You may disagree with the evidence I cite. You may disagree with my logic. But let me be clear about what I am trying to achieve: I want young people to grow into active citizens who understand the society around them and who are empowered to make a difference in that society. I want them to develop a passion, perhaps about an area of culture that they have been exposed to at school and would otherwise never have encountered. I want them to find the means to provide for themselves and their future families.
I believe, maybe wrongly, that the best way to do this is by explicitly teaching a curriculum full of powerful concepts that have endured over time. If you believe that I am wrong then you should feel free to say so. But to paint me as aspiring to a different goal to the one I have repeatedly stated is unfair and unfounded. If you’re going to do that then you need to provide the evidence.
I make this point because there are a number of ideas that I believe to be profoundly wrong and I am going to explain why. Nevertheless, I am sure that the people who hold to them do so with the best of intentions. I am sure they believe that these ideas will lead to a better world, I just happen to think they are mistaken. See what you think – do you agree with me?
1. We should abolish exams
If the education system of a mature democracy decided to abolish all tests and exams, then what would happen next? It depends. Firstly, would students still be assessed and graded? If so, the only means left will be some kind of portfolio assessment or coursework. This would work against disadvantaged students. Not only would they have less help with their coursework from friends and family, they would also be the victims of unconscious bias in the assessment process.
If we did away with all assessment and grades then would this fix the problem? Only if you think that entry into medicine, the law, the civil service and business should be entirely down to people’s connections. Even if you prioritise the so-called ‘soft skills’ of communication, collaboration and so on then who do you think will come out on top; the privileged kid with the middle class accent or the kid from the wrong side of the tracks? Exams, however flawed, militate against privilege. You need to replace them with something that does at least as good a job.
2. Students should engage in projects and inquiry learning
I don’t understand how people can claim to be in favour of social justice while promoting project-based learning. By removing some, if not all, teacher input, you are removing the one mechanism that addresses differences in social background. If you then allow students to design their own projects and questions, you make the matter still worse. The doctor’s child may decide to investigate antibiotic resistance, supported every evening by her parents. The working class child probably won’t.
‘Who needs to know about antibiotic resistance?’ you may ask? This question can be asked about any piece of knowledge on the curriculum, from adjectives to algebra to apartheid – nobody needs to know any of it. But those students who slowly acquire key cultural knowledge are at a profound advantage over those who don’t. Imagine a class being explicitly taught about antibiotic resistance, with the teacher making repeated efforts to check for understanding and re-frame and reteach as necessary, and you are imagining a far fairer, more equitable form of teaching that project-based or inquiry learning.
3. Education is preparation for future employment
The discussion about jobs that don’t exist yet, and the idea that employers want employees with soft skills, is flawed on two counts. Firstly, the best preparation for an uncertain future is to teach concepts that have been useful in the past. It makes no sense to take a bet on what the future might hold. And I doubt that employers really mean they want friendly, if illiterate and innumerate, employees.
However, there is a far greater problem with this logic. It assumes education is purely a machine for producing workers. It is not. I want to educate young people so that they may make better decisions about the future of our democracies; so that they may make a positive change in the world; so that they may live fulfilling and enriched lives. Employers can train people how to answer the phone or contribute to group projects. Expecting schools to provide all of this training is shirking their responsibility.
4. Personalised learning is the future of education
I am a critic of many approaches to differentiation because they lack evidence of effectiveness and may lead to perverse consequences. However, at least Universal Design for Learning doesn’t chill my spine.
Imagine, if you will, a room full of kids, headphones on, staring at a computer screen for several hours a day. The computers are running expensive proprietary software that the students interact with individually, while the teacher circulates, occasionally helping one of them. Is this the future of education? Only if written by Philip K. Dick.
5. We need to teach kids to be (the right kind of) activists
In my last post, I made the point that the role of a teacher should be to present students with concepts, ensure they engage with them but eventually leave it up to the students themselves to decide what to believe and what to internalise. This is what a liberal arts education should be about.
After I wrote that post, I sat down to watch a children’s TV show with my daughters. The show was aimed at young women and was about activism. I found myself cheering along as important points were made about how girls have as much of a right to a voice as boys and how to deal with someone who disrespects that right. As a society, we have disavowed sexism and have made laws against it. However, the show also introduced concepts such as ‘white privilege’ and ‘intersectionalism’ as if they are established fact. These concepts may indeed represent sociological truths, but it is not the case that this has been resolved across society and there is currently a plurality of views. It would have been better to preface these terms with, ‘many people think…’ It may also have been better to include a broader list of causes that young women might want to address through activism.
In encouraging students to shape the future, we should not attempt to impose our agendas on them.
A way forward
I would urge you to think about the ideas I have presented and, if you wish, challenge those ideas. We seem to have entered dark times, full of conspiracy theories: If we don’t agree with someone then this must be because we are virtuous and they are evil or, being generous, they are perhaps the unwitting puppet of evil. Be wary of this. If a person cannot tell you what it would take to convince them that they are wrong then that person is in thrall to a dogma. So ask them that question. For my part, I will attempt to avoid dogmatic thinking. I aim to remain one of the reasonable ones. The world will calm down again and, when it does, reason will return and education will still be in need of better ideas.