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The curriculum can burn its bras

Even if it takes a decade to clear out the Victorian attics, liberated learning is here to stay, says Graham Hills

The article by Douglas Osler (TESS, November 1) is a discerning criticism of outmoded courses and outmoded curricula. It touches on fundamental issues underlying the reform of education at all levels. He is right to draw our attention to the shortcomings of the present curricula grounded in the Victorian mindset in which they were born.

Sadly, with that mindset also goes a comprehensive language, the axioms of which have for too long been taken for granted. In his use of that language the former senior chief inspector of schools unwittingly becomes its reluctant prisoner and this in turn undermines the reforms he seeks.

To put it another way, he feels obliged to assume that the same discrete subjects, the usual methods, the unchanging examinations and the present pupil-teacher relationships contain all the ingredients for perpetuating the status quo that he evidently dislikes. To escape this trap, he will therefore have to take a bigger step; once that step is clear, it is not too difficult.

Thanks to the internet (although still in its infancy), we are now in a position to relegate the factual knowledge in subject boxes to safe keeping outside the human head which can then be freed to pursue the humanitarian ends for which it was designed. This Brave New World carries the comfortably loose title of the New Learning Paradigm. It liberates pupils and students from the drudgery of rote learning. It liberates teachers from the drudgery of imparting information better acquired from books, the web, television and who knows what. This process of learning comes close to that dirty word enjoyment. Above all else, it opens the door to those precious intellectual skills of speaking, reading, writing and calculating.

And this Aladdin's cave of rich experience is available to everyone. The teacher is no longer the sage on the stage but rather the guide by the side. Teachers are no longer the source of information but rather of inspiration. Out then with the other Victoriana goes the written examination, the foolish attempts at accountability, the once-for-all grading of individuals and the implicit superiority of the academic over the useful. And this is not the land of make-believe. It is beginning to happen.

In Glasgow, the embracing of the New Learning Paradigm by some schools, reflected in the Learning for Living and Earning project, has demonstrated clearly and powerfully that pupils in this new environment are not just keener to come to school but more interested, more committed and better behaved. Surprise, surprise, their performance in the as yet unreformed formal examinations is significantly enhanced. In the postmodern world there is room for all disciplines because the expert knowledge is to hand and in the most attractive formats.

All this will not happen overnight. If the establishment has its way, and it generally does, it may not happen at all. So we must be brave and urge Mr Osler to keep pressing down the path he has put his foot on. The key to unlocking a better, more sensible and even a more economical way forward lies not in the old language, but in the new language of mode 1 and mode 2.

All those reading this article will have been the children of mode 1, of the academic ethos of facts, figures, theories and everything else that can be read by a machine. This is the stuff of formal examinations, of grading and of regurgitating the teachers' notes. It is time for a change. Mode 2 is not quite Summerhill but we should not be ashamed of A S Neill's idealism.

The use of the personal computer to acquire information when and where it is needed makes it the most powerful learning tool so far. Teachers and parents have no longer to be encyclopaedias on legs but interesting practitioners able to apply knowledge, to improvise and to adapt to circumstances.

By definition, mode 1 has only content but no context. In black and white terms, mode 2 is dominated by its context. Mode 1 is intolerant of aberration and improvisation. It stultifies conversation, innovation and imagination. Mode 2 is human, softer and, I believe, more feminine. It is the world that we like to live in.

And are mode 1 and mode 2 just aspects of another ossifying learning language? I do not think so. Mode 2 flies in the face of dictionaries. Its very plasticity parallels the necessary plasticity of the brain and the mind. These new concepts are therefore liberating. Other structures such as subject boxes, rigid curricula and inflexible timetables are at best regrettable obstacles to the vibrant education of lively minds by lively minds.

These reforms are good news. They cost little or nothing but they are a wind of change. It may take a decade to clear out those Victorian attics but the prize of so doing is worth having. It is time for burning those symbolic bras of mode 1 and its curricula. Douglas Osler should be pleased.

Professor Sir Graham Hills is former principal of Strathclyde University.

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