Beyond The Pane
Leading Learning into the Unknown
Public Servant Magazine, January 2008
It was American organisational change guru, Price Pritchett who once observed a fly furiously buzzing against a window pane in an effort to escape to the outside world; the tragedy of the fly’s plight, was that it was working so hard trying to fly through the glass, that it didn’t think to stop, to reconsider its strategy and to look for a completely different route…and so it died there on the sill, yet ten steps away was an open door, leading directly to the fly’s objective.
I tell this story because I feel that is the real danger that faces education in this country at the start of the 21st Century. Our teachers are the most professional, skilled, hard working and committed in the world. What they are being asked to do however, is not the answer.
We all want our children to be successful; to take our nation forward into the global climate, with responsibility, compassion, skill and happiness. We all want our kids to be able to fulfil their dreams and the dreams of those around them…selfishly; I also want our kids to succeed to ensure that I can live on a decent pension, to a decent age, in a decent world.
Unfortunately, ours is a system designed for a bygone age and overseen in a cutthroat political climate…it could be, no, it needs to be so different.
I believe that as an educator, that my primary responsibility is to prepare the children in my care for their future. It is not to serve to deliver strategies designed for political aims in a sound bite kingdom.
So what does the future hold for our children? This of course, is not an easy question to answer as the future is shifting so quickly, what we do know however, is that it will look nothing like today. In terms of jobs and employment, it is believed that unlike today’s retired citizens, who on average have held down 3 to 5 jobs in their lifetime, our children will have worked in 18 to 25 different settings at least. The jobs they will be required to engage in will be very different from those undertaken today; we know that the service sector will boom, that technology and finance will be high on the ‘to do list’ and that most of our children will live a life of short term contracting that may take them around the globe. This alone will mean that our education system will need to revise what it holds at its core. Of course our children will need to read, write and add up but as Sir Terry Leahy has said, we need to redefine basic skills; they must include interpersonal skills, creativity, innovation, problem solving, team work etc. The so called soft skills have become hard currency yet they remain politically dangerous, often passed off as ‘abstract, arty farty nonsense’. They are very much down the list, compared to the hard nuggets of knowledge that a traditional curriculum holds dear. Those who argue for change are often derided by some of our most familiar education ‘experts’. Yet as Professor Sir Ken Robinson argues, we are facing a crisis where we are not only squandering nature’s resources but human resources too.
Our curriculum, in order to be ‘world class’, needs to be designed around 21st Century themes and skills not around a 19th Century model that could be ‘tweaked’.
Crucial to the redesign of our future curriculum, must be the acknowledgement that young people are very different today to the children we were. Whether we like it or not Pandora’s Box has been opened and like it or not, we must accept the technological revolution complete with its ying and its yang. We must recognise that, like it or not, our kids are far more complex consumers than we were, or probably still are. We must harness our children’s interests and find ways to use them to help them see a purpose to education and a joy of learning. This will not be done by creating harder punishments that sell the concept of schooling on the lines of ‘if you don’t join in, and attend, your mum will get carted off by the social’. Or by the idea that you ‘ban’ their technologies at the gate and tell them that everything that they hold dear is nonsense and that school will set them right! It was Sarah Teather (Liberal Democrat, former Education Spokesperson) who remarked upon the publication of the adverse truancy figures last year, that we shouldn’t up punishment and sanction to solve the problem, but that maybe, we should ask what we would have to do to make learning irresistible!
I am not a great fan of the advertising industry’s targeting of our children, but I have to admire their success. It makes me wonder how we could rebrand school and learning so that we could capture our young the way the ‘creatives’ do.
Some have started to explore this, particularly through the online phenomenon. I found out recently that by the end of 2006, MySpace had over 106 million registered users, more people than the 11th most populated nation on earth. In the US, universities and high schools are already using the virtual world, SECOND LIFE, to take students on journeys exploring great works of art and literary classics, in fact, in May last year, Second Life held a virtual Education Conference, that attracted over 140,000 delegates.
So what is to be done? I have to confess that I am very optimistic at present, there are people in high places of Government that do know what they are doing; Mick Waters, the inspirational Director of Curriculum at the QCA and his team for example, are making significant progress, they recently reformed the Key Stage 3 (The first phase of Secondary Education) curriculum and are now engaged in a major review of the Primary curriculum.
Crucial though is that the Government and opposition stop defining education policy based on the demands of the national press and start to trust us to move our system forward. It will involve risk and I am sure some failure, but it does need to be radically different, and for a time that will mean it will feel a little uncomfortable. Tests and league tables are not the answer whatever Jim Knight may say. Education should not be based on what is easy to measure but what makes the most difference to our children. Above all it needs to matter to them now and in the future.
School can no longer be based on an industrial, production line model, it needs to nurture the individual and tool them up for their future. If we don’t grasp the nettle our pupils and our teachers may well end up dying on a sill below a window pane.
© Richard Gerver