Please spare us the educational future-gazers 

Many commentators predict that education could be transformed by lockdown, but they are set to be disappointed. Teachers and students long to return to their traditional classrooms 

David James

Blended learning: Teaching live online lessons from an empty classroom

Peter Senge famously commented that "people don’t resist change; they resist being changed". It’s a neat linguistic dichotomy, a tension that lives at the heart of the human condition. He may be right: perhaps, fundamentally, people are naturally conservative, and we are suspicious of rapid, uncontrolled change, preferring instead for things to get better, but without any personal inconvenience. 

The bewilderment we are feeling now springs as much from seeing our certainties being overturned as it does from the sudden immanence of illness and death. Those prosaic alterations – a favourite pub closed, a face mask on an old man in a park, a children’s play area sealed off – jostle with profound global disturbance. But each resonates, producing a collective aphasia, reminding us why revolutions seldom happen from within affluent societies or sectors, but are usually done to them. The current populist demagogues offer distorted representations of the traditional: change without the new, a regressive revolution, a political lemniscape, promising direction without travel.

Bubbles and edubabble

Of course, there are always people who see a crisis as confirmation of what they have long believed, and so it is with coronavirus and teaching. Articles appear, claiming, madly, that education is over, or which call on the profound disruption affecting schools to be extended beyond the lockdown, for "disruptive learning" to replace the dull, old, tested methods of instruction. For some, "disruption of current educational models and systems is essential’ if a school is to be transformed into a "sustainable safe space that targets a more inspirational humane ecosystem". Try testing that particular theory to a mixed-ability Year 9, last lesson on a Friday.

Such edubabble should not surprise anyone who has done a PGCE. But some of those advocating a sort of Trotskyite permanent revolution are in positions of real influence. Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the OECD, talks of children returning to their schools having experienced "learning that is more fun, more empowering". Presumably he is not thinking of those vulnerable children, locked away for months in dysfunctional families, without a laptop. How much fun is there in those darkened rooms?  

The "transformative competencies", of taking control, that Schleicher promotes, will sound hollow to families who have seen their worlds swept away, to be left clinging to the wreckage of state handouts and food banks. Coronavirus starkly exposes old inequalities that were concealed by bricks and mortar, uniforms, school support systems and routine. Only the affluent, with their greater range of contacts and opportunities, view "disruption" in schools as something positive. It is they who make proclamations that are built on nothing more solid than their own set of values, tested only within their own echo chamber, who claim that "we cannot simply return to the status quo", choosing to ignore that this is precisely what many families are desperate to do now.  

New normal is a pale imitation

Some temporary changes are necessary. Geoff Barton is right to say that a suspension of school performance tables is a humane and pragmatic response, but his claim that children need to "regain the habits of learning" suggests that something so innate is currently being furloughed. It isn’t, but it does need school and teachers to give it structure, to provide disciplined approaches to thinking, as well as knowledge, to shape that innate desire into something understood, and utilitarian though it sounds, measurable. There can be no pause in that.

Nor does there need to be "a period of rebirth" in schools: what families and teachers need, urgently, is for the new normal to be seen as a temporary and terrible hiatus from an old normal that we spend so much of our time getting, on the whole, right. Most children do not want to be away from school, and most teachers know that teaching remotely is nothing more than a pale imitation of what we do, the pedagogical equivalent of replacing the English Premier League with an Xbox and Fifa20. 

Nor do we need to spend hours debating the necessity of formal assessments. The only people arguing such things have already passed all the examinations they need to be in positions where they can talk about such things. Another loop in this loopy world. If we have learned anything from this period, whether it is by dealing with students who feel robbed of the opportunity to prove themselves in an exam hall, or by discussing the seemingly endlessly intricate process that will go towards arriving at “centre-assessed grades”, it is that examinations work. No, they’re not perfect; yes, they are often reductive, but they remain highly effective methods of motivating pupils and objectively evaluating their achievement. 

It is narcissistic and irresponsible for so-called educationalists and thinkers to be discussing what schools should look like after this pandemic fades. Remote learning is an emergency response, and some good will come from it. But for now we need to invest our time, imagination and energy in getting it right, in keeping all students engaged; but we also should accept that what has to come next is what came before. 

Those old, derided classrooms, with ordered desks and a teacher at the front, now resemble for many the warm embrace of the familiar. Let’s look forward to returning to what we know, and what our students value. Let’s work tirelessly towards the day when the laptop is shut down, the face mask is taken off, to reveal a very human smile. Today, the personal is radical. The revolution can wait.

David James is deputy head (academic) at a leading UK independent school

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