Why the schools of the future are the schools of the past: my review of Radio 4's Future Proofing Our Schools

 Review of Future Proofing Our Schools, hosted by Sangita Myska, Radio 4, March 24th, 9:00am



The universe runs on circular rails. The march of seasons, the arc of the planets, mark out our lives in reassuring metronomic heartbeats. More predictable still is the endless resurgence of the Cult of 21st century Skills, as reliable as death and taxes and unlovelier than either. Every few years, and at least twice a generation, some excitable movement emerges to claim that everything that has been done before on education is unfit for purpose, revolution is imminent and necessary, so hold on to your Learning Hats and ready your muskets of independent thinkiness. 


I’m so used to it I get anxious if I haven’t heard this claim made at least once a week. ‘Have they been? Have the 21st century people been yet?’ I ask my wife anxiously at the end of the day. She assures me that they have, and I sleep like a child. All is well. 


The 21st century cult – and I call it a cult, because it is a faith-based position, immune to facts- was back on the Radio 4 program Future Proofing Our Schools, hosted by Sangita Myska. The program claimed it sought ‘solutions to complex problems’. Instead, it found simple answers to questions no one was asking, along with ones that were already old when Queen Victoria went to school, and equally wrong then. This was a greatest hits collection of progressive education; within minutes someone had said, ‘Why do we need to learn things when they can look it up on their phones?’ and I was clapping my hands with glee to come across so pure a specimen of woolly Pollyanna futurism.


Some of the opening premises were gloomily familiar: ‘Victorians created the basis for modern education,’ and, ‘What and how kids have been taught has been broadly same for 150 years.’ Because the answer to the former is ‘What, you mean walls and teachers? Great!’ And the answer to the latter is ‘You haven’t spent much time in any schools, then.’ I wonder how many teachers would recognise the reductive caricature of what they taught as ‘rote learning and patriotism’. These lazy tropes of the Factory School Model are common among people who are unfamiliar with what education is like. But they are cliched mistakes, as explained here. 



From the outset, this program struggled to get beyond these tired old tropes. It begins with the assumption that nothing has changed for hundreds of years and education is ripe for reinvention (a fallacy that particularly animated Tony Blair). The first part is untrue, and the second premise doesn’t follow anyway. Improvement, of course. But reinvention? Certainly some aspects of schools have endured- rooms of groups of students, studying subjects in reasonably domain-specific curriculums, led by an expert- but that might actually be seen as a form of evolutionary success, not failure. Maybe the ‘classrooms and teachers model’ endures because at their heart they work. Like wheels being round, there might be ways to make them better, but there are a hell of a lot more ways to make them worse. Like, open plan fun factories with no teachers, subjects, or tests, for example.  


These assumptions re-emerge every few years usually because some well-meaning politician or billionaire wants to create a world-class education system. The problem is, they often reach for 19th century answers that have been tried, and failed, for decades.  


To explore this wobbly question, we focused on one school in the Netherlands: Agora, started in 2014 by four principals who wanted to recreate what a school could be. And they left no stone unturned as they did so (probably asking ‘what even ARE stones?’ in the process. ‘Maybe we need to reimagine stones as a form of blancmange. Or a kind of tartan.’). They had a bold vision: no classrooms, no teachers, no lessons, no curriculum, no grading. By this point I wondered if they really wanted to run a school at all, like someone asking for a cheese sandwich but hold the cheese and bread. But that kind of thinking wouldn’t go down well in Agora, where students were invited to follow their interests and explore subject that animated them. 


On the surface, this sounds like the ideal way to solve one of the great problems of education: engaging students, motivating them to want to learn. Surely if we allow them to follow their heart songs, interest is guaranteed? So we heard about students who were exploring the Great Barrier reef, and using it as a vehicle to learn about speaking English, biology, chemistry etc. There was another student who wanted to make a skateboard, so she learned about carpentry and the construction of ball bearings. It sounds fantastic. And that’s the problem. It does sound fantastic. Who wouldn’t like to be allowed to follow their dreams and learn a hundred things on the way? The leaders of the school (or chief imagineers or something) claimed that this was how the curriculum was taught: it was ‘hidden under the table’, and students would learn by the end of their courses all that they would need to know. On paper it sounds as exciting and innovative as the Starship Enterprise. 


Except that just doesn’t fly in the real world. Iesha Small, was the polite voice of reason here. She pointed out- correctly- that if you allow children to only follow their interests, you condemn them to the circumference of their imagination, which contrary to romantic speculation, is not infinite, but is cruelly circumscribed by the edges of one’s experience. Put simply, we don’t know what we don’t know. If we have never heard of something, how are we supposed to value or pursue it? Schools exist to challenge and interrogate students’ experiences and point them to the wonders of what has been said by people before them and far from their worlds. And without formal assessment, how do you know if students have learned what they need to learn? 


Further, it ignores the practical difficulty associated with learning in such a piecemeal, cross curricular way. As a teenager I was crazy about science fiction and would probably have wanted to do a project on how to build a jetpack or something. But to do lessons (sorry, ‘challenges’) on this, I would have quickly come up against two problems: a lot of what I would need to know is quite boring, and a lot of what I would need to investigate is quite hard. You would have to be the world’s most motivated teenager to stick with that. So this model assumes that children are perpetually inclined to persist studying very, very hard and boring material. 


Even worse is that the more you study, e.g. jet packs, you realise that most subjects, like physics and history and mathematics, have long and highly evolved disciplines; bodies of content, hierarchies of knowledge, methodologies, tools and paradigms, that have evolved over centuries, and for a reason. You can’t do calculus without understanding arithmetic, nor arithmetic without numeric recognition, concepts of equality and so on. In other words, it’s very hard to understand a bit of e.g. physics without understanding all the physics that led up to that bit. A little learning isn’t just a dangerous thing, it’s also very inefficient. And that is why we teach subjects as discrete subjects. You can try to teach algebra through Zumba or something (and a decent teacher will always find ways to illustrate it imaginatively) but you will find it a hugely inefficient way to do so, when most children will benefit far more from an expert, patiently unpacking a discipline from the ground up, correcting common misconceptions and reteaching the parts that need to be retaught, before moving on to the next, harder step, but only once the foundations have been secured. 


Much of the Agora behaviour policy was based around the idea that we should trust children to direct their own behaviour. ‘We have a lot of faith in them and we trust them a lot.’ Perhaps we should try that philosophy in society more broadly, and parking tickets should be a serving suggestion. I’m sure people would come around. ‘When you open their Google agenda you will see a lot of meetings they have put there themselves.’ With who, their stockbrokers? The Dalai Lama? 


Teacher (sorry, Challenge-Facilitator): what are you doing today Billy? 

Billy: meetings innit? 

Teacher. Ah ok, Carry on. 


Good luck with that. They myth of the ideal child is not, it seems, a myth for some. 


The program promised to stress test the innovative ideas by a panel of contributors, although at least two out of the three were enthusiastic advocates of the groovier end of the educational spectrum. Sugata Mitra was present, and he gave his support for Agora’s hip, anarchic model. Most pointedly he supported the idea that children would, if left to their own devices, teach themselves. This absurd idea is decimated by the merest contact with an average child, but square ideas like that weren’t welcome. Mitra is famous of course for his Hole-In-The Wall experiment, where computers were installed in remote locations and, as he put it, children ‘taught themselves how to use them and use the internet’.  


Except that’s not really what happened. This project, which famously caught the eye of Bill Gates, doesn’t sound so amazing when you look closer. Far from children transforming. Into autodidactic polymaths, the sites were either torn apart, or dominated by large groups of big boys who used them to play games. Donald Clark fisks this daft idea beautifully in his blog here. With a lack of shame I can only characterise as ambitious, he then claimed that he replicated the ‘success’ of that in Newcastle, the Self Organised Learning Environment (SOLE) which I may have written with some scorn about here. 



Children learn by themselves until they don’t want to, at which point we have problems. This is why most children, almost all of the time need their curriculums pre-selected by adults with expertise and guided behaviourally through often challenging material even when the student doesn’t enjoy or see the point., Not because we want students to be helpless vessels of joyless facts, but because we want them to understand the universe in which they are immersed, and often that takes hard work before you reach the summit and see for miles. 


I should note at this point that the only people who sincerely claim that children will self-teach, and do so in purposeful and persistent way, are commonly people who have themselves never taught a year 9 class of actual average children. Behaviourally the kinds of children who can drive their own learning with little external stimulus, are highly capable and highly self-disciplined children. In theory, you can run this with a school full of the children of Swiss diplomats. Every other child needs a lot of love, motivation, nudging and support. Or in other words, teachers. 


Who do these schools potentially work for? Incredibly privileged children who already possess enormous tenacity, curiosity, literacy, numeracy, and all the gateway skills that advantage a minority over others. With parents who can provide tutorial support in the case of an emergency, and who have comfortable home circumstances, internships and opportunities to fall back on if they fail to learn much. Tiny, tiny slices of the student demographic, who can afford to fail. Like Summerhill, the famous school started by AS Neill, with around 67 students and fees of up to 18K per year.  


Who falls off a cliff? Everyone else. These schools have been tried before. Look at the disastrous Free Schools of the 1970s, where children, free to do as they please, unsurprisingly often told their teachers to fuck off. 



There is nothing new about what is being attempted at Agora. In fact much of what they advocate goes back to the progressive educationalists of the late 19th and early 20th century, or even back to Rousseau with his child-centred philosophy that could only ever work for a privileged few. Yet still, every so often people try to sell this as the latest thing. But it’s just reheated leftovers from a philosophy that the real world stubbornly rejects, with a fresh coat of space paint. 


There wasn’t much ‘stress testing’ of this approach, however, or they would have found that it snapped under scrutiny. Aisha Small made a valiant voice in the wilderness, saying, ‘This would widen disadvantage,’ and the host Sangita Myska, perhaps sensing the lack of challenge offered by the majority of her guests, played devil’s advocate well. ‘I can hear teachers screaming at the radio at this,’ she said, possibly hearing me having a mental breakdown across London. 


So while this made great radio- I was hooked- and the presenter did the heavy lifting in terms of scrutiny, balance and challenge, it was an odd half an hour. It reminded me that, to many people these flights of fancy are seductive, and appeal to values that resonate deeply: liberty, wonder and trust. 


But it is hard to get away from the fact that, for most kids, the school model of the teacher-led classroom is simply the most efficient way to help children learn about the world around them- including things they are not interested in, which they may later develop an interest or aptitude for. That’s how you raise standards and promote wellbeing, learning, safety and the habits that help children to flourish. Pretending that they are some kind of innately altruistic beings who willingly self-direct their learning and behaviour towards the greater good is a fantasy that can only be sustained by people who have never worked with average children from the real world. And the least advantaged children can’t afford to waste the precious learning years of their lives on fairy tales and blind optimism, as the subjects of an experiment where only the most privileged will succeed. 

I wish this school well, sincerely, and I admire their ambition and love. But these things are not enough when other people's lives at stake, and this is not a model that scales up meaningfully. 


Next week: should we breathe underwater? Should shoes be made from jam? Join us as we etc. etc