For the last few months I have been walking to work. It takes just under an hour. I am lucky to share a flat by the Thames, so most of the journey is along the Riverside Walk.
Last Friday morning, it was a beautiful sunny day. As I got to the river, a cormorant glided on to the water and started fishing. I paused to watch and then noticed a heron resting on the river's edge. It was a peaceful moment of solitude to start the day.
As I walked, I reflected on a Question Time-style event that I took part in the previous evening at City of London School for Girls. The last question was about “identity politics”; whether we thought it was growing and whether that was a good thing. What a great thing to ask.
The growth of the online echo chamber is disastrous for constructive political debate. As a panel representing Labour, Conservative, Ukip and the Lib Dems, we had listened to each other and the audience with respect. We had often agreed with each other. This no longer seems to happen very often on social media, where respect and listening has been sacrificed on the altar of likes and retweets.
Whatever happened to shades of grey? Does all opinion have to be black and white now?
I am an unashamed tech evangelist, but I am increasingly interested in understanding the negatives as well as the positives. Despite receiving a lambasting from some of my friends on Twitter, I liked Joe Nutt’s recent article for TES. He is surely right that ed tech companies need to pay more attention to the ed and less to the tech.
In the last few days I have also found a clutch of fascinating articles on the smartphone’s assault on empathy and the need for solitude, on how mindfulness increases resilience, and on the notion that schools are increasingly neglecting introverts.
Together, these pieces make a powerful case for walking to work and enjoying watching the birds in the river. Or for finding a quiet corner of the library. Or having part of the school day where we stop the collaborating and group research that I often advocate in favour of solitary study and reflection.
And they all strongly point towards the importance of chunks of time offline. The new multitasking skills of texting and talking are impressive to those of us who struggle to do more than one thing at a time, but they are reducing empathy (I hope my fellow tech evangelists will forgive these impure thoughts!).
I am not alone in worrying about the decline in empathy.
Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s former head of policy, has written a timely book: More Human. His chapter on schools opens with a section on the league table success of South Korean schools and correlates it to the rise in stress and suicide; suicide is the biggest cause of death among South Koreans aged 15-24.
Hilton celebrates schools with more self-direction, more making of stuff, more blended learning and more testing when ready. He then says: “We have dehumanized our children’s education. Schools treat students like statistics, mandating lesson plans across regions – even countries – to hit specified test results... This is a disastrous was to prepare children for their lives. Measuring their success based on how well they do in an academic test is superficial. It ignores the deeper learning that will actually help them thrive…It's time for more human schools.”
What would he make of the move to more titan-sized schools?
Steve Hilton writes about Michael Bloomberg’s initiative in New York, where large schools were closed and replaced with Small Schools of Choice. They had groups, no larger than 100 pupils, for students at risk of dropping out. The results look great and the cost was less because fewer students needed an extra year to graduate.
I don’t agree with everything Hilton then suggests, but I do agree that we can now do schooling differently, and with more empathy. The blend of online and face-to-face allows us to afford more personalised effective schools without making them too big. It also allows us to blend collaboration with solitude. It allows us to educate children in social settings where they are known and know everyone.
As the world becomes more impersonal, less respectful and more identity-based in the echo chamber of social media, wouldn’t this empathetic schooling be a good thing?