Mr Wilkes paused briefly in the middle of Crabapple Close, his briefcase in one hand and his black question-mark of an umbrella in the other. He smoothed his striped suit and adjusted his trilby hat. An observer peering out from behind net curtains would have seen Mr Wilkes wipe a small tear from his cheek before collecting himself and striding to the front of Number 37. A brief inspection convinced Mr Wilkes that here was no electric bell and so he rapped twice on a small window pane in the porch.
Mr and Mrs Higginbotham were expecting someone familiar when they opened the door. Mrs Higginbotham was dressed for the day and yet her hair was still in curlers. By contrast, Mr Higginbotham was resplendent in imperial purple silk pajamas and dressing gown. Their expressions took a moment to adjust from warm familiarity to mild suspicion as they surveyed the prospect of Mr Wilkes.
Mr Wilkes swallowed and smiled emolliently, his eyes glistening. “I wonder if I could talk to you briefly about the future?” he enquired.
Mrs Higginbotham raised her eyebrows and drew breath while Mr Higginbotham’s expression hardened. Sensing the passing of an opportunity, Mr Wilkes rushed to recover, “I’m not representing a church or a charity,” he explained. “I want to talk to you about the future of work and what this means for the education system.”
“I see,” Nodded Mrs Higginbotham.
Mr Higginbotham turned to observe his wife’s expression, looking for approval. Finding an absence of hostility, he made a decision, “Well, you better come in then. I will make some tea. I assume that you have a name; one that is embossed upon a business card?”
“Of course,” said Mr Wilkes. “My name is Geoffrey Wilkes.” Mr Wilkes passed a card to Mr Higginbotham who turned it in his hand before guiding the party into the front room.
After a brief exchange of pleasantries of sufficient duration for Mr Higginbotham to produce a tray of tea and Garibaldi biscuits, Mr Wilkes began his pitch.
“Did you know,” he asked, “that 60% of the jobs that people will doing in ten years time do not yet exit? We have no idea what they will be.”
“How extraordinary!” Mrs Higginbotham exclaimed, almost losing control of her porcelain, “How did you arrive at that figure?”
Mr Higginbotham was equally perplexed, “If we don’t know what these jobs are then how can we know how many of them there will be?”
“Surveys,” explained Mr Wilkes, “They predict that the future is entirely unpredictable.”
At this point, all parties paused and took a sip of tea. “Please, take a Garibaldi,” Mrs Higginbotham insisted.
“We must prepare the young people of today as best we can for the future,” continued Mr Wilkes.
“How are we to do that if it is unpredictable?” asked Mrs Higginbotham.
“Ah,” Mr Wilkes nodded and smiled, “we need to develop their entrepreneurial skills, their creativity, their ability to collaborate.”
“And how do we do that?” Mrs Higginbotham perched her teacup on a coaster on the nest of tables beside her chair.
This was Mr Wilkes’s moment. This was the coup de grace. He gathered himself and gently tapped on his briefcase. “In this case,” he explained, “are materials for developing project-based learning. They can be yours as long as you register for a conference that is taking place in town next week. After all, materials are of little use without appropriate training.” Mr Wilkes looked to the Higginbotham’s faces for a sign of how he was faring but they gave little away. So he continued, “I have some details. I have some forms. And if you sign-up today then I can offer a very special discount. You see, the conference is so popular that we have already covered costs. We are operating a service more than anything. We just want to get the good news out there and so I am in a position – today only – to offer you a very special deal.”
Mr Higginbotham removed his horn-rimmed spectacles and looked directly at Mr Wilkes, “How is project-based learning meant to do all this? How does it work? I think I’ve heard of this before.”
“I can assure you that every person who has taken our course and then applied what they have learnt will attest to the fact that project-based learning is highly effective,” assured Mr Wilkes, “They will attest to the fact that it is superb at developing the skills young people need for the future.”
“How would they know?” Asked Mrs Higginbotham.
“I’m sorry. I don’t follow.” Replied Mr Wilkes.
Mrs Higginbotham clarified her question, “I mean to say – How do these people know that it develops the skills needed for the future if the future is unpredictable?”
“Oh, I see,” said Mr Wilkes, “I understand what you mean but there are clear trends. People will clearly need to be able to collaborate in the future. They will clearly need to be able to solve problems.”
“Yes. But that’s nothing new. People needed to collaborate and solve problems in order to be able to build the pyramids.” Mrs Higginbotham responded.
Mr Wilkes saw his chance. “Exactly!” he exclaimed. “Building a pyramid is an example of a project, even if it’s rather a big one. So you must see how projects develop these skills.”
Mr Higginbotham tried another tack. “I am impressed with your testimonials, Mr Wilkes, but are there any rigorous, independent evaluations of the effectiveness of the approach?”
“Yes. Lots. I can send you them. But I just didn’t want to bore you with the details at this point. I understand that you must be very busy,” said Mr Wilkes.
But Mr Higginbotham was not finished, “Because I seem to remember a large review that found very little evidence for the effectiveness of project-based learning; a very large review.”
Mr Wilkes had not expected this. His eyes narrowed a little and his lips pursed almost imperceptibly. “You know,” he suggested, “you should keep an open mind and not simply dismiss anything you can’t find current evidence for. Do you have any evidence that it is ineffective?”
“But that’s not up to us, is it?” countered Mrs Higginbotham. “You are the one with a product to sell, not us. You are the one who should provide evidence.”
“That’s a very crude way of putting things,” Mr Wilkes seemed offended, “I am offering a service that others have said they gained a great deal from.”
Undeterred, Mr Higginbotham ploughed ahead, “In fact, I think I remember seeing a paper that demonstrated that explicit forms of instruction – the more traditional kinds – are superior to things like project-based learning when dealing with young people who are learning new things.”
“I see,” Mr Wilkes nodded, gravely, “You wish to deal in binaries. You wish to set-up a polarisation. Real teachers use a bit of both. There is no such thing as a traditional teacher or a progressive teacher because everyone uses a mixture of both. It’s only traditional teachers who do this; who set up these binaries. In reality, there is no such thing.”
“I don’t follow,” replied Mrs Higginbotham, “If there is no such thing as traditional and progressive teachers then there can’t be any traditional teachers setting up binaries. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not logical.”
“Right,” Mr Wilkes rose from his seat, “I think I’m going to leave now before you do that thing of accusing me of logical fallacies. You know about the fallacy fallacy, right? Anyway, I think I am going to go. Thank you for the tea and the Garibaldis.”
Mr and Mrs Higginbotham showed Mr Wilkes to the door, exchanging a few pleasantries as they attempted to ignore what had just happened. As Mr Wilkes left, the Higginbotham’s returned to their usual Sunday morning routine of gardening and jigsaw puzzles.
Mr Wilkes walked slowly along Crabapple Close. Number 56 was undergoing building work although all was quiet on a Sunday. Mr Wilkes looked around to see if he was being watched before depositing his briefcase into the skip outside Number 56. Then he turned left into Orchard Avenue.
The air was sunlit and fresh with the scent of roast meat and mint sauce. A bird sang. Children giggled as they played. And the past continued to pass via the present into the future.