Category Archives: Utopia

Stop Fetishising Failure and Success

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Famous ‘failures’ is a slightly ridiculous concept when tied to the idea of ‘success’. The cases above are famous people who have succeeded and have experienced some sort of failure in their lives. I’m not sure it is helpful to fetishise failure in this way. And yet many schools use posters like this one to ‘motivate’ children wanting them to see failure as a step towards worldwide fame and riches.

The inclusion of Marilyn Monroe is an interesting one, considering her death which to many might be a warning as to the type of success that is being promoted by this poster. ‘Success’ might be a mask to many other things. Any child who has even the remotest acquaintance with the genre of tragedy or knowledge of history will know that many famous ‘successes’ ended their lives in failure. The most famous moustachioed dictator for one, Napoleon for another. Contemporary famous ‘successes’ are notable for being tabloid fodder when it comes to dismantling their pretence of success. The thing is we are not one or the other, no one can be pictured as a success or a failure, this very idea is a diminution of their, and indeed our,  humanity.

Most children in an average school will not succeed in the ways the above have ‘succeeded’. Most will not fail to the extent of Napoleon. But if our classroom walls are plastered  with the vision of ‘motivational’ quotes and pictures, our own rather mundane existence, in contrast to theirs, is put into sharp perspective. This is hardly motivational. It is celebrity culture, seeing a race of superhuman people as separate to us then reduced to a headline: a picture and a quote, can only remind us of our lack of talent. Like surrounding yourself with rich people your lack of riches is put into perspective, depression and dissatisfaction can soon follow on.

It is the unknown failures that should worry us. How many blank spaces on our walls represent them? The lack of quotable quotes from the great mass of ‘failed’ lives might be more to the point. These are our lives too and can also be our futures. Like every political career is said to end in failure, it is the sheer ordinariness of failure and success that should be ours to contemplate. It is part and parcel of being human to fail, to succeed and often to just muddle on through.

For a number of people failure is a central part of their school experience. This is not helped with a pretence that this means you might be a prototype Einstein. The thing to do is try to deal with the child in the here and now, not refer them to a quote and some forlorn hope. Addressing the underlying reason for any failure might help more, but so also will reading. Reading stories, reading great literature, listening to great music, looking at great art, performance, and realising that great work can help sustain us and help us to grow. This work is the product of a variety of different people whose lives should never be ‘the thing’, no cod psychology of heroic humanity is needed. They and we are all human beings whose rich and varied lives tend to muddle through and meet triumph and disaster along our merry and miserable ways. We might be jealous of the lives of Marilyn, or Lennon or Elvis one day, the next day we are not. No more heroes anymore.

There might indeed be geniuses and there might be people who have more good or bad luck than others. But every person on the crest of a wave is as worthwhile celebrating as one whose life is down in the dumps, not as failure and success but life as it is lived. Celebrate human beings as we are, not as a race apart.

Democratic Education is no Utopia

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Don’t say goodbye to Mr Chips!!!

Maybe its because I’ve read Lord of the Flies but I’m not sure putting children in charge of education is the best thing for them, our schools, or, indeed, all of our futures. In her ‘Utopian Thinking’ piece in the Guardian, Rachel Roberts argues:

There are a few things we are teaching our children that will be redundant. First, memorising and regurgitating a lot of information – they have information at their fingertips, quite possibly beamed directly into their brains by the time they become active participants in adult society. Second, being told what to do – if they are going to have to resolve problems that have never been faced before they need to know how to think creatively, not follow. And, finally, they do not need to be subordinates on the bottom rung of an authority structure that prepares them simply to obey regardless of the orders – they need to be regarded as the experts that they are.

I don’t know whether Rachel has children or not. Imagine, however, if children were brought up by their parents following this fashionable approach. No learning to read, it might be beamed into your head in the future. No telling you what to do, no toilet training, shit when and where you feel like it: Reductio Ad Abturdum… No following any adult orders at all, just cross that road, I don’t want you to obey me, be the expert that you are, under the wheels of that car.

I have an inkling this is not what she means. I expect her views are not shaped by the home experience, I expect she has a fondness for a degree of adult authority in the home. Though I don’t know. But it is the school that is the target of most of her ire. Roberts is an education consultant.

So what does an education system that isn’t entrenched in top-down authority structures look like? What does it take to get to the point where children are entering our adult world with the wisdom and intuition required to navigate the abundance of information and ride the waves of unexpected new realities?

Democratic education is needed

The answer: put children in charge of schools. Allow them to decide when, where, what, how and with whom they learn; have them resolving real problems day in, day out…

Such a system would be supported by two pillars. The first is collective decision-making, with children fully participating in governing the school community. This should go far beyond a school council. There should be a school meeting where one person has one vote – regardless of age – and where school rules, behaviour management and legislation are the matters at stake.

The second is “self-directed discovery”, with children following their inherently inquisitive nature. Young people are curious, they want to make sense of the world, that’s why they ask questions: “why, why, why … ” A good education system doesn’t intervene, ask them to stop being this way and tell them what to learn. It puts the trust in the child, thus increasing their motivation and allowing them to learn what they need to.

This means rights and responsibilities. A child of any age. Now, with anything like this, it all sounds lovely if children vote the way you want them to. Roberts asks:

Wish some of our “grown up” political decisions were made like this? I’d say children are equipped to be involved, I’d trust them to take me through the challenging times ahead. Wouldn’t you?

But in a true democracy they might vote in ways that you don’t want them to. Just as well meaning ‘liberal’ types  have taken part in recent democratic processes and have found that sometimes people with opposing views to them can win and have found it to be a bit of a shock, I wonder what shock awaits the well meaning ‘give the kids power’ education consultant when they find that the children choose to exercise power in ways that they wouldn’t choose. Especially when you consider these are intended to be children who have received little to no authority in their young lives. As William Golding asks

“What are we? Humans? Or animals? Or savages?” 

Who will intervene to ensure the behaviour management strategy is not ‘beating up the younger children because they are annoying?’ Where the school rules include sexual favours for certain children or where the right to indoctrinate younger children with terrorist propaganda is flavour of the month with the bigger kids? What if they vote to take away the vote from younger kids?

And why not intervene when a child is exploring online? The self centred discovery of a child lacking control as they are let free in a, so called, ‘adult world’ of depraved images and depictions, arguments and falsities. Roberts is entirely wrong when she states that:

A good education system doesn’t intervene, ask them to stop being this way and tell them what to learn 

Because a good education system DOES intervene, it is there to help children navigate a world of complexity and danger, beauty and joy, immorality and judgement, carefree and careful, an education in these things and more needs authority.

And just like the authority of the parent who teaches her child to read, his child to eat well, her child to go to sleep at a sensible hour, this authority is about love.

Exercising authority is about care. Care for our children is part protective and part empowering. This is not a process of throwing babies into a fully adult world. It is one of nurture. Children need to learn that the human condition is not perfect, they must learn how to cope with that realisation. The most caring way of preparing them for this is to educate them properly by teaching them in a structured and thoughtful way rather than neglecting them.

Roberts’ utopian view is a frightening dystopia in which adults lose any semblance of control they have and give it to those who have no experience about what to do with it. Our world is flawed not because we are adults but because we are human. It won’t be made better by putting children in charge, they are human too and, probably, even more flawed than us. Especially if no one has thought about how to best educate them.

Get Kids Cultured

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To be cultured means to nail one’s colours to the mast, and those who fear what’s arbitrary in that (and run to theory for protection) fear culture itself.

Howard Jacobson

The importance of tradition, the great tradition, is not that it is the only possibility but it is the best one that we have. For Jacobson, his tutor at Cambridge, FR Leavis, opened up a world of education to him:

Leavis told a particular story about English literature. It’s not the only one. But we owe it to him to show that, so far, nobody has told a better one, or told it with a braver conviction of why it matters to tell it at all.

Being right isn’t what matters to Jacobson but it is the ‘nailing one’s colours to the mast’ that does. This is ‘being cultured’. The vision for education is important, to be involved in that conversation, to add to it, to argue, to say ‘yes… but…’ but not to dismiss and the involvement in the dialogue is lifelong.

It is telling that in a piece called:

Building 21st-century skills: preparing pupils for the future, that a life ‘after education’ is envisaged:

In an ever-evolving world, how can we ensure that future generations have the skills that will truly prepare them for life after education?

In the past I have called this type of progressive education ‘neo-progressivism’. Instead of being revolutionary it is tied to the interests of global capitalism. Instead of education being an ever-evolving involvement with a lifetime of reading and exploring the rich tapestry of culture, the neo-progresssive sees education as a finite vehicle for the good of global capitalism. In her sponsored piece in the Guardian Jessica Clifton, the marketing manager for Lego Education nails her colours to the mast:

…there is a certain expectation to simply fill students with facts and figures. However, this can actually hinder learning, limiting students’ potential to explore concepts and discover solutions for themselves. What we need to do is, quite literally, put learning into students’ hands.

Which, for Jessica is Lego. And I love lego, but it is not ‘Culture’. It is a great toy, and toys can be used for great art; through their knowledge of Goya, the Chapman Brothers, were driven to create works of ‘vertiginous obscenity’ by melting down toy soldiers, maiming, twisting and painting them. The art created is dystopian and disturbing. This is not the vision Lego Education has when it wants to put learning in students’ hands. The article sees education as far more sterile, it quotes Andy Snape, assistant head of sixth form at Newcastle-under-Lyme College, as saying:

“As a teacher, I want to give students the greatest opportunities to achieve and I have found hands-on, creative lessons to be the most effective. Why? Because this learning style not only enthuses and engages pupils, but gives them the chance to understand the purpose of what they’re learning… we use LEGO® MINDSTORMS® Education EV3 to teach engineering, mathematics and computing, as well as using it for an extracurricular robotics club. Using the central programmable “Intelligent Brick”, students can design and build robotic solutions to different scenarios and problems. This could be anything from a sorting system that organises items into distinct categories based on colour, or a prototype space rover that avoids obstacles and performs basic tasks remotely.”

Education as a means to an end, not a life within culture but one that sees education as having a predetermined purpose, to serve the needs of business. It is the misunderstanding of creativity that irks me most. Let us nail our colours to the mast, creativity is not a ‘learning style’, it can be downright dangerous and dirty, but as a great  education cliche it has become the clinical servant of capital. Lego education, Persil et al, who peddle this version of creativity are anti-education, anti-culture, and paradoxically anti-creativity. Creativity is a life force, central to humanity and not the servant of a utilitarian drive to get people into STEM subjects to prepare them for the jobs that have yet to be invented.

This is the tension between tradition and progress; on the side of tradition we have great art, literature and the humanities and a continual dialogue, a great cultural education. On the side of progress we have Lego, STEM subjects (not the subjects themselves but their adoption as ‘a thing’) and an education that finishes when the world of work has taken over your life, this education is anti-cultural. It is the philistine fear of a truly cultural education that drives much of the verbiage of the neo-progressive movement. For them it is all brands, futurology, and education for utility: ‘Mcdonaldisation’; it is the sort of education that will halt progress in its tracks, for it forgets the importance of facts and figures and the knowledge and richness of the past. For all their trumpeting of creativity the neo-progressives can’t create a better story than the one education has been telling for centuries.

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The Future Fallacy

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Most people know nothing about learning; many despise it. Dummies reject as too hard whatever is not dumb. 
 Thomas More, Utopia

The future fallacy occurs when someone makes a comment about what the future will be like and then says: ‘therefore we should be doing (insert something here)…’

The 21st century skills argument is exactly this, ‘in the future people will need to collaborate more, be more creative and be prepared for change.’ This is a future fallacy because no-one knows what the future will be like, they can guess but they do not know.

The most bizarre aspect of this fallacy is the way that people lap it up, at education conferences I have heard so many people tell us what the future will be like in order to justify how we should be educating our kids in the present. The most absurd example is the oft repeated one that we should prepare children for the jobs that have yet to be invented, which, in itself is delightfully ridiculous, but when allied to the statement: therefore we should teach them 21st century skills of collaboration, creativity, critical thinking etc. is even more surreal, it’s as if the speaker has a crystal ball but they refuse to tell us what the jobs will be like because, like the recipe for KFC, it has to be kept secret. Except even that chicken is now out of the bag.

Sugar Mitra sometimes falls into this trap:

Within a few decades, institutions began to dematerialise – banking, the stock exchange, entertainment, newspapers, books, money were all strings of zeros and ones inside the evolving Internet that is now simply called ‘The Cloud’. It is already omnipresent and indestructible. In a few more decades, it will probably be sentient, non-material and, therefore, eternal…

We need a curriculum of Big Questions, pedagogy of self-organised learning, examinations where children can talk, share and use the Internet, and new, peer assessment systems. People don’t need to be machines anymore. In the Age of The Cloud, schools have to become Schools of The Cloud.

Next time you hear someone tell you what the future will be like, challenge them, for they are in cloud cuckoo land. The next time someone tells you what the future will be like and therefore we have to change what we are doing in schools point out, gently, that this is the full future fallacy in operation. If the speaker is unaware of how fallacious her argument is and she takes it for granted that what she is saying is true and makes it seem like common sense that we should therefore be doing things differently in our schools, beware, for she is basing her argument on the future fallacy but is unaware of this fact.

The only thing we can know is the past and, even that, is open to various interpretations, so arguments and disagreements are always going to be part of our discourse, and long may they be so. Just beware of the futurologists who try to shut down debate by telling you of tomorrow’s utopia and how we should prepare for it, for they know not what they say.