As soon as a friend or acquaintance becomes interested in education, it is not long before they send me Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk: Do Schools Kill Creativity? Accompanied with subject-lines like ‘Been kept up all night by this…’ or ‘SO TRUE!!’.
Once a fellow believer, my short time in education has convinced me of the utter falsehood of his position, and the troubles that result from this sort of thinking. As the talk is representative of much progressive thinking on education, I thought it would be helpful to point out what I believe to be the three most glaring errors:
1. The ‘Unpredictability’ Argument
“If you think of it, children starting school this year will be retiring in 2065. Nobody has a clue…what the world will look like in five years’ time. And yet we’re meant to be educating them for it. So the unpredictability, I think, is extraordinary.”
This statement is not so much wrong; it has simply been true of education forever. It was as true in 1911, in regard to 1965, as it is true today. It reveals a common mistaken belief that the pace of technological change is now so fast that knowledge is out-of-date almost as soon as it has been learned. It’s a popular stick with which to bash academic education – with such an uncertain future, why learn Latin etc?
It is the assumptions, rather than the point itself, that are troubling. Instead of boring, outdated knowledge, they argue, we should teach students ‘dispositions’, ‘habits of mind’, and ‘aptitudes’ that will help them in the future. What are these dispositions? Dubious abstract nouns – creativity, innovativeness, team-work, problem-solving – that are as hard to define as they are to teach.
“At the top are mathematics and languages, then the humanities, and the bottom are the arts. There isn’t an education system on the planet that teaches dance every day to children the way we teach them mathematics. Why? Why not? I think this is rather important. I think math is very important, but so is dance.”
You can’t be a respected educational progressive without beating up on Maths. Guy Claxton devoted a whole chapter to it. A moment’s thought should reveal the strangeness of this line of argument. There are many competing definitions for the ‘purpose of education’ (to transfer knowledge from one generation to the next; to help increase GNP; to have an educated democratic citizenry; to alleviate social inequality – to name a few). None would allow for Dance to have equal-footing with Maths.
But that is to miss the point. Because like most arguments put forward by education progressives, they are fighting a battle that they have already won. There is dance in schools – to the exclusion of academic education. And at the same time: there is less Maths. We have plummeted in the PISA league tables in Maths. And frankly who’s surprised when Maths, as conceived by the National Curriculum, is defined like this: “mathematics provides opportunities to promote spiritual development, through helping pupils obtain an insight into the infinite, and through explaining the underlying mathematical principles behind some of the beautiful natural forms and patterns in the world around us.”
3. Educational Romanticism about Talent
“All kids have tremendous talents, and we squander them…ruthlessly.”
The first half of this statement is Robinson as the father in The Talented Mr. Ripley: “every man must have a talent, Mr. Ripley. What’s yours?” Except that: it’s not true. Most teachers you speak to will admit it – there are some children who do not have tremendous talents. The problem with the current system is not a pessimism about the potential of children, but the reverse: a crazed optimism, an “Educational Romanticism” in Charles Murray’s words, that refuses to discern between the varying abilities of children.
As a result, those who do have tremendous talents are not allowed – whether it is through grammar schools or other selective means – to realize that talent; and those who have less academic talent are not given opportunities to learn the sorts of valuable skills at secondary schools that will enable them to lead valued lives.