This article was published in Scottish Review on 16th December 2010.
A few weeks ago I wrote an article for Scottish Review which included the bald (and arguably bold) statement ‘School is dying’. Not surprisingly it became the headline for the piece. With hindsight, I wish I had added ‘Let’s resuscitate it before it’s too late’, because I really am in favour of schools, even though I fear that the apparent reluctance to change the existing infrastructure, particularly of secondary schools, could in the long term be detrimental to the hopes and aspirations of the nation.
Let’s remind ourselves how we came to have the education system we have in this country. Scotland, which had already played a major role in creating the very concept of the modern world became, around the end of the nineteenth century, one of the first of the modern democracies to establish a state system of education, free at the point of delivery, and compulsory between the ages of five and thirteen (although it was possible to leave earlier if children had mastered the ‘three Rs’), at a time when the common view of education and learning was the transfer of knowledge from the learned to the ignorant. Sir Ken Robinson, world-renowned authority on creativity and education, describes it as being ‘conceived in the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment and in the economic circumstances of the industrial revolution’.
The factory model of education was born, but it was infinitely better than no education at all. Furthermore, the common single measure of intelligence was based on deductive reasoning and knowledge of the Classics, a situation which led many brilliant and creative people to believe that they were stupid, because they were judged against this particular view of the mind. Children went to school to listen and to be told what mattered; understanding was a bonus, application of knowledge a rare event. Success or failure would usually – though thankfully not always – determine the course of the rest of their lives. ‘Stick in at school and you will be rewarded with a good job,’ was the mantra.
This model of education, or schooling, since they had come to mean the same thing, persisted throughout the twentieth century and persists to a great extent to this day, with young people being ‘drilled’ in a range of disciplines or subjects, the culmination of which is a set of written tests to determine how much information has been retained. For much of the time, collaboration is known as cheating.
In the meantime, the world has moved on at terrific pace. The jobs of heavy industry have gone elsewhere, probably never to return. Knowledge is now more important than ever, but rather than being able to remember an arbitrarily selected body of knowledge (at least until the exams are over) today’s successful learner needs to know where to find it, how to prioritise it, which bits to trust and which not, how to use it, and how they might add to the collective intelligence. The role of the teacher needs to change accordingly. In the words of Ian Gilbert, writer and founder of Independent Thinking Ltd, ‘If the end of the twentieth century saw the democratisation of knowledge, then the role of the twenty-first century teacher is quite simple – to preside over the democratisation of learning.’
Enter the curriculum review, established by the last Labour administration in Scotland and endorsed by the current government. Curriculum for Excellence was born, and was almost immediately hailed – certainly from many other parts of the world if not always from the naysayers within our own borders – as a visionary piece of work. However, like many a child growing up in the first decade of the new century its formative years have not been easy. From day one critics have baulked even at the name, feeling it a touch showy for a people whose reticence has always been regarded as a strength, whose children in days gone by were taught that they should be seen and not heard. Yet the national debate had highlighted the fact that while most of us still believe in the quality of our teachers, one of the weaknesses of the system is that too many young people are not active enough participants in their own learning, and see education as something which is done to them. This is hardly surprising, since for too long, teachers have been carrying the burden for everyone’s learning, and too many parents, employers and students have been happy to let them. The new curriculum, described principally in term of outcomes for learners, rather than inputs from teachers, addresses that very issue, putting the responsibility for learning right where it belongs – with the learner. For some, this looks like a lessening of the role, and by implication the authority, of the teacher. Not so. What it does is change that relationship so that the teacher becomes guide, mentor and co-learner. The problems facing the modern world, from global warming to financial meltdown will be solved, not by automatons who have simply learned how to pass exams, but by critical and creative thinkers whose talents, personalities and differences are encouraged rather than stifled. Scotland has produced such people in the past and we can do so again, by developing the skills young people will need to thrive in this century, rather than preparing them to succeed in the last one.