I’ve been quite strongly affected by news of the protests by young people against HE teaching cuts, against the tripling of tuition fees, the removal of the Education Maintenance Allowance for 16-19 year olds and cuts across a great board of social and cultural provision. You notice I’ve written a long list of things that students are protesting about? It seems a bit longer than the press reports, which focus on the tuition fees. But, really the list is this long and more. It’s pretty clear that a lot of young people are frantically worried about their prospects for future employment and, beyond that, the incomprehensible threat of global warming.
Most of the young people who tried to march last week (but were prevented by being kettled for hours) were school children. They were charged twice by police on horseback and some were punched and hit with truncheons. They can’t vote until they are 18 but they all have Citizenship lessons that tell them it is their right and responsibility to be critical of decision-makers, to express their voice. They are taught Citizenship (or teach themselves) well enough to know that even when they do have a vote, it won’t give them proper representation. They see our deputy PM breaking an earlier pledge to abolish tuition fees, and a Coalition with no proper mandate rushing decisions without consultation. They see MPs that care so little about sustaining the future of the planet that only 12 of them turned up to debate the country’s climate policy at Cancun.
I was affected by the young protesters partly because it stirred memories of my own experience. At my secondary school, I took a day off and got a 4 hour coach to London to march against education cuts. I was disciplined for it and that felt unjust. The education cuts in the early 1980s were 15% from a higher baseline than now and they were devastating for two decades. Those cuts are the reason why HE is relatively efficient (perhaps more in its teaching than some of its research projects). I am struggling to understand how universities will cope with the cuts to teaching grants imposed now. Many of these universities contribute a great deal to the cultural and creative capital of the UK.
I was only 14 when I marched in London. I was driven by my wish to do a university degree, because my parents had not been able to go to university and I was fearful that these cuts threatened my future chances. The reality was that I was lucky enough to do a degree without having to pay fees. The situation for our children now is far worse.
Although I was very obedient as a teenager (I hated to be in trouble) I was also very political. I could see so clearly what was wrong and I needed to protest. Above all I was a pacifist. I demonstrated against nuclear weapons and for environmental conservation. In being someone who tends towards global and abstract ways of thinking, others saw in me a kind of grandiosity and began to bully me. Unfortunately, I took to heart the criticisms from my more docile peers and the discipline from teachers. I didn’t want to be seen as different. I wanted to be seen as good and I wanted to be successful. I wish now that I had been more radical and consistently so. It seems more important now than ever to make our voices heard to people who hold power (not just politicians, but also corporations, wealthy individuals, the media etc), to do it in a way that is non-aggressive and creative, to keep imagining and expressing better ways of running the world.
I hope the young protesters have not been disheartened. We need them to be seen and heard, and we need to be there with them and guide them to maintain a non-violent stance.
I took a lot of notes and plan to do a full blog post after today’s Big Link Up. Here’s just one short thought before bedtime. Mike Baker, the chair, kept asking the panel to define Cultural Learning because Ed Vaizey had said it was so important to do so. The panel desisted, I suppose, as they didn’t like doing what they were told by a minister. Ed had said rigour was vital, so we had to get definitions and standards clear, but then failed to provide any kind of rigour in his talk. In place of his own definition, he offered a partial list of a few art skills followed by a lengthy chat about music education (music being two of the three cultural learning priorities for his Government), and failed to even touch upon anything like museums, anthropology, science, archives, libraries and heritage in his so called ‘broad’ definition. I was a bit frustrated by the emphasis by everyone on the arts, especially music, given that this morning it was announced that MLA and Renaissance in the Regions would be absorbed into the Arts Council. So, the Arts body would become a Culture body, but the talk of arts persisted. Of course, the arts are vital. I would even go as far as to say that the arts should double or triple in the lives of most people and in schools. But, if we are mainly talking about attaining a comprehensive and strategic approach to cultural learning, let’s not be so soft about it. Let’s not bring people from senior jobs half way across the country and then fail to address the very matter of what and why cultural learning is, who the key players are and how they can collaborate to cope with such difficult circumstances! The one bit of relief for me was Mike Waters’ one big idea: He said that each school should make a formal partnership with three cultural organisations, one for history, one for the arts and one for science. I like the breadth of this idea, though I would add one more – one for outdoor play, conservation or adventure. I hope that the CLA and ACE (as a future Culture Council) and their Cultural Learning Ambassadaors scheme will follow this approach.
Reflecting on the Spending Review cuts at a short distance, I find myself very aware of the close connection between formal education policies and the industrial economy. George Monbiot has written recently of Britain’s Shock Doctrine, referring to the ‘crisis is opportunity’ thinking of Milton Friedman that led to US replacement of state schools in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina with private Charter Schools. Also, Mike Baker wrote about the Knowledge is Power Programme, who are running Charter Schools in the US, which are much admired by Michael Gove. Also, doing the rounds on Twitter is the RSA Animate video of Sir Ken Robinson, talking in his inimitably brilliant way about the way that schools (in US and elsewhere) are a product of the industrial economy, and so how children are anaesthetised and homogenised. I’ve been thinking about this in the context of news that the Coalition plan to cut many enrichment programmes, such as Extended Schools and Find Your Talent, and keeping a smaller amount of funding targeted on more needy individuals through the Pupil Premium.
I’ve been thinking about this ‘individual’ thing. Is there a difference between learner-centred and individualistic learning? The two words sound as if they mean the same thing and the two are often confused when a school or college promotes its ethos. It seems to me that the Conservative view of education is entrenching individualism and sweeping away learner-centred education, albeit whilst allowing schools the freedom to pursue a more personalised approach if they choose, or if they can afford to, which may be increasingly unlikely.
This deepening entrenchment of individualism at least will help us see the difference between the two approaches, as we come to perceive it more clearly within a political frame of reference. Individualistic learning is part of our industrial capitalist mindset, where, ironically, the majority of individuals are destined to be subdued within a mechanistic system geared to the production of things (and to wealth to buy more things), but yet where education is construed to hold out the promise of transcendent freedom, of individual success. So, if you work hard enough, and do well in all subjects (or the ones that matter) you will rise above a destiny of service to others where you have a lack of things, to one where others serve you and you have an abundance of things.
The fault of this educational ethos is in its socially and environmentally unethical roots. Its failure is that it is not even fit for its own faulty purpose.
Most formal learning systems for young people are not challenging enough (though they can be extraordinarily pressurised, which is a different thing) to enable enough children to rise up above others to become inventive, enterprising, transliterate leaders.
If some rise above others, there are always going to be others left behind. The inequality is embedded in the system and self-fulfilling. (However, I suppose its proponents are banking on those who are left behind being ‘out of sight out of mind’ given that our economy is founded on exploitative globalisation).
It seems as if extra funding in the UK, if it can be found, is to be increasingly targeted at the pupils least likely to rise above the ‘service level’, and indeed at those most likely, in the emerging economic climate, to be unemployed. While funding for collaborative and creative learning opportunities is stripped away, this highly targeted funding (such as the Pupil Premium) is likely to be geared to drilling them, perhaps to offer tasters of accomplishments of the elite, but mostly to catch up in the skills which are most abstract and difficult to them.
Perhaps even more powerful than the language of individual achievement in education is the culture of excessive inequality, for example as celebrated in our media and in the ‘prosperity evangelism’ that is increasingly promoted in some faith groups (and therefore in some faith schools). Young people are taught that it is virtuous to compete, and therefore not to collaborate, because they are taught by shining example that the ultimate good is to be, not just rich, but richer than everyone else. If they can’t succeed in the way of being good at everything at school, which is so hard, then they aim instead to be good at one thing, because footballers and singers can be richer than lawyers and doctors, and have more fun too. The great majority are bound to be disappointed, surely. The maths determines it.
By contrast an authentic learner-centred approach tries not to be driven by extrinsic goals (externally-derived materialistic goals) but pays attention to intrinsic goals (a sense of optimum engagement, and wellbeing that spreads from the personal to the common). This approach is under attack in the UK. The Personalised Learning agenda is seen to be too bureacratic and complex (because it was implemented as such) and therefore ‘all wrong’. The contexts where learner-centred work has been flourishing, namely in cultural and creative learning initiatives, in media literacy work, in museum and outdoor learning, in out of school youth provision, are all those being cut in the Spending Review. In local authorities across the country, arts and museums services (in particular their outreach and education services) are under scrutiny for closure or massive cuts. In the Browne Review of Higher Education, accepted without debate by the Government, the liberal notion of learning for the sake of nurturing public good has been rejected in favour of schooling towards technocratic skills for (national) economic gain.
What can we do to ensure that learner-centred provision is not wiped away with the cuts? How can we use the momentum coming with the Cultural Learning Alliance’s Big Link Up to ensure that our previous investment in such work does not go to waste? How do we ensure that children and young people don’t become force fed into one of two pipes, one narrow pipe where people play the system and are paid in things, the second a much wider pipe that leads to disillusion and deprivation? How can we form a ‘big link up’ so that we overcome this social and cultural inequality that is only set to get worse if we don’t expose the damage it will do?
I can’t believe I haven’t posted here since July. I have been busy on my other blog about Climate Action in Culture and Heritage, and, in general have been very busy. One reason for being busy is setting up a new company in India. Another reason is working on several projects developing and evaluating learning programmes in museums, cultural centres, historic palaces and so on. Although there has been some work in the digital sphere, and a big project in development with a partner company called Every1Mobile, I’ve not been quite so immersed in digital innovation as I had been in the earlier part of 2010. (That’s when I was writing the digital strategy for the Heritage Lottery Fund, with the Collections Trust.) So, it was a pleasure to be asked to speak about Digital Learning in Museums, at Chawton House which was Jane Austen’s home, for museum learning professionals across the South East. It was great to refresh my memory about stuff that inspires me and what we can look forward to in the future.
My talk is on this Dropbox link. I’ve done so many powerpoints lately I felt like escaping the tyranny of slides. I’m going to speak from notes and explore weblinks as I go, occasionally showing slides other people like Mike Ellis have created. In that I’m sort of making a point, that it’s OK to borrow, if you credit. I also wanted the chance to show the group how I use the Cloud for my work. I don’t have the resources of a museum but I produce content without spending any money, getting outside expertise or getting any training (apart from messing around). The main point of my talk is that e-learning (i.e. effective learning) is about engendering meaningful conversations around contexts, in order to bring about change. It’s not about the new widget, gadget, or shiny unique thing we can make. We need to watch for new technologies, not so we can spend lots of time and money on them, but so we can easily shift our conversations onto new technologies as they emerge.
Comments welcome please.