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The RSA’s Matthew Taylor has suggested four key changes needed to reform education: the importance of the whole child and of all children; the need to engage children in the learning process rather than seeing them primarily as recipients of handed down knowledge; the end of isolation of schools from real life; and enabling professionals to use their own judgment. Dr Brenda Watson FRSA argues that the reality does not connect well with this goal and suggests what can be done.

In his now famous address at the University of Kansas in 1968, Robert F. Kennedy outlined an impressive list of what cannot be measured. Kennedy included the limitations of measuring the Gross National Product: “It measures neither the health of our children, the quality of their education, nor the joy of their play. It measures neither the beauty of our poetry, nor the strength of our marriages. It is indifferent to the decency of our factories and the safety of our streets alike. It measures neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our wit nor our courage, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worth living”. The notion of measurement can sensibly apply to only a part of life, and perhaps not even the most important part. It certainly leaves consideration of wholeness well below the horizon. There are two aspects that make this particularly true of education in the UK.

First, in the UK the operating model for education is still shaped by the Victorian system where children are forced into age cohorts to be controlled by adults in as clear-cut and uniform way as possible by central government. This top-down approach squeezes out the opportunities for individual initiative. In a class of 30 plus children with one teacher in charge, the opportunities for each child to ask a question and receive a sophisticated response are curtailed. In addition, endless directives to teachers as to what and how they should teach kill the spontaneity needed for real communication. As the RSA’s Ian Burbidge has noted the failure of top down New Public Management tools to reform public services using incentives, targets, markets and sanctions as primary levers of improvement has “left professionals disempowered, created perverse incentives as targets drove organisational focus, and crowded out creativity and innovation.” This has happened regarding what goes on in schools. Micro-management fails to trust staff or pupils to act authentically and responsibly in a world of complexity and constant change.

Second, the UK has a long tradition of fact-based learning where knowledge is presumed to be definite and certain. Increasingly this is impregnated by scientism, the imperialism of science per se.  Dazzled by the amazing achievements of science, an unwarranted attempt to transfer scientific method to the whole of knowledge has caste suspicion on anything incapable of such assessment.

The goal in searching for knowledge has become objectivity secure from mere opinion. In his book The Edge of Reason, the humanist philosopher Julian Baggini tracked the rise to this narrow concept of knowledge and understanding and created what may be termed a fact/opinion divide. Seeing science as the royal road to knowledge has been gathering momentum for over two centuries. Presuming that objective certainty for opinions is impossible, scientism treats people's views, beliefs and values as incapable of being rationally evaluated and therefore no more than idiosyncratic ideas.

The ramifications of the dominance of scientism are threefold. Firstly, it discourages the practice of rational debate in order to understand and work towards resolution of disagreement. Instead, the focus of attention tends to move away from what is said to who says it so that strong disagreement with views morphs into blaming people for holding such views. This includes those who lived long ago, as shown by the example of university students hounding Cecil Rhodes for his colonialism. What may be called the single-issue syndrome, alliedto the giving or taking of offence, is not only a direct attack on freedom of speech, but augurs something sinister. The alternative to rational debate in real life is power-based: might becomes right.

Secondly, scientism blurs the distinction between people and robots. The widespread view among neuroscientists that human beings are no more than physical machines exposes scientism at work behind the scenes and ignores how human beings differ. Thirdly, scientism promotes a materialist ideology. It embodies the notion that all other perspectives possible on human life, intellectual, aesthetic, moral and spiritual, are in a sense illusory and can in principle be entirely explained in molecular terms. This can subtly promote a moral relativism that endangers democracy itself, morally dependent as this is on according respect to every human being. It can leave the pull of emotions and self-centredness in everyday life dangerously undirected.

Articulating the falseness of scientism is important. A proper love and appreciation of science should not slide unnoticed into something quite different: an imperialism, which disrespects human personality and experience.These three considerations concerning accountability, micromanagement and leanings towards scientism in education, suggest fundamental reform is needed. This will be enormously difficult to achieve but three factors may prove effective.

First, advances in digital technology make fundamental reform of education possible. AI is proceeding at an incredible pace. Take, for example, what Marc Benioff's cloud computing company, Salesforce, is producing. Its robot Einstein attends executive meetings and criticises presentations by senior staff, quoting reams of statistics to show where sales projections are unjustified. This undermines and discomfits human staff who are criticised in front of their peers.

Derek Smith, a retired materials scientist, considers what this should mean for education: “Like it or loath it, the management structure of virtually all western corporations depends on promotion of so-called ‘high flyers’ who distinguish themselves from the herd largely by deployment of an enhanced factual base, itself the product of a superior memory. These people are often recipients of the silver spoons of the education system for being successful in examinations which themselves reward enhanced memory of ‘facts’ (i.e. the current beliefs of syllabus writers and teachers). Now that robo-students can succeed better than any human at fulfilling present educational test requirements, it seems at least plausible that the Benioff scenario will gradually become the norm. Successful human executives will no longer be judged on their memory for facts but on other criteria. Their education should therefore have prepared them for their new roles.”

The need will not be for well-lodged knowledge, huge and reliably-stocked memories and capacity to deliver established ways of doing things. Rather, the perceptions and skills required are likely to be character-based and people-related. Emotional maturity will become hugely important, together with the capacity for creative and flexible thinking to cope with uncertainty and ever-increasing complexity. Schools should be nurturing responsible subjectivity, instead of being imprisoned within a false trail towards objectivity at all costs.

Second, despite being dismissed by scientism, the capacity for common sense and intuitive awareness is not dead. All over the world, in incredibly different contexts, people have been doing education differently. There are plenty of successful models to draw upon. Once scientism is shown the door, it becomes obvious that, for example, treating children as all the same is nonsensical, or that immersing them in an adult-led, often oppressive system during their most impressionable years is hardly likely to produce good citizens for a democracy.  Education should be built around an open and generous approach, which encourages in-depth enquiry from many different perspectives.

Third, digital technology, if rightly used, can enable education for all in a way hitherto unknown and can permit fluidity in how schools are run. When knowledge was locked away in libraries and the heads of scholars, the Victorian system of education provided the only way of communicating widely with those who could not have access to learning materials. Today access for everyone is possible.

At the moment teachers have neither the time nor the opportunity to relate effectively to each one of those they teach and are so stressed that too many are leaving the profession. Education is basically a matter of inspiration not of dictation of any kind. It happens best through immersion in a community where teachers as well as pupils are imbued with the enjoyment of learning. Technology can liberate teachers to educate, focusing properly on the needs and interests of those they teach; it can enable education to become holistic and personal. This will require us to organise education, both primary and secondary, on something akin to a tutorial/small group system instead of giving primacy to teacher-dominated large classes tied to chronological age. It means allowing the curriculum to become fully personalised instead of imposing on everyone slots in a standardised timetable. Buildings in the wider community will need to be made available to all schools devoted to different subjects with specialist staff trained to help those who are ready and wanting to learn. Adapting to this new world will mean massively broadening group activities with a special emphasis on the arts and on community service of many kinds and paying serious attention to values education and character development.

Technology needs to be seen not as an optional extra, but as a driver of sweeping reform, which can both preserve the freedom of learners and inspire them to learn.

Dr Brenda Watson is a retired educationalist. She is currently writing a book on democracy and education.

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