Tentative and speculative suggestions made by academics have always been vulnerable to simplification and distortion when pounced on by people with political agendas, writes Josephine Gardiner. Professor David Reynolds worries that he is in danger of becoming the latest recruit to this time-honoured tradition.
He told The TES this week that he had been disturbed by the crude reporting of his ideas after the transmission of the Panorama programme,particularly by the way whole-class teaching was seized on and presented as a panacea. "It was frightening to watch limited intellects at work, unable to grasp ideas that fall outside the boxes labelled 'progressive' or 'traditional'; the whole point about whole-class teaching as illustrated by the lessons in Taiwan in the programme was that it is interactive, utterly different from a return to old-fashioned lecturing." It is ludicrous, he said, to suggest that certain ideas or methods are the property of the Right.
He was encouraged, however, to find that teachers themselves had "seen through the negative publicity . . . I was trying to show that whole-class teaching needn't be boring, and teachers gave me a better reception than I had feared. "
The education debate in Britain, he said, is dogged by politics, labels and false dichotomies, preventing people from considering new ideas or learning from other countries. "A card-carrying progressive could find much to identify with in Taiwan . . . people here still think along tramlines, locked in fruitless philosophical debates; in the Pacific Rim they are more pragmatic and experimental."
He admitted that the English are naturally suspicious of importing ideas from more authoritarian, conformist societies, and that the prospect of more homework, longer school days, shorter holidays and more testing might not prompt British teachers and pupils to dance for joy. However, he said, "if they believed that we could start to eliminate the underclass, I think even the British would support these things." If you want all children to reach an acceptable level in the basics, he suggested, an element of coercion is unavoidable.
The essential message of Worlds Apart? is "the notion that we should speculate and look abroad with open minds. I've no doubt that cultural factors make it easier to run effective schools in Taiwan, but that's a long way from accepting that British culture is a prison, and we can never hope to emulate the success of what other countries do. We need to become less deterministic about education."