what you get here

This is not a blog which opinionates on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Education under the microscope

Every month, the Great Transition Initiative invites its readers to explore a specific question relating to climate change  and how we might best respond - with the author of Journey to Earthland selecting the question and managing the discussion.

Last month the theme selected was “educating for the future we want”.

I’m normally very hesitant about engaging in discussions of this topic – in which everyone professes to be an expert and in which strong prejudices are quickly on display - but I felt it was about time I pulled my disparate thoughts on the subject together, starting with a confession and personal profile. 

I personally enjoyed my (state) schooling and respected my teachers (and fellow-students) - although I had no clear idea about my course of study at university and chose modern languages by default, moving in the last two years to politics and economics.

In the mid 1960s, graduates had the pick of the job market. So I had 4 different jobs in so many years - before getting my dream job as a Polytechnic Lecturer able to indulge myself for about 15 years before students complained that I was failing to give them what they required. A few years later I started a career as a consultant to government bodies in ex-communist countries - and latterly learned a lot about training…..

It’s not so long ago that kids were told that, if they did well at school, they would be rewarded with a great job – which we often kept at for our entire life. Charles Handy remembers how puzzled he was at the emphasis given to pensions when he got his first job at British Petroleum in the 1950s. Handy was the first to raise questions about ”the future of work” and went on to lead what he, later in the 1980s, designated a “portfolio” career – with jobs increasingly on short-term contracts. Education remained important in such a system – but with a greater emphasis on the post-school and university sectors.

With the increasing reality of robotisation, what advice should parents now give their children? Basically, it seems, the same message as the deschoolers of the 1960s…..rediscovering the need for creativity? The speaker in the video is education expert Sir Ken Robinson whose 3 books include "Creative Schools – the grassroots revolution that’s transforming our schools" (2015). 

And, of course, the new fear - which the pandemic has intensified - is that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will further accelerate future losses. A World without Work – technology, automation and how we should respond by Donald Susskind (2019) may make grim reading – particularly when taken in conjunction with The Future of the Professions which the author penned  a few years earlier with his father – but it offers a sound and balanced analysis of what awaits.

One of the interesting points it makes is that AI has developed with the speed it has not by machine intelligence aping human intelligence – but by big data crunching…..Our minds, it seems, remain intact….

And it is the working of our minds that has become the focus of a newfound interest from psychologists (and “cognitive scientists” as they rather grandly call themselves)

I had, in the 1970s, been a fan of Ivan Illich; social critic (Paul Goodman); Education Professor (Neil Postman) and adult educator and philosopher (Paulo Freire) – although working away behind the headlines loomed the more profound figure of psychologist Carl Rogers. And in 1983 fellow psychologist Howard Gardner published the book Frames of Mind – the theory of multiple intelligences whose effects are still being felt today. Five Minds for the future (2006) is a clearer statement 

The public has become increasingly vexed as international league tables have demonstrated national weaknesses in systems which are now seen as crucial for a country’s economic success…..Whose advice should we heed on such things?

- Politicians – who have the authority to make changes?

- Teachers – who have the responsibility for managing the system of schooling?

- Experts – who study and monitor the workings and the performance of the system?

- Parents – who have variable degrees of responsibility, activity and expectation?

- Pupils – who have their own expectations and attitudes? 

When we ask such a question, the variability of the answers is quite amazing. Each country tends to have its own pattern – with the Finnish system regularly quoted as the most successful but outlier country in which highly-trained professionals are trusted to get on with the business.

Most people would probably still respond to the question with a reference to the need for collaboration - few would trust the politicians.  

And yet it’s politicians who set the pace in many countries! It’s hardly surprising that neoliberal Britain sets the most store by competition and choice for schools and parents – with “academies” being the preferred  educational tool for New Labour in the period of its rule from 1997-2010.

Europe is (and remains) more consensual in its approach – with the French elitist system being the exception which is only now being challenged.  

My references are always too anglo-saxon – so I was delighted to find a Dane (Knud Illeris) as the most respected European educationalist and look forward to reading his How we Learn – learning and non-learning at school and beyond (2007) as well as Contemporary Theories of Learning – learning theorists in their own words ed Knud Illeris (2018). And to reading more thoroughly this issue of a European educational journal  

I’m intrigued by how little reference there is to “power” in discussion about schools, education and training and hope to turn to that next


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