, curriculum development was a matter of selecting the most important knowledge to transmit to students; experts decided what knowledge to mass-prescribe and in which sequence.
Jane Gilbert and Rachel Bolstad (amongst many others) questioned the traditional concept of curriculum development in their 2008 book Disciplining and drafting, or 21st century learning? Rethinking the New Zealand senior secondary curriculum for the future. Their words are quoted in a new White Paper, sponsored by Promethean’s Jim Wynn, and authored by Gavin Dykes, Michael Furdyk, Sara Hassan and Jennifer Corriero for Education Fast Forward, entitled From Learner Voice to Emerging Leaders (downloadable PDF).
The authors agree with Gilbert and Bolstad and state their position clearly:
…this model of curriculum development is difficult to maintain given that: it is no longer possible to accurately predict the type of knowledge youth may need as they move through life, the rapid pace at which technology is changing and new knowledge is developing, the rate at which career possibilities are proliferating (ones with which we are familiar and ones we have yet to imagine), and social, economic and environmental challenges are becoming increasingly complex.
They ask the question:
How can learner voice help address these uncertainties?
And the seemingly simple answer?
By giving learners an authentic say in what and how they want to learn.
The White Paper will underpin discussion at the next Education Fast Forward debate, to take place as part of Education World Forum in London at the end of this month. The paper, which will be presented by Sara Hassan, of Taking IT Global, joining the debate from Toronto, is an excellent summary of the issues surrounding this critical question, and the authors have been able to offer a combination of sound thinking, practical advice and a way forward for those in education (still too few, I would say) who believe that curriculum design, pedagogy, the role of technology and national education policy-making all should be influenced and shaped by the voice of the learner.
The event will combine a live presence at EWF and a global presence via the magic of Telepresence, An articulate group of young education leaders will debate the issues around ‘From Learner Voice to Emerging Leaders’.
The primary aim is twofold:
And it will all take place across a truly international matrix of connections, crossing countries, cultures, and communities.
The event itself takes place on Monday 28th January at 11am and you will find the link to the live video broadcast on the day itself on the Education Fast Forward page on Promethean Planet. Promethean’s Chief Education Officer, Jim Wynn, will be opening the EFF6 debate, which will once again be moderated by independent education consultant Gavin Dykes. Discussion will be led by Sara Hassan and three student presenters. Closing the debate will be Michelle Selinger, Director of Education at Cisco.
Twitter users can follow the debate itself using the hashtag #eff6, while there will be some interesting discussion around many of the key issues in the debate using the hashtag #learningmatters.
Finally, a reminder that you can download the White Paper.
- Every user has the right to freedom of expression.
- Every user has the right to control their own data.
- Every user has the right to choose and change their social services providers.
- Every user has the right to host their own social services.
- Every user has the right to communicate with any other user, regardless of their service provider.
- Every user has the right to take their data and relationships with them.
- Every user has the right to choose their own name.
- Different users have different needs.
- Communication must be decentralized.
- Communication protocols must be standardized.
- The internet is capable of more.
- Conversations change the world.
All those currently investing millions in Facebook stock should take note: Tent is just one tiny straw in the wind that will eventually blow that monstrosity and so many others like it completely out of the water.
Simplifications are legion, and emotions are a factor
“Schools kill creativity”, “Does Google make us stupid?” are press-worthy attention-grabbers, but the realities are more nuanced, for a world that refuses to deal with its nuanced self….Everyone brings in their own biases to an education conversation (this author included), but most often fail to be aware of them as the biases they are.
They are all interesting points, but two in particular caught my attention because, to me, they are two sides of one coin. His point above is so true when we look at most education ‘debates’ being conducted today, especially, but by no means only, in the traditional media. Nuanced educational debate is a rare thing indeed in the press, and that includes the so-called quality press. But too often, even in debates between people who ought to know better, the crude attention-grabber is king and the importance of fine distinctions, subtleties, shades of grey are thrown by the wayside.
Charles’ next point is equally valid, where he criticises the preponderance of ‘or’ debates over ‘and’ debates:
Conversations about education abound with false dichotomies, and absolutist views, that must be transcended.
The lack of a balanced-conversation mindset leads to many OR debates; for instance:
- Knowledge vs skills
- Science/Technology/Engineering/Math (STEM) vs Humanities/Arts
- Didactic vs constructivist learning
- Formal vs informal learning
- All technology or no technology
- Character developed at school vs at home
The balanced reality is that these are all AND propositions, working in concert with each other, and reinforcing each other, in a judicious, impactful feedback loop.
It is just easier, I suppose, to take a stand at one extreme or the other in an argument. It is far harder to conclude that both sides have merit, and then to set out your arguments for leaning more in one direction than another, or setting out the particular circumstances in which one side might have more merit than the other.
Scepticism is healthy; cynicism and bad faith are not.
Disputes and controversies and disagreements abound in every sphere of human knowledge and activity. That is the very nature of human discourse. The world would be a dreadful, boring place if we all agreed with each other all of the time on everything (some people, strangely, would define their heaven in just those terms). A little less disagreement here and there might avoid wars and bloodshed and pointless death and destruction, but that possibility does not appear to be a universal likelihood any time soon.
Disputation and debate differ in kind though from one sphere of activity to another. We can, for example, contrast the kinds of disputes that scientists might have with disputes between religious ‘scholars’: the former might arise out of differing interpretations of evidence whilst the latter are more likely to be debates characterized not only by a complete lack of evidence but often by a contempt for same.
My own principal sphere of activity, education, is an intense and constant battleground of crossed swords, conflict and contention, and it falls, I would attest, somewhere between those polarities of scientific and religious debate. The vigour of the manifold disputes in education is a function of its intrinsic nature as one of the humanities, as an activity arising out of the human condition.
As one of the humanities, there is simply no absolute right or absolute wrong in education. We make judgements and take positions based on our reasoning, of course, but also based on our values and principles, philosophies and ideologies, interests and self-interests, prejudices and, indeed, bigotries. There are, oddly, very many people – teachers, writers, philosophers, politicians, thinkers and non-thinkers alike – who will tell you, categorically, that their standpoint on any particular aspect of education is unequivocally right, and therefore that any differing take on the same issue is plainly wrong. Sometimes, these same people will point to ‘evidence’ that ‘proves’ their standpoint, all the while forgetting that undertaking research on education is a billion light years away from undertaking research on particle physics (for example). Educational research is in the same league as research in philosophy or sociology or anthropology: outcomes are heavily dependent upon the questions asked and the positions taken by the researchers. Evidence is useful, of course, but it will rarely if ever constitute ‘proof’ of anything in education – it gives us a starting point, if we are lucky, but never absolute validation.
Those who understand this distinction understand therefore that they can never claim any absolute validity for their views on education, since they recognise that their perspective on any or all education questions is inextricably bound up in the values they hold, in the political ideology to which they ascribe, in the psychology of their own learning experiences throughout their lives, in their (or their family’s, or their community’s) self-interest, whether conscious or unconscious, and in so many other imponderables in their lives.
Such people understand that they must argue and debate their standpoint constantly, and that they must be prepared to listen to other’s views, to learn from others and to change their own views through debate with others. Equally we are perfectly justified in seeking to explain and affirm our own philosophies in education, and even to seek to persuade others to see learning and teaching and pedagogy and all aspects of education as we happen to see them.
Don’t mistake my argument as one that endorses unalloyed relativism: we must always be willing to make critical judgements on the basis of our experience and, yes, on the basis of whatever evidence we can lay our hands on (going far beyond just the outcomes of academic research). But we use experience and intellectual argument and evidence to substantiate and support our own judgements, not to ‘prove’ that we are absolutely right and others are absolutely wrong. We must continue to judge, to evaluate, to distinguish between good and bad logic. Education, as a humanity, has to be based upon rigorous intellectual analysis and reasoning, as well as on moral and ethical considerations.
It is in that flux of ideas and conflicting opinions generated, maintained and developed by thoughtful, autonomous and rational minds that the beauty of coherent educational debate lies. We need not respect others’ views, but, mostly, we do need to tolerate them (I am with Frank Furedi when he decries the modern tendency to equate tolerance with acceptance and respect, and even the trend towards devaluing the meaning of respect itself). The caveat to such tolerance, of course, will be the extent to which we feel that others’ views on education are actually physically or emotionally harmful to children, to young people, or to learners generally.
And that is a whole other debate in itself.