Wednesday 26 September 2012

Unhelpful Pressures... (2) Education Matters

What’s the matter with our education?

Materialism can be defined as the view that what you can see is all there is, and is all that is important. The physical, actual, tangible, visible world is always viewed as more important than the intangible, the philosophical, the thoughtful, the contemplative, the spiritual. What is outside our head is apparently more important than what is inside it. As such, the opposites of materialism are idealism and spiritualism.

The effect of materialism is that in recent times human development has been characterized by us being better at talking, thinking, and being imaginative about what is material than what is not. My generation has produced the mobile phone, the ipad, the plasma screen TV and the digital camera, all of which are useful, and nice both to look at and to use. But in conversation with me, a professor of engineering at Bath University recently contended that there have been no really important scientific discoveries since the invention of the silicon chip nearly 50 years ago.

Perhaps we should compare the development of the last 50 years with the extraordinary leap forward in art in renaissance Italy, or with the leap forward in music that took place in the lifetimes of Bach or Beethoven. I rather doubt there is anyone living who is going to make such an impact on music as either of those composers – certainly not Simon Cowell! In two hundred years, will lecturers in History of Art devote whole lecture courses to the developments Art in last fifty years?

Materialism makes human beings into animals that look with their eyes and listen with their ears, rather than doing both or either with their imagination. Materialism, is – I believe – making human beings fundamentally less creative. It is also, rather obviously, significantly related to the decline in the importance of religion in Western Europe, although not in the rest of the world, particularly the US, South America, Africa and the Far East.

I see three dangers from the preoccupation with all that is physically substantial: first, that our culture will become less sophisticated – in music, in visual arts, and in performance art too. I think that there will be less, in a generation or two, therefore, to make our spirits soar, less to inspire people. Second, materialism will continue to make our relationships shallower. Visitors to less materially affluent societies often observe on the better quality of relationships, and of time which such societies enjoy. Our western society sees its best expression of this at Christmas, where so many families give children presents which ensure they will play with them on their own – giving their parents time to ignore their children: the material replacing the ideal, or relational.

Thirdly, materialism will continue to make us narrowly evidential. Is it a step too far to suggest that it is partly the rise of the material that has made our exams increasingly mechanical? Since everything has been empiricised, and Andersen Consulting's maxim 'What gets measured gets managed' has been swallowed by government, today's exams demand that marks must be narrowly and provably accurate. Flights of philosophy are no longer valued. The efficient engineering of the manufacturing process must be brought to bear on the examining ‘industry’, like a modern day industrial revolution. The consequences are topical, and need no elaboration.

But materialism has had some positive consequences, too. Would we be as concerned for our planet if we hadn’t learned to be a bit more material in our considerations than our forebears? Would we be as scientifically active if we weren’t so curious about physical properties of space, and of atoms – even neutrinos.

Materialism isn’t all bad. I think it is mostly so, but not entirely. Perhaps our challenge is to spend a little time being immaterial, in a way which makes our spirits soar. This may be by looking at a piece of art, or listening to a piece of music, or spending some time contemplating the nature or existence of God. It's interesting that none of these, of course, will qualify students for the English Baccalaureate.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Unhelpful Pressures on Education (1) - Consumerism

I buy therefore I am. Or even I consume therefore I am. As the car bumper sticker puts it, ‘He who has the most toys wins.’

At a time when shopping seems to have become our national sport and obsession – the investment in new shopping centres is even greater than the investment in new football stadiums, and possibly  greater even than our transitory investment in the Olympic movement – and at a time when our country has got itself in to difficulty because the size of our income has been no constraint on the amount we have sought to buy, consumerism seems to have become a universal way of thinking. Consumerism can scoop up even the most recalcitrant and influence us insidiously. A generation which spends money we don’t have, to buy things we don’t want , to impress people we don’t like cannot pretend that education has somehow escaped the consumerist plague.

The consumerism epidemic has three principal symptoms, even for those who resist it fiercely:
First, consumerism makes the most important question: do I like it? Not, is it beneficial? Enjoyment has become the most important, or certainly the dominant, consideration in our lives. The appraisal of lessons has become much more influenced by the question floating in the senior manager’s head (or in the inspectors) ‘Are the pupils enjoying themselves’. If education is training of the mind, why do we expect the hard yards of learning calculus to me made fun, in a way that an Olympic athlete’s first training session of the day, at 6 am,  outside, in November, never could be.

And so our world is high on entertainment, low on challenge, high on instant results, low on deferred gratification. Try reading that sentence again and inserting ‘our schools’ for ‘our world’, or even ‘DfE initiatives’. Even churches seek to entertain the congregations before trying to teach them. And we are all doing this because of consumerism, and we don’t even realize, day to day, that is happening.

Secondly, consumerism teaches us that if it isn’t right just throw it away and get a new one. A few years ago someone said to me that they didn’t want to buy a television which lasted for more than 3 years, because they found the whole experience of going out and buying a new television so exciting. The trouble with this is that it means that pupils think that if they are finding learning hard, they should just get a new teacher, managers think that if their workers aren’t delivering, they should just fire them and hire new ones, rather than training or helping them, and husbands and wives often think that if their marriage isn’t working, they should just get rid of their husband or wife and get a new one. Treating all things as disposable cons us into thinking that people are too. And they aren’t. A message of education should be that we can change people, otherwise, why bother teaching them. Isn’t teaching people changing them?

Thirdly, for a person in a consumerist society, their identity comes from their brands. People are defined by what they buy. They are a Jack Wills person, or Quiksilver, or Burberry. They are Apple, or Samsung, Mercedes or BMW, Bose or Beats. People long to get closer to the being the very epitome of their favourite brand.

There is no belonging because the brands turn over so fast that no one can ever rest, and of course it ensures that clothes can be thrown away long before they are worn out – which is the purpose of fashion. Belonging to a brand is no help in a crisis. Not like belonging to a village football club, or a Rotarian club, or a sailing club, or a book group.

During last summer my stepfather died, and my mother found that people from all the clubs and associations in their small seaside town were kind and helpful to her. Some from the allotment association, some from the Rotarians, and some from the sailing club. When that kind of thing happens to our generation, no one will call round from H&M, or Apple, or Mercedes Benz. Where will our belonging be? If we are defined only by our brands, where will our roots be in a crisis?

Even schools have become brands – as they try to create a sense of belonging in the young which can keep up by multinationals being advised by the best branding agencies in the world. Unsurprisingly, the advertising agencies, and the multinationals they advise, are winning. And a generation of young people are lovin’ it. It’s a race schools can’t win.

Consumerism poses educators serious problems, and some good questions. We need to address them head on.

Saturday 15 September 2012

Mindset versus Selection

A quick survey of websites of famous schools elicits a clear message that a certain level of ability is required for pupils to enter the school. This suggests that the ability to do well at school is, in some way, fixed by the time pupils reach that entry age; otherwise, why require it? Anecdotes of pupils being assessed for entry to nurseries in city centre schools suggests that this ability is regarded by some institutions as being fixed at an early age.

A review of the research and work of Professor Carol Dweck, now widely accepted as well-founded, could cause the impartial observer some puzzlement when considering the entry requirements of independent schools. Dweck suggested that people have either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. The growth mindset – found to be correlated with long term success and resilience – is not correlated closely with academic achievement in the very young. Does academic selection, therefore, imply a fixed mindset on the part of the school - and therefore a likelihood of the school inculcating a fixed mindset in its pupils. (A fuller explanation may be found at:

Whilst it is surprising how little traction Dweck's theories have achieved in British independent school (how many - or should that be few - have created structures in which there is much greater reward for effort than achievement?) this doesn't mean that selection itself is wrong. The function of selection, however, in a school which has 'dwecked' it's curriculum is to make sure that the starting point of each pupil is at a level where the school’s curriculum will enable that child to experience at least some success. Although effort generates more progress over time than pure ability, both Dweck and Malcolm Gladwell (in ‘Outliers’) would concede that a child who starts by experiencing challenges that are always too difficult, and experiences no success at all, is likely to give up before Dweck’s benefits are achieved.

Nevertheless it is worth schools, and indeed parents, asking themselves if the normal ways the school rewards pupils and indeed communicates with them from day to day, stands up to the scrutiny which  Professor Dweck might bring to bear, in particular:
  • Do teachers use language which suggests achievement is the result of innate qualities or of hard work (Contrast 'Well done, you have to be very clever to manage that’ with 'Well done: it takes real perseverance to manage that’?)
  • Do pupils regularly hear the message that taking on challenges which are too difficult is a good thing, or is failure always failure?
  • Does the school give prizes to those who try hard, or those whose results put them ahead of their peers?
  • Do pupils take part in extra-curricular activities to learn skills, or to win, or pick up ‘baubles’ (including Duke of Edinburgh Awards)?
  • Are the school’s teachers committed to learning – do they have a growth mindset?

Tuesday 11 September 2012

The missing ‘ter’ – a danger to good education.

I am always interested by those independent school headteachers who have the ear of the media. It is good to understand what is felt to be of great importance at other schools. One thing which has fallen into this category in recent years has been the huge importance attached to ‘independent learning’. It’s a new and fashionable must-have.

The more I consider this, the more I believe it is, in part at least, a logical consequence of an insidious individualism in our culture. What I mean by that is that people are both viewed as individuals and valued as individuals. ‘We’ and ‘us’ become less important words than ‘I’ and ‘me’. One of the best examples of this is Apple, who have caught the mood of our times – the zeitgeist – more accurately than anyone else. That’s why it’s called the Ipad, the Ipod, the Iphone and the IMac. Even Apple’s cloud is called

It is an individualist view of the world – which emphasises the rights and importance of each individual to make their own decisions, for their own good only – which has helped to fuel the rise in the continual chatter about independent learning in schools. So parents nod sagely when headteachers talk about cultivating independent learning in their pupils. But is it a trend we should be worried about?

Like most dangerous untruths, this one is, I suggest, only slightly misguided, but it is misguided in important ways. Individualism has real problems: it makes us selfish; it makes us poor team players; it makes us unable to understand or value collective organisations. Note how, as the world has become more individualist, organisations which help people work together have struggled. That’s organisations as diverse as the Catholic Church, our local Amateur Dramatic Society and the Rotary Club are experiencing declining participation. We are, more and more, ‘bowling alone’, as Robert Putnam put it.

Of course young people should learn how to be independent, and how, where and when to use their independence. Interestingly, of course, they use it most obviously in school in their exams. At a time when if isn’t examined it isn’t valued, it’s hardly surprising that independence – learning to cope on your own in silence – is highly prized.

But our young people need also to learn where and when and how they should be, could be, might be dependent. Perhaps professional football would be better if players were more dependent on the referee. Independence of the referee doesn’t make sport work better.

And, more importantly still, where in their lives should the young exercise interdependence? So many of the activities excellent schools offer actually cultivate interdependent learning more than they do independent learning – team sport, ensemble music, drama, Duke of Edinburgh Award expeditions, Combined Cadet Forces, debating, Model United Nations, and so on.

The quality of our pupils – students – independent learning, and independent living, may gain them their first job, but it is surely the quality of their interdependent learning which will gain them their first promotion, and the most important too. What a shame only one A level, and that one which is not highly valued by universities, should seek to assess young people’s contribution to discussion, and their ability to learn in an interdependent way.

Inserting the three letters ‘ter’ may seem like a small change to make, but I suspect that if more schools focussed more on interdependent learning than they do on independent learning, the results might be more confident, more diverse, more engaging adults. Higher EQ, to go alongside high IQ.