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 ME.com

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.

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