The Only Truth is Narrative Truth

sacks

Oliver Sacks (1933-2015)

In his essay on ‘The Fallibility of Memory‘ Oliver Sacks offers us an insight into why discussions about the importance of ‘knowledge’ in education are often superficial, and at times futile. While we debate the relative importance of skills and knowledge, we might be more productively engaged in discussing the elusive nature of knowledge itself:

‘We, as human beings, are landed with memories which have fallibilities, frailties and imperfections – but also great flexibility and creativity. Confusion over sources or indifference to them can be a paradoxical strength: if we could tag the sources of all our knowledge, we would be overwhelmed with often irrelevant information. Indifference to source allows us to assimilate what we read, what we are told, what others say, and think and write and paint, as intensely and richly as if they were primary experiences. It allows us to see and hear with other eyes and ears, to enter into other minds, to assimilate the art and science and religion of the whole culture, to enter into and contribute to the common mind, the general commonwealth of knowledge. Memory arises not only from experience but from the intercourse of many minds.’

The connection between memory and knowledge is a vital one, and Sacks seems to be suggesting that the most reliable knowledge is that which has been ‘contributed to’, a notion which would chime particularly well with the idea of ‘wiki-learning’, where everyone has a contribution to make, however small (for further reading on the use of Wikis for learning follow this link).

In discussing the fallibility of memory, and (again) on the importance of narrative, he has something important to teach us when it comes to understanding the human brain and how it records and analyses what it sees:

‘Christopher Isherwood starts “A Berlin Diary” with an extended photographic metaphor: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”

But we deceive ourselves if we imagine that we can ever be passive, impartial observers. Every perception, every scene, is shaped by us, whether we intend it or know it, or not. We are the directors of the film we are making – but we are its subjects too: every frame, every moment, is us, is ours.’

‘There is no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way, which is different in every individual to begin with, and differently reinterpreted or reexperienced whenever they are recollected. Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves – the stories we continually recategorise and refine. Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory and follows from its basis and mechanisms in the brains we have. The wonder is that aberrations of a gross sort are relatively rare and that for the most part our memories are so solid and reliable.’

Our only truth is narrative truth. Now there is something to contemplate.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Another Finnish Lesson

books

This post is appearing simultaneously on Common Space. Common Space is part of the Common Weal, an exciting component of the developing, democratic new media in Scotland.

Recently I wrote a comment piece for Common Space in which I suggested that, while the Scottish Government was right to try to address the issue of the ‘attainment gap’ in our schools, it was going about it in the wrong way, and that in Curriculum for Excellence we already had a blueprint for change, if only we had the courage to pursue it in reality.

The ‘new’ Scottish curriculum – which was written over a decade ago – is based on a number of key aims, set out in the report of the Review Group, including ‘for the first time ever, a single curriculum from 3-18’ and ‘young people achieving the broad outcomes that we look for from school education, both through subject teaching and more cross-subject activity’.

In reality, this ‘cross-subject activity’ is what always happened in primary schools, where one teacher at each stage is responsible for delivering the whole curriculum and where CfE, unsurprisingly,  appears to have had most impact. In the secondary sector however, the fragmented nature of the timetable has remained largely unchanged, making the goal of a single curriculum 3-18 seem as far away as ever.

Compare our approach to that of Finland, one of the more progressive and successful education systems in the world today. Not content with bucking the global trend towards exam-based, target-driven success criteria, the introduction of their National Curriculum Framework in 2016 will require all basic schools for 7-16 year-olds to have at least one extended period of multi-disciplinary, ‘phenomenon’ or topic-based teaching in their curriculum, the length of this period to be determined by the schools themselves (education in Finland is already far more decentralised than it is in Scotland).

Helsinki, the nation’s capital and largest local school system has decided to require two such yearly periods that must include all subjects and all students in every school town. This doesn’t signal an end to specialist subject teaching, but a move towards what you might call ‘big picture’ understanding, with topics including ‘The European Union’, ‘Community and Climate Change’ and ‘100 Years of Finland’s Independence’.

A holistic approach, involving the integration of knowledge and skills, is not new in Finland, but for the first time it will be a requirement of all school providers up to at least the age of 16. This will be a challenge to those middle-school teachers who have traditionally focused more on their own subject teaching and less on collaboration with their colleagues.

Pasi Sahlberg, leading Finnish educator and Visiting Professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, thinks the rest of the world may look at the proposals and wonder why Finland is pursuing these aims, at a time when the country is slipping slightly in the international league tables, and the answer is as bold as it is revealing;-

“The answer is that educators in Finland think, quite correctly, that schools should teach what young people need in their lives rather than try to bring national test scores back to where they were. What Finnish youth need more than before are more integrated knowledge and skills about real world issues, many argue. An integrated approach, based on lessons from some schools with longer experience of that, enhances teacher collaboration in schools and makes learning more meaningful to students.” (full article)

By describing the curriculum in terms of broad outcomes and experiences, Scotland is already thinking more progressively than other countries with long-established traditions of decent public schooling. The challenge now is whether, like the Finns, we will have the courage of our convictions in pursuing that more integrated curriculum, or whether we will continue to talk a good game while just coming up short when we actually take to the pitch.

Still Searching for Scotland

R.F. MacKenzie 1910-1987

R.F. MacKenzie 1910-1987

In this year of the referendum on Scottish Independence (September 18th) it was appropriate that my ruminations on the future of education, and specifically the ‘Curriculum for Excellence‘ as it has been labelled, should find me making greater acquaintance with one of the country’s most progressive educationalists of the 20th Century, R.F. MacKenzie, a figure whose name I had heard but about whom I knew very little. Appropriate in more ways than one, in that not only was Mackenzie regarded by many as ‘ahead of his time’, but he firmly believed that it was through the state education system that the British establishment maintained its position of power and privilege, and that only by breaking this mould would ordinary Scots be released from their educational and creative straitjacket.

“The doctrine of power depends on a belief that the majority need an intelligent  élite to guide them. The élite spread the axiom that the majority of earth-dwellers are unintelligent and, to justify the assertion, flood the educational system with incomprehensibility. The majority of children, obviously failing to comprehend, are adduced as proof of the majority’s limited intelligence. The lesson is ‘Leave it to the élite’.”

R.F. MacKenzie, A Search For Scotland

R.F. MacKenzie was born in 1910 in rural Aberdeenshire, the son of a country stationmaster, and spent much of his childhood travelling between the rich agricultural soil of his immediate environment and the rugged North Sea coastline, with its tales of fishing, survival and adventure. It was travelling further afield which was to enable him to look more forensically in later life at the country he loved dearly: as a young man he taught in Switzerland and Nazi Germany, served as aircrew in the Royal Air Force, travelled widely in Europe by bicycle and lived for a while among the Calvinist Boers in South Africa, before returning to Scotland and taking up a career in teaching. The insights he gained from these experiences, as well as the lessons learned from fellow-Scot and radical teacher A.S. Neill of Summerhill School fame, were to inform his career and his philosophy of education, which would generally  be described as liberal and progressive. Like Neill before him, MacKenzie believed that a person’s education should begin in his or her natural environment and stem from a natural desire to answer the great questions in life – Who am I? How did I come to be here (on the earth as well as in this particular place)? Why is this place the way it is? How can, and should, I shape it while I am here? – and that children needed stimulation, not discipline, in order to learn.

The Ideal Classroom?

The Ideal Classroom?

Learning outdoors is a key feature of the Mackenzie doctrine, having played such a part in his own early education. It is one which he was able to put into practice early in his teaching career, and in his first Headteacher post at Braehead Secondary School in Fife, a ‘Junior’ Secondary for pupils who failed what was then known as the ’11+’ or ”Qualifying’ examination at the end of their Primary schooling. It was with such pupils, whom he believed had been failed by the system, that MacKenzie had most success, often taking them, literally, back to nature in the form of walks and expeditions in the Scottish countryside. In A Search for Scotland, his last book, published two years after his death in 1987, he describes such an adventure:-

“On a June crossing of the high plateau of Scotland from Braemar to Rothiemurchus, from the Dee to the Spey, in which thirty teenagers took part, we discovered a little of the enquiry and discovery that appeals to them, the experience that gives them enjoyment. We left the Linn O’Dee at nine in the morning and stopped four miles later, near Derry Lodge, for breakfast. Some had sandwiches. One gourmet fried bacon and eggs; we thought he would go far. We followed the less-frequented track of the Lairig-an-Laoidh up the Derry Burn past ancient Caledonian pines, quiet, flat-topped like the mediaeval bonnets that Aberdeen professors wear for graduation ceremonies. The gouging out of two neighbouring corries has left between them the tight-rope of an arête but we had twenty miles of tough walking ahead of us and there wasn’t much time to look at it. A.S. Neill, kindest of critics, said that we were compulsive teachers, too keen to offload geology on our pupils. I imagine he was right because when we stopped for mid-morning break to eat a sandwich and gulp lemonade, the pupils were much keener on dropping rocks in the burn to throw up a cascade of water and soak their unsuspecting companions than on listening to a cascade of geological information…….

The compulsive educationalist tries to gather some crumbs of validation for his own over-serious classroom preoccupations. The sixteen-year-old, staggering in his self-imposed task of carrying a half-hundredweight boulder, legs apart, is learning about density, the feel of granite, the musculature of the human skeleton, the endlessly entertaining phenomena of this miracle substance, water. It comes back to the full meaning of the word ‘know’. What is ‘knowing’? We repacked our rucksacks after the midday siesta, laced up our boots and resumed our journey.”

It was a philosophy which was ultimately to lead to his downfall, dismissed from his post as Headteacher at the ill-fated Summerhill Academy in Aberdeen in 1974. His own account of these events is recorded in The Unbowed Head, but according to Walter Humes of Stirling University it was a failure resulting less from deficiencies in the man or his philosophy than from a combination of external factors, including the inherently conservative nature of the Scottish educational establishment and the difficulties of scaling up an approach which had worked in a previous school with around fifty – albeit challenging – pupils.

Many would argue that there is an inherent contradiction in a man who is himself so well-read and able to quote extensively from the Classics, the Bible and Shakespeare, doggedly pursuing a child-centred, ‘discovery learning’ approach toSearch.jpg schooling.  Surely a proper education must be about the acquisition of knowledge? My guess is that Mackenzie himself would not have argued against the idea that knowledge was the key to learning, but would have had very sound views on what it is that stimulates the desire and motivation in individuals to acquire it. It could be said in fact that much of what MacKenzie was trying to do was to put into practice the principles of the current Curriculum for Excellence, and that the barriers which stood in his way then remain firmly in place now. Whatever your view, I challenge you to deny that the following extract, written 25 years ago, does not still have some resonance today.

 “The richest of the resources that Scotland is wasting is her young. We would be immeasurably richer for their cooperation, and their reintegration into the community. Many years of dealing with these edgy youngsters of industrial Scotland have convinced me of their intellectual ability and potential goodwill as well as their spiny independence. I suspect that our prolonged schooling of them is to hold them down, to protect us adults from their explosive initiatives. Keeping them into their late teens memorising swathes of barely comprehensible information takes the steam out of them. Maybe schools aren’t the best way of bringing up the young. All the politicians in the last election thought that excellence in education is better examination results.”

R.F. MacKenzie, A Search For Scotland

For a more comprehensive analysis of the life and works of R.F. MacKenzie I would recommend that you read Walter Humes’ excellent paper ‘R.F. Mackenzie’s Manifesto for the Educational Revolution‘ in Scottish Educational Review No. 43 (2011)

See also rfmackenzie.info 

Listen to a discussion on R.F. MacKenzie and A Search for Scotland on the Inside Learning podcast

With thanks to my good friend on Twitter Robert Macmillan (@robfmac) for pointing me in the direction of A Search for Scotland. One day soon I hope to meet him in the real world.

‘The Ideal Classroom?’ image from The Shieling Project at A Thousand Huts

The Pursuit of Ignorance

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about the relationship between knowledge and skills in education, talk which has often been polarised and portrayed as a straight fight between these two purposes or goals. They are, of course mutually dependent, but there is nothing those of us involved in the education business like better than a good argument, or a controversial statement. Which is how my attention came to be drawn to this TED talk by the American neuroscientist Stuart Firestein, in which he explores (and explodes) our common misconceptions about the study of science, and stresses the importance of developing students who are able to keep on asking the right questions, long after their ‘formal education’ has ended.

Unfortunately, according to Fierstein, our current education systems, with their heavy emphasis on standardised testing and memorisation, tend to have discouraged that very natural curiosity long before students have reached that point. Far from arguing that knowledge doesn’t matter, I think what he is suggesting is that knowledge is of no value unless it stimulates a further search for that which is unknown, so the message for schools, teachers and students would be to find the right balance between learning the facts and asking impossible questions. In other words, I guess if he was being strictly accurate, he might have called it ‘the pursuit of informed ignorance’! See what you think.

Related Posts

More Questions, Fewer Answers

More Questions than Answers

Physics is Fun. Honest

Socrates and the Squid

Currently enjoying “Proust and the Squid” by Maryanne Wolf, the story of the development of the reading brain in humans. Wolf describes the origins of reading and writing from early Egyptian and Sumerian scripts and fascinatingly likens the current seismic shift from a written culture to one that is increasingly driven by visual images and massive streams of digital information, to the concerns of Socrates in ancient Greece that the transition from an oral tradition to a literate one would lead to a lack of virtue and discipline in young learners. His main concern was that while language was mainly spoken it required great feats of memory and strong discipline to master, while the invention of the written word encouraged people to be lazy. If speech and debate were dynamic and challenging, written language was by contrast a “dead discourse”. A more subtle concern was that because the written word could be mistaken for reality, or be assumed to be true, people could be deluded into thinking that they understood something when in fact they had only just begun to understand it, which would result in an empty arrogance, leading nowhere. Professor Wolf contends that this is akin to the concerns of many modern-day teachers and parents who watch their children spend endless hours in front of the computer, absorbing but not necessarily understanding huge amounts of information. Such quasi understanding would have been anathema to Socrates for whom true knowledge, wisdom and virtue were the only worthy aims of education.