Beyond wildest dreams

20th October 2000 at 01:00
What does the future hold for teachers and schools? Tim Brighouse makes five predictions about the radically different education world of 2050

WHEN we celebrated the centenary of the 1870 Education Act, classrooms would have been recognisable to a Victorian time-traveller. Not so in some of today's schools where integrated learning systems see pupils, who have ready access to plentiful computer terminals, accessing their personal files and, via their school intranet, a wealth of library materials unimaginable even 30 years ago.

Nanotechnology which deals with the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules is accelerating what is possible. In the mid-21st century, teachers will remember fondly the early electronic white boards, the stuttering video links, the primitive computer-assisted learning programmes and the prototype e-books. By 2050, the recently created e-learning foundation will be richer than the wealthiest of the city's medieval guilds and its mission to fund the spread of e-learning devices and research into what works will have reaped a rich harvest.

There are two waves of technological advance - of learning and communication - that have combined to change the context of what is educationally possible. They will enable us to close the gap between the haves and the have-nots in a way the book alone never did.

In Cape Town, the sumptuous surroundings of the former all-white, now mixed-race, high schools I visited last summer would turn our best city technology colleges green with envy. Ten miles away, however, the ramshackle shed and the upturned ship's container with no electricity, windows, or floor are home to 350 black children of a shanty town.

In Britain, the gulf may be narrower in some respects. But to teach in an affluent suburban or county town, let alone the private sector, is to have the wind at your back, while to do so in cramped surroundings in deprived urban areas requires prodigious energy, cheerful determination in the face of adversity, not to mention extra helpings of generosity of spirit. These contrasts between different areas may still be there in 2050 but other things are sure to change.

Here are five predictions. In the light of research into the brain and theories of learning, teachers' questioning techniques will have moved beyond traditional methods. By then, they will be exploiting the alter ego dimension of teaching whereby they create an alternative persona to "unlock the mind and open the shut chambers of the heart". Evident first in the adventures of teddy bears and in the puppet theatres in inant and nursery schools, the technique is used by secondary drama, history and science teachers who make common cause in the use of masks and glove puppets to create alternative viewpoints. E-tutoring offers many further possibilities in extending this strategy.

Secondly, by 2050 we shall have extended our expertise in reducing the risks and barriers which some children face at different ages. Tom Wylie, chief executive of the National Youth Agency, recently referred to the adolescent's "shame of being a beginner". Now talented key stage 3 teachers are extending their repertoire of suitable techniques to overcome such teenage barriers to learning. There are many more at different ages and stages.

Thirdly, we shall have acknowledged the importance of multiplying the "specialness opportunities" - that is, the number of relationships created by teachers, support learning staff, peer tutors and mentors to increase the likelihood of the learner feeling so "special and unique" that they suspend disbelief and make great learning strides. So all staff will offer "additionality" - for example, their love of photography or music, to extend the chances of success for everyone.

The other two predictions relate to the circumstances in which teachers will operate. The voice of the educator will have dominated the first 50 years of the "age of learning technology and creativity", just as the voice of the landowner and the industrialist have done in previous ages. In that future time the teacher will be seen as key to society's health and survival.

But that leads to my final prediction. There will be half as many teachers paid three times as much, childadult ratio of 6 or 7:1.

How can this happen? The signs are already there. Ask any good primary practitioner and they will say they would rather have a trained learning assistant than a slightly smaller class. Teaching assistants, teaching associates, resident and visiting artists and scientists and business people, not to mention personal fitness mentors, will be part of the cast orchestrated by the expert, highly-paid teacher.

By 2050, people will look back and marvel at the modesty of our ambition and the primitive nature of our present knowledge. But they will be deeply grateful for the amazing commitment of our present generation of teachers, who have prepared the ground for the next leap forward in educational standards.

This article is based on a lecture given by Professor Tim Brighouse, chief education officer, Birmingham LEA, to the Royal Society of the Arts on Wednesday, October 18

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