Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Mark Taylor explains why one distinguished educational thinker is talking ‘Pollocks’ about educational change

In the first of a new series of talks run by the Learning Skills Foundation*, David Hargreaves, research director of the Specialist Schools Trust and ‘personalisation’ guru, outlined his latest thoughts on education. Beginning with a re-statement of his assessment of the problems of the 19th century ‘factory system’ we have inherited, and the need for more customised education, his focus was on how ‘personalised learning’ now required ‘system redesign’ as a necessary stage in transformation. What is system redesign? Hargreaves sees it as a ‘complex fusion’ of mass customisation and peer
production through innovation networks based on the ‘co-construction’ of learning by previously distinct sectors of teachers and pupils. This ‘system redesign’, he argues, points to five significant consequences for schools. First, a merging of primary and secondary sectors; second, the development of more permeable year groups in a shift away from age-related learning; third, the disappearance of the Key Stage system of assessment by 2020; fourth, the introduction of competence based school days; fifth, the collapse of the traditional division between schools and workplaces and the restructuring of larger schools into smaller ‘home units’.

The talk centred on the development of the internet as an example of the new type of co-constructed learning that is leaving traditional teaching behind. For Hargreaves, educationalists who want to reap the harvest of innovation must capture the tendency by young people to create their own systems. He celebrates not just ‘student voice’, but goes ‘beyond’ it in order to create ‘student leaders’ in every school. The ultimate result will be a system of ‘flatter leadership’ distinct from the traditional ‘hub and spoke’ school model.

Perceiving these changes as liberating, Hargreaves next considered who will lead them and run tomorrow’s schools. It is ‘Generation Y’, otherwise known as anyone born after 1980, or anyone familiar with blogging or Facebook rather than television. In short, the old hierarchical leadership model of teachers and students co-ordinated by government must be replaced by an unco-ordinated one based on babyboomers, Generation X and Generation Y which is left alone by government. And how will it all finally look? Hargreaves asks us to picture a ‘Jackson Pollock painting’ more than a traditional organisational flow.

Hargreaves develops a useful picture of where the ‘system’ may be going – or unravelling. However, there are many problems with his analysis. The first concerns his own refusal to admit responsibility for the changes he describes. As an architect of the specialist school system, he is remarkably unwilling to see how much current ‘innovation’ derives from his own attack on the traditional system. He lacks awareness of how far the ‘factory system’ has already become the future. The fact that that the education system is still considered to be failing reflects badly on him and not just on the 19th century. Secondly, the key feature of the current system is not, as he thinks, internet-led innovation. Rather, it is the absence of confidence in intellectual authority. The failure of educators to take responsibility for defending subjects as creative triumphs of intellectual development is seen by Hargreaves as evidence of innovation. But it is not. It is merely a readjustment to the collapse of intellectual authority he caricatures as a factory system.

The resulting ‘anti-system’ could end up fomenting a privatised form of charismatic or revelatory leadership by the young instead of defending public knowledge through the impersonal intellectual leadership of traditional subjects. This will leave many schools without a disciplined intellectual core around which to teach the truth as best we know it and to show that every child has a personal stake in universal knowledge. And the unquestionably brilliant potential of the internet may be reduced to little more than cobbled together celebrations of folk wisdom. No educator should have a problem with enabling the young to become leaders or to use new technology, but not at the expense of the disciplined subject knowledge they will require to do so properly – and properly creatively.

Many of Hargreaves’ ‘insights’ are attempts to rationalise and romanticise the breakdown of traditional subject-based education and the failure to replace it with anything of substance - except ‘the internet’. But he has failed to perform the central task of any educator, that is, to offer a system that enables children to judge and think critically through their subject knowledge about the world they are growing up in.

*David Hargreaves: Who runs schools and who should run schools? Learning Skills Foundation Lecture, April 23 2008. http://www.learningskillsfoundation.com/