All posts by MrMicawber

Back to the Future – or not

Last week I was in Yenagoa in Bayelsa State, Nigeria for the inaugural meeting of the International Society for Comparative Education, Science and Technology. There was a WEF strand in the conference, and we had a discussion about education. Like so many discussions about education, we bemoaned the problems that beset modern education – a lack of discipline, a lack of respect for teachers, a lack of focus on learning for its own sake, and a loss of values among children distracted by the diversity of attractions that are available today.

If all this sounds like nostalgia for a Golden age, then probably it is. We wish that children could enjoy the childhood that we enjoyed. The trouble is that, even if we actually enjoyed the childhood we remember (and that is by no means certain) we cannot design our education system today on the basis that we can turn the clock back thirty, forty or even a hundred years.

We cannot wish the mobile phone uninvented. Schools may pretend that they do not exist, by getting pupils to turn them off or put them away as they come into the school, but we really know that there is no way back. Actually, the example of the mobile phone or smart phone is quite a good example. Teachers are concerned about the use of mobile phones, that children will be distracted, will be texting their friends, will be thinking more about their social lives than about the lessons they are supposed to be studying. That is certainly something to be worried about. In new technology terms, it is as distracting as those crewed up paper notes that we used to pass along under the desk during our classes. The new technology may make the message passing a bit more effective, but it would be hard to say that mobile phones pose a new threat to scholarship.

On the other hand, smart phones can have a positive side. On two occasions in the past two years students have come up to me after a class and told me that they had followed up something I had mentioned or we had been discussion on the internet and they had found more information that was of interest and that they would pursue. Admittedly, these were masters students, but they show the possibility of opening up the classroom to outside influences, outside information, in a way that was not previously possible.

The key question here cannot be, “How do we get rid of the new technology?”; it must be, “How do we make sure that we get the best out of the new technology?” Are there ways that we can encourage the positive use of smart phones in the classroom, so that children will not be tempted to use them only to arrange to meet their friends in the recess or after school. Of course, they will arrange to meet their friends and pass messages, but teachers need to remember two things: first, that it has always gone on, and it would have been ridiculous for our teachers to ban pencils and paper, just in case we passed message3s along the back of the classroom, and second, that children who are worried about their peers, and whether they are going to meet them, are unlikely to be able to concentrate on lessons anyway.

But much of the issue here is not about the technology as such, but it is about attitudes. Teachers are worried that if they have to compete with Wikipedia in the classroom, they will no longer be respected as a source of knowledge. Teachers are not as highly respected as they used to be in many cultures, and part of that is that teachers have lost the position of sole arbiters on matters of learning. On that question, I think that we have to face facts; teachers are not, any longer, the sole source of knowledge, even if they ever were. Having acknowledged that, teachers can only make themselves ridiculous by trying to pretend that they are still the fount of all true knowledge. We have to make sure that we are offering something else, like critical insight, evaluation, and, if at all possible, wisdom.

It stands to reason that if children have access to multiple sources of information, especially if those sources of information are contradictory, children will challenge their teachers more forcefully. We should welcome that with the same kind of enthusiasm with which we applaud students attending pro-democracy marches, expressing themselves through student societies and finding satisfaction in work in the community. Nobody is owed respect just because they are figures of authority. Students know this, and teachers need to learn it, too. Challenging authority, all authority, is part of being engaged in modern, post-industrial society, and we need to come to terms with that. The loss of status of teachers is linked to the loss of status of political demagogues, of petty bureaucrats who follow the rules simply because they are the rules, and other authority figures. This may well involve thinking again about what it is to be a teacher, what should be done in the classroom, and how we should organise our schools.

There is plenty of positive change here that we should hope to take advantage of, but we will not be able to do so if our only answer is nostalgia.


This double-edged blade that cuts society is a loss of discipline – parents do not control their childre3n the way that our parents disciplined us, students do not do what they are told the way we used to, and we are gradually descending into chaos. On the other hand, there is more creativity, more self-expression and more personal development than ever before. How can we take advantage of these new developments without being overwhelmed by a sense of the loss of order?

The first step is to make sure that we do not confuse the concept of “discipline” with that of “self-discipline”. Self-discipline is an absolutely essential lubricant and glue of a civilised society. Discipline is not necessarily so positive. We might tolerate discipline in society, and especially in schools, if it were possible to establish that discipline was a valuable way of developing self-discipline. Unfortunately, it is not.

I had the benefit of excellent teachers when I was in secondary school, and have been trying to recover from that fact ever since. My learning was so well regulated, so well managed, that when I left secondary school and went to university, I was completely incapable of learning on my own, and I had to start learning all over again. Most importantly, I had to learn how to learn.

Surely, this is what “learning-to-learn” should mean; it should mean the development of the ability to manage oneself and one’s concentration in order to learn. It is a false dichotomy to set up learning-to-learn as in opposition to learning facts, or contents or knowledge, or whatever else it is that the back-to-basics brigade thinks that we are overlooking if we suggest that children need to learn how to learn rather than to learn anything specific. One can learn, as I did, under direction. But as soon as that direction is lost, or released, something else has to be substituted for it, and that something else is self-discipline. And like anything else, self-discipline has to be learned.

So the question we should really be addressing is, “What is the best way of teaching self-discipline?” Put in those terms, the answer seems more straightforward; the best way of teaching self-discipline is to give learners the opportunity to exercise it, at the same time as pointing out the consequences of not being self-disciplined. Learners have to be given the opportunity to exercise self-discipline, and if necessary to fail in the attempt, without making too much of a thing out of failure. As Tyrrell Burgess noted in The Devil’s Dictionary of Education, a toddler is a child who learns to walk because he or she does not realise that falling over is a failure.

And when I say that part of the teacher’s job is to point out the consequences of failure of self-discipline, these have to be real consequences, not imaginary or manufactured ones. When I drive my car, I stop at red traffic lights. Of course, one of the consequences of not stopping at red traffic lights is that I might be fined for breaking the law. However, that is a minor consequence compared with the more direct consequences that might follow form a collision with a speeding car in the other direction which is passing a green light. Similarly, I do not park on yellow lines or drive into controlled junctions without being able to leave the other side. In both cases there are fines for not following the rules, and the consequences are less likely to be fatal than jumping a red light. But there are still consequences in terms of traffic flow and traffic jams, as anybody who has been to Beijing can attest. In fact, in a small way, I am inclined to believe that people enjoy traffic jams, given their inclination to create them by bad parking and inconsiderate driving.

In much the same way, the consequences of lack of self-discipline for learning may not be fatal or immediate, but if we have the courage of our convictions, if we believe that we know how to study well, then we should explain what we believe to be the case and leave students to discover that we are right.

Sadly, the sentiments that I express here are contrary to almost everything that happens in society these days. The politicians’ instinct is to meet reduced order with increased control. If people are unruly, introduce a new law. If the law is not obeyed, increase the fines. If the fines are not effective, increase the surveillance. But a failure of self-discipline is not to be overcome by an increase in discipline. Increased discipline is like a pressure cooker; the steam will seek an outlet somewhere else if it is denied in one place. Self-discipline is nothing like that. In fact, perhaps we need some new words so that the two concepts cannot be confused.

The Principles of Progressive Education for the 21st Century

I have lived with the idea of child-centred education for so long now that I tend to take many of its basic assumptions for granted. So I am inclined to forget that there are people out there, people in education, for who the ideas are new or unknown. So what would I want to pick out as the most important principles of progressive education for people today.

In this centenary year of the start of World War I, the war to end all wars, it is good to remember that WEF was established as an international body in the wake of that war in the hope that international cooperation would make such war impossible. We may have a rather more sanguine view of the “war to end all wars” today, sadly.

On the other hand, progressive education had an important and major impact on education throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Many people will have come across the ideas of Montessori and Steiner in operation in schools without even knowing where the ideas originated. In some ways progressive, child-centred education became part of mainstream schooling, with a high water mark in the 1960s, from where it seems to have been declining ever since.

So what would I want to say to somebody who was now examining progressive education for the first time? I think that it’s impossible to decide by sitting on my own and thinking it over; that will not tell me what is important to other people. So I want to get into conversation about education, to try and work out what it is that I think I know that is really worth sharing.

As a start I have been reading two books lately, or at least one book and one pamphlet. The book is Beyond Human Nature: How culture and experience shape our lives, by Jesse Prinz. I didn’t know Prinz’s work, and I happened across this book in a bookshop. As the title says, it is an examination of the nature-nurture debate.

I am particularly pleased to find that, because I have been told, as I am sure you have, that the nature-nurture debate is dead. Everybody now agrees that educational attainment is partly fixed by genetics and partly influenced by the environment. Prinz agrees with that (who wouldn’t) but he goes on to assert that it actually makes an important difference where we place the emphasis, and Prinz, like me, thinks the emphasis should be firmly on the nurture, on the influence of the environment.

So, I am enjoying reading a scholarly work that weaves together things that I have felt went together – a belief that the environment shapes our personalities, a lack of belief in innate ideas, a scepticism of reduction to biological explanations and a distrust of evolutionary psychology – and see how another person thinks that these themes are related, despite their obvious differences.

I am still in the early pages at the moment, but I offer this extract, which sets out Prinz’s view of interdisciplinarity as it finds expression in the field of cognitive science (page 2) : “Anthropologists rarely incorporate discoveries about the way the mind works in their research, and those who study mental processes rarely apply their techniques to members of different cultural groups. Linguists ignore the languages of other cultures because they erroneously assume that language has no influence on thought. Psychologists do all their experiments on university students and assume that they can extrapolate from this select group to all other minds around the globe. Neuroscientists rarely attempt to study brain activity in members of different cultures; they assume that all brains function int he same way, despite overwhelming evidence that much of the brain is not pre-wired.”

The pamphlet I have been reading is Prisoners of the Blob, by Toby Young ( The premise of this pamphlet is that there is no such thing as a transferable skill, and that education should be mainly about the inculcation of knowledge content (mainly by rote learning). The reason that none of us has noticed this is because the educational establishment has been overtaken by “The Blob”, a version of groupthink that covers more or less everybody from Rousseau to Sir Ken Robinson.

I would have thought that, like the nature-nurture debate, more or less everybody now believed that education is a combination of learning intellectual skills and learning facts or content; a person needs both. But like the nature-nurture debate, it does matter where one puts the emphasis. Teaching and learning is not a system of transmission, with the teacher set to “broadcast” and the pupils set to “receive”. Learning involves an active process through which the learner recreates the knowledge for himself or herself, imbues the content of learning with emotional attachment and values, and in a real sense creates his or her own understanding that is unique and personal. That is what separates progressive educators from the gradgrinds who undoubtedly did exist before the 1960s, and may still lurk in some backwaters of the education system.

“Higher-order thinking skills are what cognitive scientists call ‘domain specific’. That is, they can only be developed in a particular subject once a student has acquired a sufficient amount of knowledge about that subject. It follows that they can’t be transferred from one subject to another”, Young argues (page 19). There is a terrible warning here that when an expert in one area strays from his or her area of expertise, he or she is almost bound to be talking rubbish. By way of illustration, Young, a journalist, forays into education with an attempt to rehabilitate the work of Gradgrind as “one of the best ways to switch on a child’s brain”, and claims Pestalozzi as a defender of traditional educational values.

He pins most of his faith on cognitive science, a field in which he seems to have more faith, and less knowledge, than Prinz.


Being There: What is the educational function of museums?

I am interested, with Dr Tracy Lau in Hong Kong, in setting up a project that looks at the educational purposes and uses of museums, art galleries and out-of-school experience.

WEF has a long history of trying to ensure that life inside the school connects with and informs life outside the school. And visits to museums and art galleries have played an important part in that kind of education, which is intended to link school work with outside cultural concerns.

There is obviously something important about being in the presence of authentic cultural products. People travel half way around the world to see the Mona Lisa, or to stand on the Spanish Steps. But what is it about that experience that requires presence. Any purely cognitive content might be caught on film, or shown in a first class colour reproduction. Venice might be reconstructed in Las Vegas. So what is it that people think they are doing when they go to museums? And why do teachers think that the experience of going to museums is valuable for the pupils in their charge?

There is a strand of thought that suggests that there are distinct ways of knowing things (Hirst and Peters, The Logic of Education, 1971: Phenix, Realms of Meaning, 1964). There are historical ways of understanding, aesthetic, religious, mathematical, scientific and emotional. There is no consensus on the exact number of different ways of knowing, but something between five and seven is usually suggested. There is something about a Rembrandt self-portrait or a Gainsborough still life that catches the eye of the observer across a room of very distinguished paintings. That is an aesthetic experience that does not depend on knowledge that it is a Rembrandt or a Gainsborough, although a knowledge of the history of art may help in the development of a critical aesthetic understanding.

There is something awe-inspiring about looking at the jewellery or votive figures made by people three thousand years ago and to be confronted with that continuity of hopes and concerns that they share with us. So museums, whether they are science museums, art galleries or historical collections, clearly have a purpose that goes beyond merely presenting knowledge that could be learned from a film or a text book. They are about the emotional engagement with authentic artefacts.

However, there is a difficulty here. Museums are clearly about more than just meeting a selection of articles. In the first place, as noted above, knowing about an object can enhance the experience of it. So museums can provide some context for the objects they display. At a minimum, this might be information given on a display label, although knowing the name of the painter and the title of the picture may not be enough to add very much to the experience. There is something rather worrying about people going through a display of gemstones and reading the labels which say “Opal”, “Aquamarine” or “Quartz”, as though knowing the name of something was inherently important. Something more in the way of context may be needed than just a name ticket.

On the other hand, there are certain aspects of museums that are very definitely not about confronting authentic objects. Some displays are simulations that are designed to stimulate the imagination and bring the context to life in the mind of the observer. Examples might be the simulated passage down the bore hole of an oil well in Houston Museum of Natural Science, or the simulated journey through an underground coal mine in the Rhondda Heritage Park. These are definitely not about “real” experiences but are about creating a context where history can be understood in a particular way.

In between these extremes of the direct experience of an object and its aesthetic value in an art gallery and the creation of a simulated experience that conveys a sense of the context of objects that might be on display elsewhere in the museum there are all sorts of shades of exhibits which explicitly or implicitly hint at a context, as might be the case of a stuffed animal displayed in a glass case with a partial representation of its supposed environment, or provide ample and explicit context through display panels or audio guides , which may or may not be used by the people who attend the museum. The context of art may be implicitly presented through the grouping of paintings and sculptures in a room, or explicitly set out in a detailed catalogue. There may not be a simple answer to the question of what a museum is for, but it at least is important to ask the question, especially if museums are to serve an educational purpose in supporting the school curriculum.

There is an important difference between seeing the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum and seeing an accurate replica made from resin at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. But what is the difference? They look exactly the same. You can read exactly the same text and see the different scripts in exactly the same way on both. If you did not know which you were looking at, the experience would be pretty much the same. But in the British Museum you are stimulated to think, “This is the actual stone, the discovery of which unlocked the mystery of ancient systems of writing”. In the Houston Museum of Natural Science you are stimulated to think something about the historical importance of the Rosetta Stone, but not to believe that you are actually in its presence. And if that is not the case, that seeing the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum adds something to the experience, why would we go to the trouble of keeping artefacts in museums? Why not just give every school a replica, or a holograph, of the Rosetta Stone?

So what is it that people think they are learning or experiencing when they go to any kind of museum? What kind of knowledge do they hope to develop, and what are the best ways of stimulating the kind of experience that they want? Perhaps more importantly, when adults take children to a museum, what kind of experience do they want the child to have, and what kind of knowledge do they hope the child will develop?

Of course, a visit to a museum can have many benefits. For a parent, it is a way to get the children out of the house during the summer holidays, it is somewhere to go when it is raining, and it is a way of helping your children with school projects. For a teacher it may be no more than a change of scenery, and the hope that it will motivate an interest in an academic study, without any clear idea of exactly how that will come about. But on the assumption that at least some of the purposes of museum visits are educational, we are interested in developing a study to examine how people hope that museums will have an educational effect.

We are thinking of a preliminary review of the literature on different kinds of knowledge, and how museums are supposed to contribute to their development. But any ideas or thoughts that you have about the educational use of such museums and galleries, particularly as the destination of school trips, would be very welcome.

Work and Play

The Internet gives me two quotes from Mark Twain:

“Work and play are words used to describe the same thing under differing conditions.”


“Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”

Actually, the Internet gives me lots more quotes about the importance of play, some of them by people, like Carl Jung and Jean Piaget, who were closely associated with the New Education Fellowship and the movement to introduce child-centred education. But it was the two from Mark Twain that caught my attention. I think they are linked, and I think they mean that we always know when we are working and when we are playing. Playing is when I decide what to do, and working is when somebody else decides what I should do.

But more importantly, we know when we are playing because no effort is too great when we are playing. I remember how surprised I was when I first found that out; there were literally some things that I could do when I was messing around with my friends after school, like climb a rope or vault a horse, which I was completely unable to do in the school gym under the expert supervision of a teacher. It took a great effort to transfer skills that I had learned in play into a work environment, but once you realise that that is what is needed, a number of things become clearer.

In the first place I decided that if ever I want to become a millionaire, I will devote myself to supplying a service that people need as part of their play, not as part of their work. Think of the resources that people will devote to their recreational activities, whether that is fishing, football or philately, and even some hobbies that do not begin with an “f”. And then think of the care with which they count the pennies when spending on the essentials of life – food and drink or work tools. And this distinction is not just about money. It also applies to effort. No effort is too great to learn about an engaging pastime, but at work…

In 1973 the International Labour Organization established Convention 138, which specifies a minimum age at which young people should be allowed to work. Since then it has been ratified by 166 countries, while only 19 have failed to ratify it. Work, especially work that is physically dangerous or involves long hours is specifically prohibited for young children, as of course it should be. I do not want to dwell on the question of child labour, which, in the West, we think of a scandal that belongs in history books. It remains a scandal, and it should certainly be consigned to history books, and I recognise the part that industrialised countries play in maintaining the practice through an insistence on cheap goods produced in low wage economies. All of that only serves to underline the fact that work is considered a necessary evil, and young children should be protected from it. What I want to look at is another side of the Convention.

Article 6 of the Convention begins, “This Convention does not apply to work done by children and young persons in schools for general, vocational or technical education or in other training institutions…” What this means is that children are protected from the necessity of working until the age of at least 15 (or in exceptional circumstances 14) unless that work is part of their education. And that raises the question of how much of a child’s education should be seen as work.

We have increasingly turned schooling into work for children. Schools are one of the few institutions in industrialised countries that are still organised on factory lines. Education is one of the few areas where Taylorism, or scientific management, dominate the way that we speak; “We need to make learning more efficient…”, “We need to ensure that children spend more time on task…”, and so on. And by insisting that there are excellent extrinsic motives for pursuing education (getting a better job, enjoying better health, earning more money – all of which are strongly correlated with more education) we reinforce the idea that learning is work for children, and we take away the intrinsic pleasure of learning through play.

I have heard politicians arguing that the idea of child-centred education is over, old-fashioned and passé. And I have heard teachers and educationists talking about education as if that were true. If that ever is the case, it will be a sad day for education, and a sad day for children, because it will mean that all children have been returned to the nightmare of child labour, which now only an unfortunate minority (though admittedly too many) suffer.

I think that I should just add what I am not arguing. I am definitely not arguing that learning through play is more efficient. What we need is less efficient schools and classrooms. What we need is more play, so that children can decide what they learn and how quickly.

Nor am I arguing that adults need to teach children how to play.  Adults have a very odd idea of what counts as play, as you will know if you go into a casino, where you will find hundreds of adults busy “playing”, all with set and humourless expressions determinedly working to get their money back. It is, as Mark Twain observed, impossible that play should be imposed on somebody else by any kind of compulsion.

What will happen if we release children form child labour and let them play? I have no idea. But what I do know is that it will not be limited by my, or any other adult’s, imagination.