The Flapping Windmill

[This was the paper that wrote in support of The Doctor Laurel Anne Clyde Memorial Address which I gave to ASLA in Adelaide in 2008. It re-visited a number of themes I have explored in my writing on this blog and elsewhere)


Almost forty years ago, RF Mackenzie, the radical Scottish educationist, was able to write:

Education is an old ramshackle windmill that goes on flapping its great arms long after the miller has left.

Mackenzie had an abiding distaste for the industrial model of education, an antipathy that sprang out of his own dismal experiences in various Scottish schools over a number of years, where teaching was delivered by rote and harsh discipline was dispensed at the end of a leather tawse. Following in the idealistic trail of the Forest School, where he taught for a time in the 1930s, he had a concern for simple compassion that cast him in a mould similar to AS Neill and his ilk. Mackenzie recognized the innate lack of humanity in a pedagogic framework that relied on fear as a motivational tool, that posited the teacher as the fount of knowledge, and that relegated the student to the position of passive recipient of that knowledge. Such schooling, it can be argued, was based on a highly questionable epistemology.

Mackenzie’s later history, when he became the headteacher of the ‘other’ Summerhill – Summerhill Academy in Aberdeen – where he tried to implement his humane educational vision, did much to demonstrate the vacuity of the liberal rhetoric that, from the mid-1960s onwards, overlaid industrial schooling with a patina of child-centredness and a patois of integrated curricula (most ‘successfully’ in primary schooling). His incumbency of Summerhill was controversial, troubled and short-lived, brought to an end by a hostile collusion of local authority, parents and a coterie of his own staff. Mackenzie, understandably, was either unwilling or unable to compromise his compassionate intent with the utilitarian complacency of those who opposed him.

Whatever the merits of Mackenzie’s vision, the unfortunate reality of his time was that the industrial model of schooling still met, however distortedly, an identifiable economic need for countries such as Scotland, as it did across the industrialized world. The factory model of education served the stark requirements of the manufacturing economy, and the ‘command and control’ regimen of the typical school of the time provided a basis for the continued, if not always successful, production of a submissive labour force. By the loaded logic of contemporary capitalism, this labour force required little more than basic literacy and numeracy. Only tiny proportions of young people were able to rise through the system because only small numbers were needed as bosses or as teachers or as other professionals in society. Most of those who did prosper in and through education did so because of their luck in being born into a middle-class or upper-class family. Decades earlier, in 1909, Woodrow Wilson, then Principal of Princeton University, evidently saw no problem in stating this proposition openly when he spoke to a group of trainee teachers:

We want one class of persons to have a liberal education. We want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity, to forego the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.

RF Mackenzie himself recognized the truth of the school as a tool of the economic and political system when he began an account of his short reign at Summerhill with the sentence:

…the great mistake we educationists make is to suppose that schools are about education. It is not so…..they are about control.

Mackenzie, belatedly, recognized that the control aspects of schooling were simply a function of the rigidity and stratification of industrial society at the time. Whether he recognized the ultimate futility of attempts to subvert this fundamental reality through isolated projects such as the Forest School or Neill’s Summerhill School or his own Summerhill Academy is a moot point.

Today, in the early years of the 21st Century, it is a regrettable fact that the industrial model of schooling still predominates, in various guises, in most countries of the world. The difference between now and earlier times, however, is that while most of us still live and work and learn within a capitalistic structure, the onset and permeation of digital technologies is transforming many of the key relationships that underpin that structure. One ramification is that technology is enabling a new and energetic form of globalization, and many long-held certainties as a result are being widely questioned, not least in the extent to which the established fabric of global economic relations is itself changing. The continuing reality of the economic divide between the rich countries of the West and those countries in the poorest parts of the world remains indisputable – but the current prodigious rise of the Chinese and Indian economies is only the most obvious manifestation of a dramatically-shifting international economic alignment.

Education, at once a reflection of this shifting global reality and a tool for its continued reproduction, is necessarily therefore in a period of flux. Countries, rich and poor, developed and developing, are, to varying extents, looking to education to be an engine of transformation. But it is not to education alone that they look: it is in the conjunction of education and technology – and, especially, the digital technologies – that the instrument of progress is being identified. The ideal blueprint for that conjunction is disputed and debated, and probably does not exist, but its merit as a panacea for the economic and social ills of a region or a country is becoming more and more accepted, if not yet proven. So what might be the nature of that conjunction?

Education and technology share a number of interesting characteristics. We can agree, for instance, that education should be about affirmative transformation, about extending human horizons, and about realizing personal and social potential. We have seen, however, that education has too often been used to maintain the status quo, to assert social station and to protect and reinforce the prevailing economic condition without reference to the interest of the individual at all levels of society.

We can agree that technology, too, should be about affirmative transformation. We have used tools since the dawn of humanity to make our world a better place in which to live. Equally, we know that we have used technology to kill, to control, to damage our world and to render passive those at its  (often literal) sharp end.

So, if neither education nor technology is a neutral instrument, we need to be be very sure, when we bring them together, about our purpose in doing so. We have to know what we want to achieve from education, and we have to know how we believe technology can be exploited to the benefit of those being educated. To bring them together without a clear understanding of our reasons for doing so runs the risk of, at best, a set of arbitrary and unforeseen outcomes, or, at worst, a situation in which the technology itself defines how, and what, learning might take place.

But what is it about the new technologies that generate the power, as I firmly believe they do, to change the very essence of education, to subvert the long-accepted relationship between teacher and learner, to overturn our conception of the curriculum, to unsettle our approaches to pedagogy – to re-frame completely, in other words, many of our most cherished principles about the nature of learning and, therefore, of the institutions we have built and maintained for centuries to sustain those principles?

First, as so many have noted, distance is dead. Where the broadcasting media – radio and television – allowed us to see and hear the hubbub of humanity transmitted from every corner of our turbulent globe, the new digital technologies allow us to interact and collaborate in real time with the individuals and groups that inhabit and create that hubbub in ways that the old-media could not. At the same time, the Web has opened up access to the world’s store of knowledge to everyone with a connection, with the result that the traditional relationship between teacher and learner, between the one supposedly with the knowledge and the one supposedly with the lack of knowledge, no longer holds true. When the student has access to the same respositories of information as the teacher, the essential dynamic between teaching and learning changes at a very fundamental level. And when this fundamental relationship at the heart of the school is subverted, then the very concept of the school itself comes under question. The simplistic concept of the school as a place where learners come together, usually compulsorily, to be taught at the feet of the learned is, I believe, simply no longer tenable, at least beyond a very basic stage of elementary education in literacy and numeracy.

What was, and largely still is, currently at the core of schooling will be inverted in the new education; and what has been too often peripheral in schooling will become the substance of what education is about. Whether that will occur within the context of a physical institution known as a school will vary from place to place and over time. Whatever happens, those countries that begin to take advantage of the new concept of education, that recognize and take action to benefit from the shift in the nature of schooling, will be those that will benefit their people – and therefore their economies – most.

This is not to seek to commodify education as merely an instrument of the economy. Nonetheless, an education that recognizes the shifting realities of today will look very different from the industrial schooling so despised by RF Mackenzie and others. It will involve a kind of learning in which young people will be able to bring their passions firmly inside the bounds of their schooling (instead of having to defer their real interests to their lives outside of school, as is so often the case), in which the curriculum, or part of it at least, is not fixed by some central or national authority but is constantly and continuously negotiable, in which teachers can accord learners the maximum respect by recognising that they are learners too, and that they should therefore all learn together. The teacher will be the learner primus inter pares.

A school based on this new reality will be a place (actual or virtual) where learners will take more and more responsibility for their own learning as they get older, where teachers will work with students in an open, collaborative way, with the substance of the teaching and learning that goes on the result of a continual process of transparent deliberation and dialogue, where teachers will be freed to do what they do best – to offer wisdom, to work with young people to help them get the best out of their own efforts, to advise, to counsel, to cajole, to persuade, and, yes, to impart knowledge and experience where required. But the new reality is not merely about methodology, about pedagogy in the face of new possibilities – it is also about integrating into the educational process a set of values for a truly global society and a realistically sustainable planet. The greatest differentiator between the old industrial model of education and a model of education based on the new realities will be found in the contrasting values underpinning each – we must move decisively away from the values illustrated by Woodrow Wilson and towards the values of an RF Mackenzie and the values of those who understand the critical part to be played by education in ensuring the long-term health of our Earth and its peoples.

The rapidly flattening (and rapidly warming) world in which we live means that the belief in the transformative powers of some optimum conjunction of education and technology is a global phenomenon. Just as technology is making it possible for the so-called emerging nations, increasingly, to compete economically with their already-developed neighbours, so these same countries are realizing that they can exploit technology to help them take a decisive leap in educational terms. Where so many industrialized countries are still firmly wedded, given their economic dominance over decades and centuries, to the model of schooling that helped get them there, the emerging nations, some of them at least, have no such baggage to hold them back. Such countries are more than capable, over the next few years, of leapfrogging the industrialized nations by recognizing the potential of the new learning and by finding ways to implement a form of education or schooling based on the new reality already described.

The relationship between education and technology is undoubtedly a complex one and certain traits that they share can, when brought together, lead as readily to delight as to disaster. Both can be used to enhance life or to blight life, as we have seen. Perhaps Richard Fenyman’s insightful words about Man’s use of science, based on a Buddhist proverb, can be applied just as effectively to this powerful confluence of education and technology:

To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven. The same key opens the gates of hell.

Feynman himself, indeed, made exactly this connection when he said:

It was once thought that the possibilities people had were not developed because most of the people were ignorant.  With universal education, could all men be Voltaires? Bad can be taught at least as efficiently as good.  Education is a strong force, but for either good or evil.

If neither education nor technology is a neutral instrument, how they are used is a matter of choice, and that choice will always have a moral and ethical as well as a merely instrumental dimension. The nature of digital technologies means, however, that should schools or regions or countries continue to make the wrong choices, should they continue to depend on an industrial model of education that has had its day, learners across the world will begin to make the right choice for themselves and will eventually render schools and schooling irrelevant.

One way or another, the miller will return to the windmill once again.