Predictions make fools of us all

Future-gazers in the past have often put their foot in it, writes Karen Gold

The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty, said the not- so-prescient president of the Michigan Savings Bank advising would-be investors in the Ford Motor Company in 1903. Which just goes to prove that predicting the future is always a risky business.

Not that it stops anyone. The 1960s techno-idealists who created the Century 21 Expo in Seattle let rip with their vision of the schools of tomorrow. By the 21st century, they promised, children would learn in rooms with "walls made out of jets of air, tables standing on invisible legs, a floating canvas roof controlled to catch the sun. Memory-retention machines whir in the background. Television screens mirror the day's lessons."

At least they were right about the televisions - unlike Daryl F Zanuck, Hollywood producer, who in 1946 guaranteed that "television won't be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night."

And at least the futuristic Seattle schools contained teachers: a constant theme of education future-gazing is the obsolescence of fallible, expensive humans. Radio was supposed to supersede the people at the front of the classroom. Then talking films, then micro-computers. Even today, some policy wonks suggest that the internet and DVDs will result in tomorrow's pupils simply plugging themselves into learning.

Back in the late 18th century, schoolmasters Joseph Lancaster and Andrew Bell had the same high hopes for a productivity wheeze. They believed the savings would guarantee them fame and fortune long after the new-fangled steam engine ran out of puff. Older pupils would instruct and control the younger ones, requiring only one teacher per 10,000 pupils, they claimed.

As we all know, the school monitor system fell into disuse by the mid-19th century and Lancaster and Bell's fortune remained a dream.

Isaac Pitman, inventor of the shorthand system of that name, promised that children could learn to read in six months if English spelling were simplified. His grandson James created the Initial Teaching Alphabet which, funded by George Bernard Shaw, caught sufficient fire to have its own professor at London's Institute of Education and an entire local education authority - Oldham - converted.

"No longer will there be the eternal queue of children at the teacher's desk to ask 'Miss, how do you spell... ?'," claimed enthusiasts.

The queues are still there and ITA long departed.

Esperanto teaching, another bright hope, faded the same way.

Overtaking them, as predicted by Herbert Spencer, a Victorian evolutionist, has been science. Scientific inquiry should be the foundation of learning, he argued in 1861. More than 100 years later, when it instituted science as a core national curriculum subject, the Government finally formally agreed.

Of course, future-gazing about what schools will teach depends on what kind of society and culture the futurologists expect them to serve.

Those who promised a third strand of technical schools alongside grammar and secondary moderns in1944 expected a more stratified and technical society. Champions of comprehensives in the 1960s - schools of 2,000-plus were predicted, but few of that size were built - assumed that only 20 per cent of pupils were capable of a grammar school education, so only a huge intake would guarantee the whole ability range.

The progressive Plowden report of 1967 anticipated social change through education: poor children in priority areas would gain equal life chances to richer ones. More than 100 years before, conservative Victorians argued that not only would the creation of state-funded schools drive independent schools out of business, but that no 10-year-old peasant child would stay in school when his family needed him to work.

And in the 1970s, we all thought we would need education to help us fill our ever-growing hours of leisure time - and look at us now as we work the longest hours in Europe and find ourselves slaves to email and mobile phones.

Individual idealists have acquired visionary followers: liberal educators hoped AS Neill's Summerhill was a blueprint; devotees of Ivan Illich believed his expose of institutionalisation might mean the end of schooling altogether. Hopes that psychology would make grubby, irregular children classifiable and trainable surged after the invention of IQ tests in 1912.

It happened again with BF Skinner and behaviourism in the 1950s.

And running along underneath all these have been the futures which nobody spotted at all. Who would have predicted 40 per cent of the population going to university? Or 95 per cent getting GCSEs? The end of corporal punishment? The rise of media studies? (Apart from Alvin Toffler, author of 'Future Shock', who did. He also predicted the rise of the computer in the workplace, but thought all significant jobs would still be done by men).

"By and large, we don't predict very well," says Professor David Hicks, educational futures expert at Bath Spa University College. His advice? We should stop trying to second-guess what might happen and think about what we want to happen instead.

"The knee-jerk reaction in the 21st century is always to say that the future will be a shinier, higher-tech version of today," he says." I think it's much more fruitful to say, given the current state of the world, where do we need education to be?"

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