Tinkering with the system won’t help reinvent the purpose of education

In OLDaily this week, Stephen Downes, in a comment on a post by Sasha Thackaberry, makes what to me is an astute point – that the future of education is not the same thing as the future of colleges. This was the trap that the webinar hosted by Bryan Alexander, with invited speaker Cathy Davidson, fell into this week. The event was advertised as ‘reinventing education’, but for me (and I can’t find a recording of the webinar to check my perception and understanding), the discussion was more about how and what changes could be made to the existing education system (in this case the American education system).

Having followed Stephen’s e-learning 3.0 MOOC at the end of last year, I know that he has done a considerable amount of ‘out of the box’ thinking about the future of education, and has recently made at least two, that I know of, presentations about this. See:

This thinking is very much influenced by his knowledge of advancing technologies and how these might be used to ‘reinvent education’ but it is not only influenced by technology. For the e-learning 3.0 MOOC these are the questions that we discussed:I regard myself to be adequately proficient with technology, but I don’t have the skills, as things stand at the moment, to keep up with Stephen.  However, I am always interested in thinking about and discussing how our current education systems could be improved, and what we might need to do to change them. I am also particularly interested in the underlying concepts, systems and ethics, i.e. the philosophical perspective through which we view education. It seems to me essential that this should underpin any discussion around ‘reinventing education’.

Other ‘out of the box’ thinkers

Recently I find myself drawn to the thoughts of three well-known thinkers – two current and one from times past; Iain McGilchrist, Sir Ken Robinson, and Étienne de La Boétie (best friend of Michel de Montaigne).

Iain McGilchrist (in a nutshell) believes that our view of the world is dominated by the left hemisphere of the brain and that to save our civilisation from potential collapse we need more balance between the left and right hemisphere’s views of the world. I know this sounds melodramatic, but you would need to read his book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, where he makes a very good case, backed up by loads of evidence, to find support for this claim. Later on this year, on a course offered by Field & Field here in the UK, I will be running a discussion group/workshop where I hope participants will share ideas about the possible implications of Iain’s work for rethinking education.

For those who are not familiar with the book, here is a Table* (click on it to enlarge) which briefly summarises some of the differences in the ways in which, according to McGilchrist, the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere view the world. The right hemisphere’s view of the world is presented in purple font; the left hemisphere’s view of the world in blue font. These statements have been culled from many hours of reading McGilchrist’s books and watching video presentations and interviews.

*I am aware that this Table is (necessarily) an over-simplistic, reductive representation of McGilchrist’s ideas. It cannot possibly reflect the depth of thinking presented in The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. It is simply an introduction to some of McGilchrist’s ideas, which might provoke a fresh perspective on whether and how we need to ‘reinvent’ education.

In relation to McGilchrist’s work, my current questions are: Do we recognise our current education system in any of this? Do we need to change our thinking about education to achieve more balance between the left and right hemisphere perspectives?

Linked to McGilchrist’s ideas (and I will qualify this below, because it would be easy to get the wrong end of the stick), another ‘out of the box thinker, for me, is Sir Ken Robinson. Like many people, I first became aware of Sir Ken Robinson in 2006, when he recorded a TED Talk which has become the most viewed of all time ( 56,007,105 views at this time). The title of this talk was ‘Do schools kill creativity?’ and the thrust of the talk was that in our education system, we educate children out of creativity.

More recently in December of last year the question of whether schools kill creativity was revisited when Sir Ken Robinson was interviewed by Chris Anderson under the title ‘Sir Ken Robinson (still) wants an education revolution’. In this podcast the same question is being discussed more than ten years later and it seems that little progress has been made in ‘reinventing education’, at least in terms of creativity.

Just as McGilchrist is at pains to stress that both hemispheres of the brain do everything, but they do them differently, for example, they are both involved in creativity but differently, so Sir Ken Robinson says that we should not conflate creativity with the arts. The arts are not only important because of creativity; through the arts we can express deep issues of cultural value, the fabric of our relationship with other people, and connections with the world around us. Creativity is a function of intelligence not specific to a particular field and the arts can make a major contribution to this, but the arts are being pushed down in favour of subjects that are dominated by utility and their usefulness for getting a job. We are now locked into a factory-like efficiency model of education, dominated by testing and normative, competitive assessment.

In 2006 Robinson told us that education was a big political issue being driven by economics. He said that most governments had adopted education systems which promote:

  • Conformity (but people are not uniform; diversity is the hallmark of human existence)
  • Compliance (such that standardised testing is a multibillion-dollar business)
  • Competition (pitting teachers, schools and children against each other to rack up credit for limited resources)

I am recently retired, so a bit out of the loop, but from my perspective not a lot has changed between 2006 and 2019, in the sense that education has not been ‘reinvented’ – notably there hasn’t been, at government and policy-making level, a change in philosophy. McGilchrist believes that our current approach, where left hemisphere thinking dominates, has significant negative implications for education;  see The Divided Brain: Implications for Education,  a post that I wrote in 2014 after hearing McGilchrist speak for the first time. Robinson believes that although some schools are pushing back against the dominant culture there is a lot more room for innovation in schools than people believe, that we can break institutional habits, and we can make innovations within the system.

But can we? What would this take? Would students and teachers be willing to risk ‘bucking the system’ to embrace an alternative, non-utilitarian philosophy of education?

I am currently reading Sarah Bakewell’s wonderful book about Michel de Montaigne – How to Live. A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer.  In this she discusses the close relationship/friendship between Montaigne and Étienne de La Boétie and, in relation to this, refers to Boétie’s treatise ‘On Voluntary Servitude’. On p.94 she writes:

‘The subject of ‘Voluntary Servitude’ is the ease with which, throughout history, tyrants have dominated the masses, even though their power would evaporate instantly if those masses withdrew their support. There is no need for a revolution: the people need only stop co-operating ….’

Reading this immediately reminded me of the introduction in 2002 of the Key Stage 2 SATs (compulsory national Standard Assessment Tests) here in the UK – the testing of 11- year olds and the start of league tables pitting school against school. Key Stage 1 SATs (tests for 7-year olds) were introduced before Key Stage 2 SATs, so these teachers of 7-year old children had already been through the process. Therefore, by the time the Key Stage 2 SATs were introduced, schools and teachers had a very good idea of their likely impact, and Key Stage 2 teachers complained bitterly. I remember thinking at the time, if all the Key Stage 2 teachers in the country downed tools and refused to deliver the SATs, then there would have been nothing the government could do, but as Sarah Bakewell points out this type of collaborative, non-violent resistance rarely happens.

The power to change

Perhaps reinventing education will have to happen from the ground up, in individual classrooms/courses and institution by institution, rather than nationally. But how will this happen when the teachers and education leaders that we now have in place are themselves a product of an education system which has not: valued creativity as discussed by Sir Ken Robinson; a right hemisphere perspective on the world, as explained by Iain McGilchrist; or a rethinking of concepts, systems and ethics needed to take a new philosophical approach to education as envisaged by Stephen Downes?

This was the type of question that I had hoped would be discussed in the ‘reinventing education’ webinar that I attended earlier this week. It goes beyond tinkering – it’s more of a paradigm shift, or as McGilchrist says, it requires ‘a change of heart’. This is how McGilchrist sums it up:

… we focus on practical issues and expect practical solutions, but I think nothing less than a change of the way we conceive what a human being is, what the planet earth is, and how we relate to that planet, is going to help us. It’s no good putting in place a few actions that might be a fix for the time being. We need to have a completely radically different view of what we’re doing here.