The revolution will not be memorised

24 Apr 2020, 18:00

Tom Bennett is underwhelmed by a hotch-potch of futurist platitudes in the first episode of Alex Beard’s The Learning Revolution on BBC Radio 4

“A little learning is a dang’rous thing,” wrote Alexander Pope in the 18th century. “…drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.” People writing about education often remind me of this. Once in a while someone looks at formal, mass education and asks, “Hey, is this the best we can do?” And often, in their breathless quest to reinvent education, they imagine they are the first to do so. In reality they are more than 100 years late to the party.

Alex Beard is one such pilgrim and The Learning Revolution part 1: Knowing is a perfect starry-eyed example of the genre. It asks many excellent questions that are worth considering: What is knowledge? How do we use it? Whose knowledge? And so on. But asking smart questions isn’t enough, and this programme fails to do anything more than run excitedly around the art gallery pointing at a famous painting before racing off to the next.

This creates a blurred, disjointed journey through the philosophy of education. The argument isn’t so much built as snuck in at the end of a confusing flick through the encyclopedia of education. Beard barely considers what knowing something might actually mean before deciding it must mean lots of different, shiny things. For something so central to the programme’s concept, we get a very thin noodle soup without the noodles. There’s a cursory nod to the boring old idea that knowing something might mean actually knowing it in your head (Christodoulou and Birbalsingh pop up like hostages chained to the radiator), before we dash off into breathless speculative futurism and novelty.

Beard fails to challenge anything that is said

While doing so, Beard fails to challenge anything that is said; apparently merely stating something to be true makes it so, which is ironic considering the subject matter. Some of the ideas it platforms are interesting, but seem tangential: apparently because we can offload facts (ie write them down or store them somewhere for later reference), that’s good enough to qualify as a “new way of knowing”. Which, if you take it to its absurd conclusion, means that I “know” everything if I know where to look it up. This is a great obfuscation of the reality that I really don’t know it at all, I just know where I can find it out.

But what it misses most of all is that these questions have been asked for centuries – specifically since the end of the 19th century – and answered with the same vague, feel-good conclusions. The Learning Revolution seems to be reaching for a refocus on skills, cooperation, critical thinking, and all the other usual suspects. We need to “learn how to care”. We need a “new relationship with the environment”. Is this a reboot of schools or society? The line seems slyly blurred. We need to “know others…” and how to “…co-operate and care”. Schools don’t teach this? That will be news to the many educators who do exactly this – or try to.

And, of course, Covid-19 is shoehorned into this smorgasbord of 19th-century philosophy reheated as 21st-century innovation, to prove that which is already believed. We need new ways of knowing to defeat it, and future perils, apparently. But perhaps we don’t. Perhaps we just need lots of children, carefully educated to understand a vast array of the best of what we already know, for them to develop the skills to innovate, create and build the future – as they always have done. That won’t be achieved by pretending we’re teaching children things directly (eg creativity) if it means we neglect the tools they need to achieve them.

This was an interesting, but deeply superficial piece of advocacy dressed up as investigation. One day someone who is already aware of the decades of work that precedes them will attempt to reimagine education. But this is not that day.


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  1. Janet Downs

    The author argues that Beard and those who think as he does ‘are more than 100 years late to the party.’ But the arguments surrounding education go back much further. Aristophanes, 5th century BCE, satirised both the traditional education offered to those who fought at Marathon and that offered by Socrates’s Lyceum.
    The argument has never been settled – and neither should it be. It’s too important to come down on one side or the other. Rather, it suggests people need both: knowledge and the skills to use it.

  2. Janet Downs

    The author is right when he says Birbalsingh popped up in Beard’s programme. She said Nelson Mandela and Stokely Carmichael were both traditionally educated. Ergo, a traditional education is essential. Leave aside the argument that these two individuals were also influenced by events outside school, there are many people who have become pre-eminent in their fields without traditional education. But it would be wrong to use this point as an argument for dumping traditional education for all children. One size doesn’t fit all.