Hardly a week goes by without an advertisement in The Times Educational Supplement
offering a revolution in education. For the teacher, maybe it is a computer device that will free up time to allow for individual tuition. For the student, an application to structure a work programme. Or it may be a claim to make learning easy, or even learning without effort, by sleeping on a pillow with a built-in loudspeaker which repeats French phrases throughout the night.
The majority of such offerings have a very limited life, although a few may get incorporated into a working routine – but these are far from 'revolutionary'. Here, I mean revolutionary in the sense of a cultural shift in attitude rather than students taking to the streets, although sometimes I wonder why this doesn't happen.
When entering a school, a visitor will quickly become aware of the 'general feel' of the situation. Does there seem to be a relaxed relationship between students and staff, is the building well-maintained, and are students helpful to requests for help in finding particular locations? This is the 'climate' of the school and is an important factor in a student's perception of the schooling experience. But underpinning this are many often unspoken assumptions about how schools should operate – indeed, whether there should be schools at all, and if there are, what kinds of institutions they should be. These are the deep-seated 'cultural' assumptions.
What would it take for some cultural change in schooling to be called a revolution? It would have to radically change the way things are so much and so radically that previous ways of proceeding were rendered obsolete. Given this definition, it is clear that there have been no revolutions in secondary schooling in living memory.
Looking at developments in scientific theory, Thomas Kuhn proposed the notion of a paradigm shift occurring when one state of theory was replaced by another. Scientists would cling onto the old theories in spite of new evidence until the momentum for change became overwhelming. In a way, the change would come incrementally, perhaps aided by a new discovery – but it would suddenly become the norm. The paradigm shift would produce a new way of looking at the world. It may be that the notion of a paradigm shift will help us to appreciate the present situation in secondary schools.
Most of us, most of the time, accept the schooling system as a given. After all, we say, it has been developed over many years and therefore represents the best answer to the education of children. If we ever stop to ask, 'what should schools achieve?', the answer often given is that our children should be better versions of ourselves. They should, for example, be better linguists, having at least one foreign language. They should have a wide appreciation of human cultural development and understand the way in which the world works. In general, things we would like to do better ourselves.
This is, as Marshall McLuhan suggested, equivalent to driving a car, steering more by looking in the rear view mirror than looking forward out of the windscreen. This is a powerful image but has the disadvantage that the forward view is often obscured by the weather at the time. Looking at the forward motion of secondary schools in the last 50 years, it seems as if the weather has been a thick fog. Do we have any hope of a clearer view of the future?
When I was a young boy scout we would often play Kim's Game
where about a dozen items were placed on a tray covered by a cloth. The cloth would be removed for 30 seconds and then replaced. We would have to write down as many articles as we could remember. Some scouts were good at this, but I was not one of them so, awkward brat that I was, I questioned what was the point of the game. 'If we really need a list of articles, why don't we just write them down while we are looking at them?' At the time, I didn't know the origin of Kim's Game
or I might have added that Kim needed to remember because he couldn't read or write, two activities which represent the first paradigm shift in education.
It is truly remarkable that on the basis of some 26 symbols (in English) combined in different ways we are able to describe and codify our experience. The revolution occurred for the general population with the invention of printing, which provided anyone with the necessary skill, a way of accessing knowledge independent of individual memory. This was a revolution and provided an obvious imperative for schooling – everyone needs to be taught how to read and write. And here we see that a revolution only occurs if accompanied by an increase in skills and a change in attitudes to accept the new way of doing things.
There have been many claims for the next big 'revolution' in education after printing. In 1922, Thomas Edison predicted that the invention of motion pictures would render the use of textbooks obsolete. In the 1950s and 60s, educational television was going to enable students at a variety of locations to watch a lecture by an expert (incidentally meaning that we could operate with fewer teachers – a common theme in many claimed revolutions). Then, in the 1980s and 90s, the computer became the go to option for future development, followed in our time by smartphones, tablets and the internet.
A consequence of the Covid pandemic is that people have realised that many of the technological developments which were already there enabled them to work in quite different ways. Parents looking to educate their children at home have discovered the enormous resources available in YouTube, or have found the many free sites offering children the opportunity to work at their own pace with well-prepared material. Just one of these is Kahn Academy, where it is possible to construct a daily routine of learning. Senior science students could consult the many titles available at MIT and Harvard where the courses are free. You only have to pay if you want to take an assessment for a certificate of successful completion.
Many parents have themselves been working from home with video conferences replacing often inconvenient travel. By gradual evolution, these technological innovations have crept up by stealth, with the epidemic providing the paradigm shift characteristic of a revolution. In society at large, we do things differently now than before the pandemic and, in spite of a rearguard action by some still clinging to the old ways, most people want the new freedoms the paradigm shift has provided and are unwilling to go back to their former constricted reality.
The business of schools is learning, so naturally we expect them to be in the vanguard of adopting the new reality and seeking to exploit the possibilities provided for change that will improve the experience for students. Unfortunately, it seems that inaction is the characteristic of the secondary school system. Now that the pandemic is easing, it seems that officialdom wants schools to return to the old ways. Keep students in rows facing a teacher, limit their freedom of action, moving them by a bell every 40 minutes or so, return to a highly restrictive and partial system for reporting on the successes of students. In short, direct secondary schools to become increasingly dysfunctional with the wider society they are supposed to be supporting.
Officials in the present system adopt a conservative approach, preserving existing jobs and bureaucratic organisation. It would be wrong to underestimate how strong these forces are and how vigorous will be the defence of the present system. But change must come or the system will simply collapse under the weight of its own irrelevance.
David Eastwood is Emeritus Senior Lecturer at the Department of Education, Aberdeen University