I sense a huge dissatisfaction in a great many schools and some schools are in crisis. The problem is that the present education system doesn’t suit the contemporary world or the needs of children. This isn’t because teachers want it this way, it’s because it just is this way; it’s in the gene pool of education. Teachers are forced to teach within a system with inappropriate assumptions conceived during and for the industrial age. Public Education at the time was a revolutionary idea, never before had there been education paid for by taxation, compulsory for all and free at the point of delivery. However there were many cynics in positions of authority who thought it was a waste of time and money and doubted that working class children were capable of learning how to read and write. So the education system had built into it all kinds of assumptions about social capability. It was also designed for purpose, which is why, by the early 20th century, we ended up with a very broad base of elementary education, which everyone went to, followed by a secondary education which some people went to, and a university education that a very tiny minority went to. It was modelled on the industrial and economic needs of the age when we needed a broad base of people to do manual work, who would only need a rough basics of English and Maths; a smaller group of administrators, that’s what grammar schools were for; and an even smaller group to run the country and they were the ones who went to universities. That’s simplified but it’s basically what shaped the education system we still live with now.
By the time children reach the age of twelve their education is not only based on the interest of industrialisation their schools are based on factory lines: ringing bells, separated facilities, specialisation in separate subjects, educating children in batches. Why do we insist they go through the system by age category I can’t see that the most important thing we have in common is our age. Surely our most defining feature isn’t our date of manufacture. Some children are much better at certain things than others twice their age. Some individuals are also better at certain things at different times of the day, or more efficient in smaller groups, or function better at other activities alone. If we are interested in educating the individual, you can’t start with a production line mentality.
There remains the over-riding assumption that real intelligence is an aptitude for deductive reasoning, knowledge of the classics, in short academic ability. And so our education is driven by the perception that there are two types of people, academic and the non-academic, and if you’re academic you are by definition, smarter. The consequence of this is that many brilliant people think they are not because they are being judged against this particular view of intelligence. Whilst this educational model favours some people it has created distress in the lives of many more. I think it’s a massive problem.
If the industrial age, when our present education system was conceived, was a time of revolutionary change it is as nothing to what is happening now. The changes taking place globally now are without precedent in the history of the world. Technology is moving faster than any of us can imagine. In 1949 a headline article was published in an American magazine called popular mechanics made the astonishing prediction that future computers might weigh less than 1½ tons. Who then would have 30 years ago that we would have mobile phones with computing powers greater than that used to manage the Apollo space mission? Much of what the world will be like for our children in fifty years time is unimaginable but the impact on culture promises to be extraordinary.
We can take a stab at envisaging the world in thirty, fifty, sixty years by looking at some trends. Take work for instance. My Grandfather had a job for life, my father had two jobs in his lifetime, I’m one of the baby boomers and we will have had on average 3 or 4 jobs in our career by retirement age. When children who are starting school now reach retirement it’s predicted they will have worked in 18 – 25 different organisations. Soon companies will no longer be looking for committed people to train and manage for life, they will be looking to secure more and more people on short term contracts, working to expand key areas of their development planning then moving on as the company’s plans need change. It’s also worth flagging up that the number of graduates in 2009 still looking for jobs at the start of 2010 was just over 30% and that blue chip companies are increasingly saying that a first class degree is no longer a major criterion for employment selection. These changes alone means we can be certain of one thing, the world of our children will be even more uncertain than our own.
Whether this depresses you or not, whether you like it or not, or however desperately you may wish or hope for a reversal in these trends, the reality is it won’t happen. In many ways the reason the future feels so stark is that we are not prepared for it, it’s a world we would feel uncomfortable in. What’s crucial though is that it is a world in which our children need to feel comfortable and prepared for and whatever it holds there are certain skills they’ll need that aren’t being addressed fully right now. Above all the future is call to be flexible, adaptable to change. They will need to have huge amounts of confidence, and will need to hold onto and develop their natural creativity and inborn capacity for divergent thinking. Increasingly they will need to be emotionally self-aware have consummate social skills, be capable of building relationships quickly and effectively both face to face and ‘virtually’. The spirit of entrepreneurship will be vital, so they will need to be open to taking risks, embrace failure as a vital part of learning, know their strengths and weakness and how to utilize both
Government after government tinker and tweak the education system to respond to voter’s hopes for their children. One problem is they are trying to reform education to make it better version of what it was or is. In other words the challenge seems to be to do whatever it’s doing better to raise standards. And they say we have to raise standards as if it was some kind of break through. Yes really we should – because I haven’t come across an argument that persuades me we should lower them. But to transform education we have to think differently about human capacity. We have to get over this old concept of academic/non-academic and see it for what it is – a myth.
I am a huge advocate of working with groups. Collaboration is the stuff of groups and learning is a natural outcome of collaborating. The education system force schools to atomise people and separate them and judge them separately, and when we do that we form a disjunction between them and natural learning; it’s deeply embedded in the culture of our institutions. Why are we so hung up on a system that disconnects people when we are naturally and essentially social beings? There are a growing number of people who are pushing for an education built on different principles but it means a shift from an industrial metaphor of education to an organic one. Education shouldn’t be about uniformity but diversity. We should customise learning institutions for the individual not systematically for all, value utility but respect living vitality and its potential to be transformative. Whist there is a place for linear thinking we should give greater worth to creative multi optional thinking. Learning should be a fabulous adventure.
Killing our imaginations
Whilst researching for the Hartfield Community Play, A.A. Milne’s home village, I read his autobiography; in it he writes about a time when he was a guest at a dinner of Preparatory School Headmasters:
They all, so it seemed, made speeches; and the burden of all their speeches was the obstructiveness of the parents to their beneficent labours. I had disclaimed any desire to make a speech, but by this time I wanted to. I told them that on this very evening, I had offered the alternatives of a proposition of Euclid’s or a chapter of Treasure Island as a bedtime story, and my own boy had chosen Euclid: "it was so much more fun". "All children”, I said (perhaps rashly) “are like that. There is nothing they are not eager to learn. And then we send them to your schools, and in two years, three years, four years, you have killed all their enthusiasm. At fifteen their own eagerness is to escape learning anything." It was not a popular speech.
But he’s right. I think I would have liked Alan Milne. I blame some teachers; I certainly don’t blame all of them. In fact one headmaster approached Milne after his speech and said he thought it absolutely true what he was saying…“ but why is it? What do we do? I’ve often wondered”.
As human beings we are bestowed with this astonishing gift of imagination. We have the capacity to bring to mind things that are not present, to hypothesize about things that have never been but could be. Every feature of human culture is the consequence of this facility. Our imagination has produced an astounding diversity of culture, of enterprise and innovation. As a species we speak 6,000 languages, we have produced Hamlet, Mozart, great symphonies, jazz, air travel, quantum mechanics, the theory of relativity; everything that exemplifies the rise of human culture. We can be extraordinary.
But I believe we systematically strangle this in-born ability of imagination in our children and in ourselves. I’m sure we don’t do it deliberately but we do it habitually and unthinkingly. I can’t imagine there’s a teacher anywhere who gets up in the morning thinking “Great now whose life shall I screw up today?” Nevertheless I think by assuming certain ideas about what it is to be educated we do screw up lives. I, among millions, have grown up with a system of public education that is dominated by a concept of economic usefulness. It’s inherent in the hierarchy of subjects in the school curriculum. Maths, Science and English are always deemed to be the most important, then the humanities and then the Arts, way down at the bottom. And with in the Arts there’s another hierarchy. Music and Art are always thought to be more important than dance and drama. There isn’t a school system anywhere that advocates systematically teaching dance everyday to every child in the way we require them to learn mathematics. Why? I’m not against mathematics, on the contrary but why is dance so underrated, children love to dance. The reason, quite simply, is that the government, and those who determine the curriculum, see no economic point in it. There’s an economic judgement made in constructing the school curriculum. I’m sure like me you were steered away from things you were good at; towards things that other people advised would be of more value to you. So in effect our school curriculum is based on the assertion that there are two kinds of subjects useful ones, and useless ones and the useless ones fall away especially when money is tight.
There was survey carried out on 1,500 people that tested individual’s ability for divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is the ability to develop original and unique ideas and to envision multiple solutions to a problem; psychologist J.P. Guilford developed the concept in the 1950s and he saw it as a major component of creativity. Typical ‘test’ paper would be:
Below are five everyday objects. Think of as many different uses as you can for each
There’s no time limit but people usually completed it within fifteen minutes.
A ‘dull’ person might come up with three answers; an average with ten, a brilliant divergent thinker might come up with twenty five, a genius with a fifty or more. Genius divergent thinkers are even prone to challenge the precepts of the question by asking – “Can the paper clip be twenty feet high?” “Can the brick be made of foam rubber?”
What percentage of people do you think scored at genius level? I should tell you one more thing about the group tested; they were all aged between 3 and 5 years old.
The most revealing aspect was that this was a longitudinal test; the same children were tested every five years, between 8 and 10, then 13 to 15. They finally tested 2,000 adults 25years and older as a control. How do you think the different groups performed?
Here are the results:
3 to 5 year olds 98%
They retested again 5 years later
8 to 10 year olds 32%
You can possibly already see a trend here can’t you?
13 to 15 year olds 10%
They finally tested 20,000 adults, just once as a control.
25 year olds and over 2%
One would expect, or at least have some hope that we’d start not being very good and you get better as we get older. So it appears we are all born with the ability to think divergently and it mostly deteriorates. A lot has happened to these children as they’ve grown up; and one of the most important things that have happened to them is they have become educated.
To a large extent, this decline in divergent thinking has to be because children spend and great proportion of their schooling being told that there’s only one answer. The answer may well be at the back of the book, but you can’t look, that’s cheating; paradoxically in the real world it’s called research and ‘copying’ is called collaboration.
It’s tragic that there was has been no reference to Dorothy Heathcote in the National press since her recent death. On the other hand it comes as no surprise. Recognition, not for herself, but her ideas, was a battle she fought all her life. I’ve heard the intellectual traditionalists describe her as one of those soft liberals. It’s a mistake, she was first and foremost passionate about intellectual pursuit, I know very few who were so well read and had such a breath of knowledge, and she was also about children’s quest for knowledge. People respond to Dorothy’s work on a number of levels, for thousands of individuals it is inspiring and life changing; many educationalists, without a second glance dismiss it as wishy-washy and see no discernable connection between it and academic advancement; a great number are simply overwhelmed by the challenges it demands in teaching style and the reassessment of what ‘education’ really is. So her concept of education has generally been kept confined to the educational backburner. I say back burner rather than ‘bin’ as an indication of hope. She was ahead of her time but the traditionalist who imposes our current education system will eventually have to wake up to the changing needs of the 21st century encompassed in the common sense values she practiced. Great ideas are part of the evolutionary process and are frustratingly slow. It can take generations to move the most obvious idea into practice.
Because so many people haven’t come across her work I thought it might be useful, just as a flavour, to explain one aspect of her of teaching practice. Dorothy was first and foremost practical. Her ideas are rooted in how we learn naturally through practical work and contact within the community of others. We can only truly want to learn something if we can see that there’s some practical use for it. If we know that learning a particular something is in any way relevant to us then we will, quite naturally, want to know more about it. Much of her work with drama is about putting children into imagined situations that demanded solutions to an immediate problem and then getting them to apply what they already know and research what they ‘need to know’ to solve that problem. Helping children to “discover”, rather than simply ‘telling’ is the key. Tell a child that red and yellow make orange, they are likely to forget it, but give them red and yellow to paint with so they discover orange, they will most certainly remember it. One of her tools for teaching she called ‘The Mantle of the Expert’.
The Mantle of the Expert is a dramatic-inquiry approach to teaching and learning. The concept is to create an environment that allows the learners to do all their curriculum work as if they were a community of experts. They might be investigating archaeologists excavating a roman villa, or biologists in a laboratory. They might be architects planning a housing estate or doctors running a hospital. Whatever the theme or area of learning the children take on the behavior of ‘experts’ and as such work from a specific point of view as they explore their learning. Implicit in the work is the need for the children to take on special responsibilities, language needs and social behaviours of the expert. This is not about children performing a play, they are simply being asked to agree, for a short while, to imagine themselves as a group of scientists, explorers or whoever, with specific jobs and responsibilities. Through activities and tasks, the children gradually take on the same kinds of responsibilities, problems and challenges that real archaeologists or scientists might do in the real world.
To use one of our own example, a group of schools asked Claque to create a role play around the subject of refugees and asylum seekers. We put the children in the role of police investigating a reported crime perpetrated against a reputed “refugee woman”. The woman herself had fled the scene and all we had as a frame of reference were the belongings she’d left behind. In teams the children sifted through the material in order to get some picture of who the woman was, and where she came from. They found, personal and official letters, photographs, maps, a diary and personal treasured objects. An essential part of the planning of these in role sessions is that information is on hand to be discovered.
The woman was later found and brought before the children for questioning. Because of the children’s background knowledge of her they were able to focus their questions purposefully. As police they had to write a report about what they thought should happen to the woman and what our responsibilities were to her if any? They had to consider issues such as whether she qualified for asylum. This brought up other areas about her general welfare and the implications financially, culturally and socially. Their talk, investigation and interviewing developed as though they were police – their vocabulary and need for knowledge increased.
To give children the Mantle of the Expert there always needs to be a task or enterprise (A factory to be run, a crime to be solved, a battle to be won, an escape plan to be executed) and there always needs to be a client who needs help with the task being done (The purchasers of factory goods, the patients in the hospital, the high command on board a ship). The emphasis is on what tasks the children need to do to serve the needs of the clients and make the enterprise a success.
The process significantly changes the usual dynamic of education. As teachers we step back from the usual ‘teaching’ role of being the fount of all knowledge, ‘the one who tells’. And begin to share with the class the responsibility for the quality of work. ‘We’ together, run the enterprise and, as in real-life, it’s based in action and processes; thus it generates a range of different tasks: talking, listening, writing, speaking, making, designing, planning, measuring, weighing, etc. These tasks are channeled by the adult towards the requirements of the school curriculum. It brings together different areas of the curriculum, rather than trying to teach them separately, because, in practice life is not divided into subjects in the way schools seem to insist they are.
Through the Mantle of the expert and the use of dramatic inquiry we can develop the skills, and acquire the knowledge demanded by any area of the school curriculum but put it into a context. Through drama we can see purpose in what we learn and put our knowledge, skills and ability to find out into to immediate use. Helping young people develop ownership over their enterprise is also extremely motivational. Children become passionate about their quest for knowledge when they recognize it has something to do with them. Not only that - because it is ‘drama’ based and involves the whole community of the classroom working together it develops co-operation, invention, adaptability, creativity, risk and empathy, qualities looked for among employers in the modern world.
One Response to Mantle of the Expert
Patrena Russell says: comment-author .vcard January 16, 2012 at 12:41 am .comment-meta .commentmetadata
This is an interesting peace of in formation. I did not no anything about Dr. Dorothy Heathcote until last week when l was asked to write an essay on her. I am amazed at the wonderful things she has done and how she has influence many lives. I WISH TO KNOW MORE ABOUT HER.