Change still helps us rise from the ashes of failure

5th September 2008 at 01:00
I wonder if we can all learn something from the England cricket team. For most of the past two years, it has been one of the least successful teams of its kind in the world.

Suddenly, it gets a new captain, Kevin Pietersen. Its performance is transformed and it can't stop winning matches. How can that be? After all, before the recent slump, Michael Vaughan, the old captain, was one of the most successful ever and became a national hero after winning back the Ashes from Australia in 2005.

The answer lies somewhere between the saying that "a change is as good as a rest" and the sociologists' old friend, the Hawthorne effect. The latter states, roughly, that any experiment works - while it's still an experiment.

The Hawthorne Plant of the Western Electric Company in Chicagom Illinois, ran a research project to raise productivity levels from 1927 to 1932. One aspect involved changing lighting levels. Researchers found that productivity rose according to whether the lights became brighter or dimmer. They later found that when they shortened the working week, output per hour rose. But it increased yet further when they restored the original working week.

Management specialists have argued for 80 years about what it all means. However, the most common explanation is that if you tell people a change is for the better, things will tend to improve.

Hawthorne makes sense of most things that have happened in education over the past 40 years. Take the growing determination of governments to pick out failing schools. Most headteachers used to leave, garlanded with praise, when it was time to retire or when they got a better offer. Those few who were eased out were also praised, at least in public. Now, many heads leave with a cloud over their heads, even if they were once successes. With so many targets to reach, it isn't hard to fail.

And under new heads, just like new cricket captains, schools nearly always do improve, if only for a while. Similarly, when a school acquires a new label, such as "city academy", short-term improvement again tends to follow.

As the late Ted Wragg used to say, education is like Piccadilly Circus: if you wait long enough, every idea will come round again. Project work, hugely popular in the 1960s and 1970s, then jettisoned, is coming back. "Personalised education" echoes the thinking behind child-centred teaching and "learning by discovery". Suggestions that children can work at home on the internet, or in the local library or FE college, echo the de-schooling ideas of Ivan Illich, a great 1970s hero. School federations, under "superheads", sound suspiciously like what used to be called split-site comprehensives.

I know the parallels aren't always exact, and policy-makers and practitioners are sometimes wise enough to learn lessons from the past. I know, too, that most changes in education are dictated by changes in the wider world.

Nevertheless, change is often for its own sake, particularly when it's dictated by Whitehall. It can seem pointless when we end up more or less where we started, as we have done with reading standards over the past 60 years, according to the best available evidence. After a succession of new teaching methods, schemes, inquiries and strategies, children are now taught much as they were in the 1950s - when everything was changed because too few learnt to read.

But perhaps if schools didn't change, everything would just get worse.

Running schools and teaching in them are hard jobs. The belief that a new era is about to unfold raises morale, demands attention, restores enthusiasm, and makes everybody think afresh about their work.

Meanwhile, older teachers will always say that they've seen it all before and it didn't work last time, so why should it work now?

So will older commentators. Which is why I cheerfully bid farewell to you, this being my last TES column, and depart to watch more cricket.

Peter Wilby, Former editor of `The New Statesman' and `The Independent on Sunday'.

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