Education is the new rock’n’roll – Paul Henderson

Education is the new rock’n’roll

We always look forward to Paul’s contributions and this certainly lives up to his thought provoking standards! 

 The Elephant in the room

Just the other day I attended a presentation by an emeritus professor of education who was one of the chief architects of a recently launched national curriculum. The presentation was well paced, entertaining, humorous and highly professional. He spent two hours introducing the truly excellent educational philosophy founded on solid peer reviewed educational research which underpinned the new curriculum; yet the more his presentation continued, the more convinced I became that what he was describing was purely the sugar coating around a cyanide pill, and by describing the flavour of the sugar he was trying to get us to swallow the pill. I found myself completely in 100% agreement with the learning theories, pedagogy and research findings that he was describing but couldn’t help noticing the elephant in the room that he was so skilfully avoiding. Surely anyone with his level and degree of understanding of learning must know that it was there. Why didn’t he mention it? Why do the vast majority of educationists never mention it? Could it be that any mention of it would be in direct contravention of an irreproachable cultural and economic imperative? It might be a bit like one of Hitler’s generals announcing at a meeting with the Fuhrer that persecuting the Jews was not a good idea – accurate announcements are not always advisable career moves.

As this highly qualified education expert was speaking I decided to jot down four questions which, if they were answered honestly, would reveal 1) the tusks, 2) the trunk and head, 3) the body and 4) the legs and tail. The elephant that would be eventually revealed is that, from an educational perspective, schooling as it stands today is unfit for purpose.

At the end of the talk the professor asked if there were any questions; mine was the only hand that went up and I told him I had four. He replied that he would give me two; I reckoned that revealing the tusks, the trunk and the head was probably enough for the audience to deduce the rest.

My first question went something like this;

                ‘I completely agree with all the educational philosophy that underpins this new curriculum; it is truly excellent and completely in line with my personal educational philosophy.’ The professor humorously interjected that he felt a ‘but’ coming on; he was correct! I then went on to say that all of this great philosophy cannot be implemented with any integrity alongside state prescribed learning outcomes. To my amazement he completely agreed and expanded on my point for the benefit of the rest of the audience. I don’t know exactly how up to speed on the new curriculum the rest of the audience were but if they had been paying attention recently they would know that the outcomes are to be introduced prescriptively thereby fatally compromising the integrity of the original philosophy on which the curriculum was based. For anyone in the room who understood the significance of this then the tusks had been well and truly revealed!

 Second question;

‘Howard Gardner claims that musical intelligence is an entirely discrete and separate intelligence from logistic/mathematical and linguistic intelligence yet we assess music students with a written exam.’ The professor agreed with and picked up on the point I was making very quickly as if he had heard it many times before. He expanded on it at great length and extended it to all subjects not just music, finishing off his exposition with the phrase, ‘Our current exam system is unfit for purpose.’ For anyone who was following what was being said then the trunk and the head was now revealed; surely they could do the rest for themselves. With the knowledge from on high that the original philosophy of the new curriculum will be fatally compromised by its implementation and that the exam system is unfit for purpose surely the audience could put two and two together to get the full picture. They were more interested in going to lunch.

I managed to get a short chat with the professor as he was packing away his notes. We talked a bit more about educational philosophy and found to my surprise that we were in complete agreement. When I asked him why the outcomes were implemented prescriptively, not as guidelines only, he replied that that it was because the politicians ‘didn’t have the bottle.’

This meeting was a bit of a revelation. I had always thought that educationists were either traditional or progressive in their philosophy and now I get the distinct feeling that the vast majority have a progressive philosophy, even the ones that design national curricula. How could they not? If you spend your days evaluating all of the recent research findings on the way the brain works in relation to how we learn and join up the dots it can only lead to one conclusion; schooling as it stands today is unfit for purpose and needs to be changed beyond recognition. Countless sweeping new progressive reforms introduced into many national schools systems worldwide have failed to change the nature of schooling for the better in any way whatsoever. Surely educationists worldwide must have realised by now that progressive educational ideology cannot be successfully implemented within the walls of a regressive institution. Politicians ignore this obvious conclusion since its implications do not win votes. Politicians are like blades of grass that sway in the fickle breeze of the cultural and economic zeitgeist. They do not act on advice if it not perceived to be a vote winner because without votes they are impotent. Schooling may well be an educational impediment for the vast majority of its pupils but it has also been an irreproachable cultural and economic imperative for over one hundred years. Any criticism and consequent solutions to national education systems are almost always school based; the reason that all of the solutions, no matter how well researched and funded, have not worked are due to the intrinsic attributes of schooling itself. It is Schooling’s cultural and economic significance that has made it into a political imperative, but cultural and economic attitudes change.

If the vast majority of educationists advocate progressive thinking, as I suspect they do, and if they have learned anything from the many previous failed attempts to implement this thinking within traditional schooling, then they must know that success can only be achieved by changing schooling beyond recognition. They also must know that it is a waste of time putting their case to politicians who will never have the bottle to phase out what is perceived to be an irreproachable cultural imperative. It is the voting public that they need to beguile in order to create a new cultural attitude towards learning that will set the stage for radical change nationally. Educationists will surely not beguile the public with the negativity of school bashing, but with a strong and positive vision of a national education framework based on a philosophy that is deeply embedded in the solid bedrock of the findings of recent irrefutable peer reviewed research (which schooling currently flies in the face of). The only way for them to get their message across is through the channels of mainstream media which are slowly beginning to wake up.

Normally when the research clearly shows that there is a far better way to do things, those things are transformed for the better. A pertinent example would be the changes that were made to the approach to mental health care in the 70s and 80s. The history of mental health care parallels that of schooling up until the 1970s. Popular media played its part in changing cultural attitudes towards mental health with the film ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ in which the central character is lobotomised, not for the sake of his well being, but in order to make his behaviour more compliant with institutional expectations (the exact same reasoning that causes schoolchildren to be medicated with Ritalin). In other words his mental health is destroyed in order to make him institutionally compliant. A similar situation happens when pupils’ natural and healthy learning instincts are destroyed when their behaviour is constantly required to be compliant with institutional expectations – the parallels are frightening – perhaps a similar film needs to be made about schooling.

From around the time of the industrial revolution people with serious mental health issues were institutionalised in state run asylums. When the research showed that institutionalising people actually impeded their mental state, the asylums were phased out in favour of a more community based approach. There was little opposition to this since lunatic asylums were not seen as an irreproachable cultural imperative in the way that schooling has been. In health care in general it is always seen as good practice to have as much care in the community as possible and only take people into hospitals if it is absolutely necessary. These days it is unusual for anyone to be hospitalised for any more than a week or so. In health care the thought of institutionalising someone for 190 days a year between the age of five and eighteen would be entirely unacceptable for reasons that have exact parallels with those that show how schooling impedes learning.

Mainstream educationists such as Sir Ken Robinson, John Abbott and others have been highlighting how schooling is unfit for purpose for some time now but while their analysis of the problems of schooling are very good, their solutions need to be clarified. Recent books by Robinson and Abbott seem to be indicating that part of the solution to the unsuitability and ineffectiveness of schooling is schooling. This is confusing. Do they mean that schools of the future need to be changed beyond recognition and still be schools? Normally when something is transformed or changed beyond recognition it has a completely different identity, constitution and name. If Robinson and Abbott were to suggest that schools should be transformed into convivial, non-ageist, non-custodial community learning centres their message would be a lot clearer. Perhaps that is what their message is except, in their vision of a future national learning framework, schools change in everything but name. It may be purely a semantic issue but if Robinson’s and Abbott’s solutions to schooling are to be clearly and unambiguously understood then there should be a clear differentiation between schooling as we know it today and their vision of future learning centres.  Abbott’s notion of the solution to schooling being like a three legged stool with schooling as one of the three legs appears to be partially embracing our current concept of schooling.  This is ambiguous and confusing. If he had used a term like ‘community learning centre’ instead of ‘school’ to describe future transformed schools it would make a lot more sense. There is a similar ambiguity in Robinson’s work. The good thing is that darlings of establishment such as Sir Ken are coming out of the closet and admitting that schooling is unfit for purpose; this is a trend that can only increase. When the mass media finally wake up to the fact that the juiciest story of the past hundred years is staring them straight in the face then we may well witness some very interesting times.

Education is the new rock’n’roll

After the revelations of my meeting with the schooling insider and now that key established and recognised educational experts and advisors are starting to come out of the educational closet, I am led to the conclusion that education is now the new rock’n’roll. The seeds for a fresh new ground-up social and cultural revolution have been planted and it will not be induced, initiated or sanctioned by the powerful few within our current educational establishments. The impact that alternative education as we now call it (in the future it will no longer be alternative) will have on youth culture will be very similar to the impact that rock’n’roll had in the mid 1950s. Education is currently where rock’n’roll was in about 1952. It’s going to take a few years before the world wakes up but when it does, new and infinitely more suitable and efficient learning methods than those found in today’s schools will be ubiquitous. They will connect directly with people from all walks of life, young and old. The barrier that has stood in the way of mass education will be phased out, dismantled and replaced. Masses of young people are not going to be content with sitting passively as their education is handed down to them from on high in strictly rationed state approved portions; they are going to go out there and take what they want for themselves. The phasing out of schooling may strike fear into the hearts of teachers but it needn’t; when lunatic asylums were phased out it did not mean mental health workers were out of a job, it just meant that their job became far more community orientated; a change that was welcomed by all concerned. The same will apply to teachers when schooling is phased out; the term ‘teacher’ may well be replaced by something like ‘learning agent’ and there will be as many future learning agents as there are teachers today. The reasons for all of this not happening sooner are purely cultural and economic in nature. It is becoming more and more apparent that the traditional institutionalised methods of mass learning are no longer economically viable or culturally credible. Their educational ineffectiveness and unsuitability have been known by academics, leading thinkers and home educators for over a hundred years but, thanks to the tireless tenacity of a small band of educational heretics, the knowledge of the privileged few is now on the cusp of being shared by all. Rock on!

 Paul Henderson, October, 2010.

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