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The Eye of the Storm

April 5, 2013 in Uncategorized

The Eye of the Storm is both an analogy and a metaphor, describing that region at the centre of a violent tropical cyclone of mostly calm, windless conditions. Well experienced sailors understand that the safest thing to do as a storm approaches is, counter-intuitively, to sail directly into the storm in search of the ‘eye’, where they could find sufficient respite and plot a new course.

In the bringing up of children, there has always been a conflict between those who would stress process, and those who would emphasise content, the former believing that real education is about helping young people to learn how-to-learn, the latter placing greater emphasis on learning a body of facts and ideas that reflect that society’s belief system.

Recent research into human learning explains how our inquisitiveness is an innate drive to make sense of our environment. This is a most critical survival skill and needs to be constantly fed through a variety of rich learning experiences, so giving children transferrable skills that they’re able to apply intelligently in an expanding array of novel situations.

But while children are born to learn rather than to be taught, all too often it is easier for those who want to find quick and cost-effective ways of making education accountable to measure simply those things which are learnt, rather than assessing the process of learning. Short cuts to learning to get through an exam do not necessarily develop those transferrable skills essential to deal with a lifetime of continuous change.

Confucius understood this more than 2000 years ago; “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, but let me do and I understand”. In 1570, in the first book ever written in English about education, Roger Ascham urged the cultivation of what he called ‘hard wits’ rather than the superficial ‘quick wits’ of those youngsters whose memories were good but who couldn’t work things out for themselves. “Because,” he said engagingly, “I know that those which be commonly the wisest, the best learned, and best men also when they be old, were never commonly the quickest of wits when they were young”.

Interest in how children develop their mental capacity has its origins deep in history, but formal schooling in England only dates from the late 18th century, primarily as a way of keeping children off the streets. In the late 19th century public schooling was defined as a cheap way of equipping youngsters to do as they were told, rather than – as had been the case with apprenticeship in earlier years – working things out for themselves.

In the current turmoil of educational politics, a ‘perfect storm’ has developed between these two polarities. Their theoretical bases are so different that there appears to be no meaningful dialogue between the protagonists. It could be seen as a conflict between Michael Gove who would call to his support Frederick Winslow-Taylor and the Behaviourists, and Roger Ascham supported by Confucius, John Dewey and the Chartist leader William Lovett, who scorned such ‘quick fix’ education: “need we wonder that scholars have so little practical or useful knowledge – are so superficial in reasoning… what is needed… is a pedagogy of self activity. Give a man knowledge and you give him the light to perceive and enjoy beauty, variety, surpassing ingenuity and majestic grandeur, which his mental darkness previously concealed from him.”

Aiming for the eye of the storm, the Initiative seeks a speedy accommodation between these two traditions, lest we be swamped by the conflict and sink forever beneath the waves.

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2 responses to The Eye of the Storm

  1. So descriptive and easy to understand. It seems so obvious, that I can’t understand the discrepancy.

  2. Well put. Regurgitating inculcated facts does nothing for developing anything other than a veneer of understanding and does not promote a love of learning but does provide an easy way of measuring handy political point scoring stats…

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