Daniel Whittall finds a book that identifies many real problems but falls short of identifying real solutions
This could be a timely book. Forget School appears at a moment when its vision of digital education has become a necessity. Yet while teachers are learning quickly about edtech’s strengths and weaknesses, Martin Illingworth’s vision that it might reconfigure schooling appears to have run aground on the jagged rocks of reality.
The author believes that bricks and mortar schools will disappear, perhaps within 30 years, and envisions a techno-utopian education system in which students will sit in cafés or meeting rooms compiling online portfolios. Rather than study subjects, they will complete projects in fields such as “contemporary studies”. There will be plenty of public speaking to build confidence and creativity, and each portfolio will be linked to a computer chip inserted into a student’s body that uploads data on food and drink purchases alongside health indicators.
Illingworth is frustrated that today’s schools deny the internet a place in the classroom by refusing to embrace digital technology. His future schools will emphasise skills (procedural knowledge) over “information” (declarative knowledge). Why teach information when it is readily available online?
His vision appears to mimic much of modern capitalism’s most rapacious sector
The future will be a different world, with jobs we haven’t yet imagined. Confidence and skills will set young people apart, rather than the knowledge they’ve managed to store in their memories. Illingworth suggests that schools have failed to move with the times; they are trapped in an outdated mode of organising learning.
If this sounds like a vision of an educational system drawn up by tech-savvy entrepreneurs, that’s because in large part it is. Illingworth says that his interviewees, all aged between are 20 and 30, are “working for themselves or are in the process of moving from paid employment to self-employment”.
These interviewees at times undermine Illingworth’s case. For example, although he argues against the teaching of discrete subjects, nearly 60 per cent of those he spoke with list being passionate about a subject as their top reason for going to university. He mentions this in passing, but doesn’t dwell on the implications for his argument.
He has undoubtedly set his sights on some real problems. He’s right to argue that there are issues with a system that rests so much of its authority on exam results, and with that an increasingly competitive ethos that sets schools against schools, subject departments against subject departments,and even individual teachers against individual teachers. This does no good, neither for students nor for the wellbeing of staff.
It’s concerning, though, that his vision appears to mimic much of modern capitalism’s most rapacious sector. This is the presumed inspiration for a vision of education that places the perceived virtues of flexibility and choice at its heart; that believes that learning can be freed from the need to remember things because all is fleeting, in constant flux.
Many other authors have tackled how digital technology might alter education, notably Daisy Christodoulou in Teachers vs Tech?, reviewed in these pages just a few weeks ago. Illingworth engages with relatively little of this literature. A productive counter-argument has recently been advanced by Gert Biesta in Obstinate Education. For Biesta, those who suggest that the rise of digital technology means schools’ days are numbered are advancing an argument that “takes the global competitive economy – ie global capitalism – as its unquestioned frame of reference”. As a result they see the role of education simply as “making students ready for this ‘reality’”. Education, Biesta argues, has a duty to resist such a role. Illingworth opts instead to acquiesce.
Given the opportunity to use technology for their work and free themselves from the constraints of pen and paper, many students are reacting negatively to distance learning. And that’s saying nothing of all those without access to it.
But when did reality ever get in the way of utopianism?