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.