Part 4: What if everything we thought we knew about learning was wrong?

What are the influences of the industrial and technological revolutions on education?

Education based on revolutions

The influences of any revolution leave their mark. This could be in any article from fashion, furniture, architecture and food to any service such as medicine, armed services or indeed education. There will be something, in some form, that reflects some of the ideology or nature of that revolution. It is easy to see in artifacts, cars are a good example, but it is there too in services such as healthcare.

1956_Pontiac_Club_de_Mer_Dream_Car_09_1  health care system approach

There is certainly a “fashion” element to the influences of these revolutions. Some aspects come and go quite quickly, some hang around and some get re invented every now and then. Some outstay their welcome and just won’t go away (the call for a “back to basics” approach may be one in education). Then there re those on which we build something new, something lasting with real benefit. The idea of an education system for all is probably one of those ideas developed out of the need for people to work in the new industrial age leaving the agricultural age behind. But what of the negative influences, the limiting ideas that have remained? The idea of standardisation, uniformity, quality control and others can if wrongly applied be hazardous and difficult to shed .

Another way of looking at this question is,

Are we doing what we should be doing in terms of developing education or perhaps are we doing what we find easier to do and more of the ‘same old, same old’ but with a fresh coat of paint?

We are back to the issue of the shaky foundations on which we are building education systems.

The OECD report “Universal Basic Skills What Countries Stand to Gain”[i] asks the question:

How well do today’s schools prepare for tomorrow’s world?”.

The Forward makes a clear link between education and work and is well worth a read. It starts by stating:

“Economic growth and social development are closely related to the skills of the population, indicating that a central post-2015 development goal for education should be that all youth achieve at least basic skills as a foundation for work and further learning, not merely that they gain access to schooling.”

The importance of education is clearly underlined, it is economic growth and social development.  We can see why education cannot be left to chance and that it comes under political influence if not control. What country could allow its education agenda to be determined by whim and fancy?  These then must be the most significant influences on education but are they and if so how close do we adhere to them?

The use of the term “basic skills” will lift the hearts of a many a politician these days since it has been the rallying cry for changes in, and some say control of, education for some time.  There must be a link between the needs of ‘work then and what education needs to deliver.  There is another side of the coin too and that is education is about developing the individual, that it is to say it is not just a way of producing drones for the world of work.

We could easily make a case for the current system we have to be based on a Victorian model, both in terms of delivery and focus. Sir Ken Robinson has made such comparisons when he says, “The current system was designed and conceived for a different age[ii] .  It certainly fits the bill for “economic growth”, well it did when established, but I am not so sure about “social development”.

We must be careful though not to assume what others mean when they speak of “basic skills”, we must not fall into the trap that they are talking about the three R’s or an academic curriculum (a nod to the English Baccalaureate [EBacc[iii]] here) or the same thing we have in our minds.  Digging further into the report we see that the OECD definition of basic skills means:

Ensuring that all people have a solid foundation of knowledge and skills” and that  “It is most critically about making sure that individuals acquire a solid foundation of knowledge in key disciplines, that they develop creative, critical thinking and collaborative skills, and that they build character attributes, such as mindfulness, curiosity, courage and resilience

Who would argue with that? Indeed my concept of Learning Intelligence[iv] includes these and I know how effective LQ is in helping learners achieve  their potential.  Four years ago I considered the functions of education and came up with this list[v]:

Integration: sharing traditions, rituals and beliefs
Understanding: to develop and share knowledge and develop understanding
Awareness: to achieve an understanding of one’s self, needs and desires
Evolution: to educate the educator, to be relevant and to move forward
Objectivity: to reflect, observe and question
Responsibility: to understand options and consequences (physical, social, spiritual and moral)

Things have moved on since then but there is a correlation with what OECD are saying now. In fact this is one of the problems with defining what education should be about, we can read almost anything into any list or definition.

The only way we can truly see what any definition of education means is to look at the outcomes since they must be a product of the purpose no matter what language is used.  That is unless those delivering the education do not understand the purpose or do not agree with it! See how complicated this issue is? In such cases we would need strong and comprehensive check and control measures just to make sure policy was being adhered to and we get the desired outcomes. Something like Ofsted and Ofqual here in the UK perhaps.

We have seen two significant revolutions in this country and so if we accept the first helped form the current education system what if any influences on education has the second, the information technology revolutions, had on education?

There is no doubt that the industrial revolution relied on the power of machines to drive practices forward and that there were benefits, as well as costs. Those that held the keys to this new age shouted the benefits of mass production, standardisation, cheaper products, and shorter production times. I would argue though that these are not the outcomes required in education.  As for the information technology revolution it has allowed us to monitor far many more data streams, gather far more date far more often and to analyse that date in a fraction of the time than could have been imagined in the industrial revolution.  In the same way it could be argued that the principles and practices of the industrial revolution have been wrongly applied to education I would suggest so too have those of the information technology revolution. They have enabled the check and control systems to be universally applied in order to ensure the outcomes are those determined by those setting policy. Perhaps the second revolution is as far from liberating the individual as the first was.

Whereas the industrial revolution allowed us to achieve standardisation, increased output, and reduction of cost the information revolution has allowed us to gather increasing amounts of data on which to chase improving standards, quantify decisions, and monitor and rank almost anything.  It also, rather seductively, claims to offer a solution to the desire for the individualised learning suggested by Bloom (and mentioned in Part 3) as the most effective way to learn (more of this later). In fact this may be a Trojan horse with the real reason for the investment in technology by Government in schools being that of data collection and data mining much like Google does.

Once again we have in education adopted a set of principles and practices from a different model in order to improve education.  Once again I claim we are shoring up a shaky foundation with the wrong practices and ideas.  It is hard to imagine the level of data collection and analysis of target setting and monitoring in education that we now have if it was not for the power of the computer. Has this actually done anything to improve the process of teaching and learning though? What it has done is to show us where we may need to improve education but not how to improve education.  It has become a stick to beat or poke with rather than to guide with.  A stick that has grown here in the UK from 40% to 60% in the last week as the Secretary of State for Education sets out the definition of coasting schools[vi]. It could be much more and in some cases it is but we need to strike a balance when it comes to education.

In the final part of this article I will suggest that it is time to re-evaluate the foundations of teaching and learning and to focus on what I believe are the true foundations of education we should seek to build on.


Final Part: What if everything we thought we knew about learning was wrong?

The four foundations of learning and what learning is not


[i]OECD (2015), Universal Basic Skills: What Countries Stand to Gain, OECD Publishing.

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About AcEd

"4c3d" (AcEd) is the abbreviation for Advocating Creativity in education, a company I set up to challenge how we think about and deliver education. The blog champions my concept of Learning intelligence, how we manage our learning environment to meet our learning needs as well as detailing those needs: Power Belonging, Choice and Fun - PBCF. Kevin Hewitson 2019

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