Shifting the Old Order of Things in Education


Despite the seeming diversity of social, cultural and political influences on educational policies and practices across the globe, the received wisdom around what constitutes a sound education system is, I would suggest, pretty similar from one country to another.

That is a pity.

While the external superstructure of schooling can vary considerably from place to place, few if any national or regional systems, and certainly very few independent or private-sector schools, deviate very far from those models of schooling that seek to transfer a centrally-defined canon of knowledge from one generation to the next. Schooling, according to this model, is about an externally derived curriculum, often content-heavy, sometimes skills-based, that teachers teach and students are somehow supposed to learn. The detail of any particular canon may change from time to time, and certainly differ from country to country, but the aim remains the same: to decide nationally or regionally what people need to know if they are to serve society and the economy, to devise the necessary curriculum along with appropriate content, and then to train teachers to pass on that knowledge in as efficient a manner as can be achieved.

It would be simplistic to typify any one pedagogy as mainstream since any good teacher and any good school tends to deploy a range of pedagogies to suit different circumstances for varying groups of students and across different subject matters. However, the educational mainstream certainly does still see the role of the teacher primarily as that of the expert whose task it is to take the pre-determined curriculum as a given, and then to select the best means they can at any one moment to ensure the necessary transfer of knowledge. While it would be pointlessly churlish to deny that teachers working within the paradigm of mainstream education can genuinely engage learners actively in their own learning, it is by no means churlish to point out that the role of the student in that paradigm is still, largely, passive in the particular matters of what, when and how they have to learn.

Looking to the Countercultural

This ages-old, teacher-led, top-down model is undoubtedly still the mainstream around the world, but there is a lively discourse surging and swirling around various learner-focused models that might be seen as countercultural alternatives to the mainstream.  Turning our focus from the teaching to the learning, with all the implications that this entails, does seem to be enjoying the benefit of a strong technological and cultural tail wind driving it onward at the present time in many parts of the world.

Many contributors to the discourse, lifted and carried by that same tail wind, speak and write about the inevitability – one day soon, eventually, in the long run, in due course – of the mainstreaming of learner-focused education. Such optimism can be heartening, for sure, and it can be cheering to listen to those who propose an ineluctable logic to the eventual shift away from teacher-led instruction.

However, I am much less certain than the optimists amongst us about the willingness of those who, wittingly or unwittingly, maintain the status quo in schooling around the world to shift ground in any dramatic way any time soon. The school as we know it, with only relatively minor adjustments in time and place, has been a persistent concept for a long time the world over, one resistant to fundamental change.

There is, I would agree, a logic to the rightness of the broad principles and aspirations of learner-directed learning, with the concomitant changes in practice that teachers would have to accept to make it work effectively. Unlike some who sound the charge on this, I believe that a shift away from teacher-led instruction will actually demand more from teachers in terms of their interactions with learners, and not less! Only good thoughtful adaptable teachers who are respectful of their students’ autonomy, and who therefore understand their role is to impart wisdom and experience in helping students to learn rather then ‘teach’ them in the too-long-accept sense of that word, will be able to thrive in such an environment. Those who believe that being a teacher endows them automatically with authority, whether in terms of subject expertise or social control, will struggle.

As so many of us have written and said before, and will continue to espouse, we know the world is changed, and we know that the still prevalent smokestack schooling model was designed for a different era, serving the needs of the industrial age efficiently and effectively. With ubiquitous access to information, with the emergence of social-productive technologies, and with the decisive shift to the globalised knowledge-based economy, the context within which education systems need to work is changed. But we also know there is a dogged tenacity to the old familiar ways in education, and few if any large-scale education systems around the world show many signs yet of succumbing to the charms of a different paradigm any time soon. The key sets of stakeholders, the world over – governments, parents, business, the teaching profession, universities – remain obdurately tied to an industrial-age education that struggles to meet the demands of the Internet age, and few show signs of shifting ground any time soon. Indeed, in some parts of the world, there are definite signs of retrenchment in mainstream education systems.

So, if the shift from the current prevailing model is to happen, how will it be brought about? As long ago as 2000,  Chris Locke was able to write in the Cluetrain Manifesto (PDF):

Before any Old Order of Things can be given the final heave-ho coup de grâce, it’s necessary to create a parallel infrastructure controlled by people acting in cooperation for their own benefit and mutual support.

He also wrote:

Just because you’re not seeing a revolution – or what Hollywood has told you a revolution ought to look like – doesn’t mean there isn’t one going down.

The global conversation that is already happening, a conversation of educators and other interested people, is creating the transformation needed bit by bit, day by day, classroom by classroom, learner by learner, teacher by teacher. I don’t believe that we are anywhere close, as yet, to Chris Locke’s ‘parallel infrastructure’ – but gradually, in some places more quickly than others, some signs of the new, co-existant learning paradigm are beginning to take place.

If the likes of Metcalfe’s Law (or Reed’s Law, which I feel is more accurate) has any credibility, each new person that joins the conversation, each new node on the network of those who seek change, expands the universe of the new education exponentially. This process will continue, and every individual that joins, every education authority that sees the light, every civil servant, politician and education leader that recognises the truth in the new paradigm, pulls us that little bit closer to the coup de grâce of the Old Order of Things in Education.

Finally, in any counterculture, there are always some people who, while shouting revolution from the rooftops, do very well, thank you very much, from the continued deferment of said revolution. While they are able to portray themselves as the avant-garde, as the trailblazing insurgents leading us all to our inevitable destiny, they actually prefer the counterculture to remain a counterculture. They quite like being part of the elite vanguard and while they might shout the right slogans, their practice, and even their thinking, doesn’t really cut it.

Our aim has to be to mainstream the counterculture by building that parallel infrastructure and to bypass not only those who maintain and reproduce the Old Order of Things, but also those who enjoy their ‘countercultural’ credentials just a little too much.