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Progress is a circular thing

Continuous improvement is a sadly treacherous idea. Anyone who is ambitious or creative has to believe in it. We want to make things better than we find them and must believe that they can be. But whether the idea takes its Japanese form of Kaizen, or its English one in the dream of limitless progress found in Victorian tracts, it is an artefact of faith.

The great Japanese designer Kenji Ekuan was also a Buddhist priest.

Students seconded to his company from Tokyo university were invariably from well-to-do families and were the products of an elite education. They were set to work polishing things, to teach them reverence for objects.

The concept of reverence for objects wells up from traditional Japanese designs. It is there in the hand-forged blades of Samurai swords, still glittering brightly 400 years after they came from the fire, in the tea cup and in the humble wooden bucket.

It is there in the Walkman and the Canon Ixus digital camera. It is there in the Japanese custom of destroying houses on the death of their owners.

And that is the clue. Kaizen, continuous improvement, belongs in a view of the world that also includes reincarnation, the Zen great circle of life.

Strive to perfect things, mostly fall short, destroy them and return to try again. To the makers of the exquisite rugs of the Islamic world, even the approach to perfection was impious, an infringement on the province of the divine.

So where does that leave all of us, struggling to make education and training better? The secular Western world tends to sweep aside philosophical reservations about improvement.

There is a good deal to say that we may be right. A century ago, life expectancy was not much more than half of what it is today, child mortality and the terrible conjunction of frequent pregnancies and high perinatal death among women bearing much of the blame.

Today, women routinely outlive men. Who will say that medicine has not improved, even though more of us having survived the perils of birth, still do little better than the three-score-years-and-10 of the Bible.

In the space of a century we developed cars from sputtering Heath Robinson contraptions to a jet land speed record-breaker capable of passing the sound barrier, and the effortlessly reliable companion of yours and my daily trip to work.

In less than a century we progressed from the Wright Brothers to moon landings, and unreflecting holiday trips halfway round the world. Science and technology shrug off superstition and just get better and better.

Closer to unaided human enterprise, however, the picture grows less clear.

Setting aside any prejudices you may have about more contemporary efforts, is the music of, say, Stravinsky or Mahler better than that of Bach? Is The Great Gatsby a better book than Great Expectations? Was Picasso a better painter than Raphael, whose work he could emulate in his teens? Who can say?

At least I am giving you the chance to compare artefacts which you can set side by side. When it comes to even more ephemeral matters of human performance, we all get endless entertainment and no satisfaction whatever from comparing our "greatest England teams of all time". Is Michael Schumacher a better driver than Juan Manual Fangio?

It is fun but it is a foolish question. They are just different. People might now be better fed and better trained but, in all essentials, their capabilities remain unchanged century upon century, millennium upon millennium.

So it is with that even more fundamental human function, the capacity to learn. When an inspection team goes into a college, as I did this week, we look for signs of improvement.

Are examination results better? Is retention up, since a group of staff began to phone every absentee within minutes of their names being marked with an "O" on the register?

In a splendidly-led organisation like the one I was fortunate enough to visit the answer was "Yes" on all counts, even though it had been through every kind of turmoil. But in the same week, I had unhappier news of two other institutions, one of which not long ago seemed full of hope and vigour.

These are familiar stories to everyone. "What goes around, comes around", "Be good to people on your way up; you will meet them on the way down".

None of us expects things to get endlessly better. We expect life, even progress, to be fleeting, transitory. We temper expectation with realism and compassion.

Striving is compulsive and worthwhile. But inspectors, like everyone else, face life as it really is, with philosophy. It is the attempt which is continuous, not the attainment. Improvement is continuous, but it is the continuity of the wheel, not the apparent continuity of the spiral staircase.

David Sherlock is chief inspector of adult learning

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