From the Editor - Today's pupils come free range or battery farmed

10th February 2012 at 00:00

We are in the middle of a learning revolution. Or is it a counter-revolution? Parts of the country are experimenting with futuristic schools with "learning plazas" and "democratised spaces"; others are rushing to reclaim traditional didactic teaching and lining up pupils to conjugate Latin verbs (pages 28-33, 38-40).

The visionaries point out that the model of teaching common to most schools - one teacher in front of one class - is a Victorian leftover. This unimaginative set-up allows schools to deliver standardised chunks of learning in a rigid school timetable. But it's inflexible and doesn't address the needs of individual pupils. Unimaginative lessons, they argue, are producing uninspired pupils; an "egg-box world" is churning out battery-farmed pupils who cannot range widely intellectually because they haven't learned to think independently.

Part of the answer, they believe, is to play with the space - knock down a few walls, create mini lecture theatres or break-out spaces or smaller meeting rooms and the like to foster several different types of lesson - the lecture, the seminar, teamwork and individual study. But the larger part of the equation is a more radical re-engineering of the way lessons are delivered. Some schools are giving lectures to 60 or 80 pupils followed by university-style seminars and essays. Others are encouraging teams of teachers to jointly address pupils, or are embracing "flipped" learning - where pupils watch a video at home on the internet first and the teacher oversees exploration and investigation in class. The most daring are experimenting with a Swedish model that allows pupils to set their own "working goals" while teachers act as "facilitators".

Yet despite the obvious energy and zeal of these innovators, most schools appear reluctant to join the revolution. They seem comfortable in their "egg boxes". And it's not hard to see why. Schools like those in Knowsley that took the plunge a decade ago and became skills focused and restyled themselves "learning centres" have not performed well since. In fact, they remain stuck at the bottom of the league tables.

League tables, of course, are not exactly famed for measuring the soft skills and rounded education most consider necessary for the 21st century. Critics will also point out that just as England's government is foisting dead poets, dead monarchs and dead languages on pupils, so the Asian countries it is keen to emulate are busy heading in the opposite direction - stressing the soft skills and off-piste learning undervalued here.

All of which is true. But the real lessons are not that traditional teaching is hopelessly antiquated or that the innovators are ludicrously naive. The real lesson is that flexible learning styles are appropriate only when pupils are ready to benefit from them.

Independent schools are rightly lauded as excellent inculcators of the polished social skills employers and universities find so attractive. But none is so foolish as to neglect its bread and butter - a clutch of As in the traditional exams that give pupils a leg up. Neither do the Asian front-runners. They are acutely aware that the ability to pass rigorous exams is not in itself proof of a well-educated mind. But they also know that an inability to pass condemns a pupil to a tougher life.

New learning styles may well have a place in the curriculum. But for disadvantaged pupils in particular they should be seen as a supplement to traditional learning rather than an alternative to it.

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