Nothing new under the sun: Futurism in Education.

Until university I was a Marxist, or at least thought I was – I genuinely believed socialism in its purest sense, applied properly, would lead to greater fairness and overall happiness for humankind.

At university I studied it more critically and became concerned at the lack of examples of success in its revolutionary form. Much more commonly – even typically – attempts to apply revolutionary socialism to actual societies seemed to result in misery and even barbarism.

This depressed me so I tried to find explanations to justify why historical failures did not mean the theory itself was flawed. I spent a long time doing this because I was so desperate for revolutionary socialism to be the answer for the world’s ills. The idea we could quickly restructure and reorganise society and economy along the lines of co-operation and support for the greater good rather than the flawed selfishness of humans was so bewitching it clouded my thinking.

“We just need to do this better,” I thought.

Gradually and painfully my position moved to where it is now; still a socialist but a democratic one, with the belief problems with revolutionary socialism and communism are in its own ideology and the way it regards people, not that attempts to express it have always been flawed.

I now believe socialist revolutions can’t achieve their aims because of inherent problems in the theory itself.  

The ideas, as wonderful as they are, don’t work in the world we live in regardless of how sad people like me find this.

I don’t think any of this is particularly controversial. I think beyond the fringes we’d find few who would profess to being committed to revolutionary socialism. Nonetheless we see the same sort of problematic utopian thinking in plenty of other areas.

The pandemic and the ways in which schools, teaching and assessment has had to reorganise itself in response have turned up the volume on arguments for wholescale, arguably revolutionary change to schools which have existed for a surprisingly long time, certainly decades and perhaps hundreds of years. Again we are hearing rehashed arguments for greater use of technology, more project based learning in place of lessons taught in traditional subjects, the teaching of transferrable skills and a reduction or perhaps even elimination of exams in assessing pupils.

The argument seems to go that the scale of the changes forced upon us by circumstance mean there has never been a greater opportunity to completely restructure what we do permanently; a hope that 2020 could be a sort of year zero gateway to a brand new and better paradigm.

These ideas are being picked up by the national press and gaining more coverage on social media – at least outside of fairly niche education circles – than they have for years.

This is dangerous.

The first thing it is important to understand is these ideas – greater collaborative work, the organisation of timetables on the basis of projects, continuous and varied types of assessment instead of exams – are not new and have been mostly unsuccessfully tried many times in many places before.

For example, when I first began teaching it was common for schools not to teach some subjects at all in Year 7, instead giving time to programmes in which pupils worked in groups to develop generic learning skills. In very recent memory whole chains of schools have devoted large proportions of timetables to project work outside of core subjects[1]. The history of assessment in English schools is a chequered one which has in the past included coursework, controlled assessments, project work, continuous teacher assessment and modular examinations.

All of these ways of working have serious problems and have – in England at least – gradually been abandoned. This short post is not the place to go into all these and the reasons they are problematic, but they are not hard to find; the best places to begin looking are Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths about Education and Daniel T Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School?

Unfortunately though, memories are short. Some things that should not have been forgotten were lost, and there are always those who believe this time their ideas will work.

But my bet is they will not.

Like revolutionary socialism the problem with radically restructuring schools and curriculum to make them more ‘relevant’, ‘engaging’, or ‘creative’ or whatever is flawed in ideology not just application. This is a more controversial claim to make and it is possible I am wrong. I would be interested in a convincing rebuttal of Christodoulou or Willingham’s work, or any examples of specific scalable instances in which futurist ideas have led to measurably better outcomes for pupils within constraints in which schools must work. As a teacher and school leader I have little time for abstract arguments about how ideas would work if we lived in a very different sort of society. This is not to say such arguments aren’t interesting or politically relevant, but as they aren’t within my gift to do much about I think my professional position on this understandable.

I don’t expect much of a response to my request for specific examples. Here loud advocates for revolutionary change usually either fall silent or argue against the validity of measures used to assess school effectiveness. Some go as far as to imply that we shouldn’t be looking at practice in schools to work out how to make schools better.

Fair or not none of this moves us forward.

A comparable silence is heard when teachers and leaders who work in schools ask questions around the practicalities and logistics of making proposals for radical ideas work. Some of those making such calls are not directly involved in education in schools themselves (interestingly some of these seem defiantly proud of this which is revealing in what it implies about the place such arguments come from) so perhaps they feel this is out of their area of interest and expertise. If true this is understandable but regrettable, because in the practical problems ideological fractures also become apparent. For example – if project work is to be a key component of the way a pupil is assessed how are we to ensure credit is shared fairly among all members of a group who have contributed unequal amounts? Or – if pupils are to be assessed by their teacher how do we ensure teacher bias does not lead to unfairness for certain groups? Or – if we are now expecting teachers to teach multiple subjects as part of projects then how do make sure they are expert enough in all these at more advanced levels?

Whether it’s revolutionary socialism or futurist curriculum and pedagogy, an idea regardless of how exciting it is cannot be practically useful if it fails to acknowledge contextual constraints and relies on people and the world being fundamentally different to what they are to make it work.

The danger we face is the adoption of risky big ideas at a time when the learning of pupils has never been higher stakes. We have lost a lot of time. Many pupils are still losing time. We cannot waste what we have on stuff that doesn’t work regardless of how nice it would be if it did work.

None of this is to say what we have is perfect. It demonstrably is not perfect.

But the solution to imperfection is not to replace what doesn’t work brilliantly all the time with things that have failed in the past.

must not risk further inequity by treating our children as guinea pigs in experiments we have run before in the self-indulgent hope this time, this time things will turn out differently.

[1] It is interesting how so many programmes and strategies around cross-curricular work omit English and Maths, suggesting when stakes are highest the value of disciplinary teaching is accepted.


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