Influence of the giants simply isn't big enough

2nd May 2008 at 01:00
Where are the great minds that have influenced the test-ridden system that passes for education today? Who are the imaginative and brilliant ones responsible for getting us to where we are? The answer is a series of dull, plodding bureaucrats, who have produced the current formula of Sats, GCSEs and Curriculum 2000, which gave us AS-levels and A2s
Where are the great minds that have influenced the test-ridden system that passes for education today? Who are the imaginative and brilliant ones responsible for getting us to where we are? The answer is a series of dull, plodding bureaucrats, who have produced the current formula of Sats, GCSEs and Curriculum 2000, which gave us AS-levels and A2s. What is now on offer in schools has sucked the lifeblood out of gifted teachers and aspirational pupils interested in genuine learning.

Some original minds are making a difference, however, although the dearth of fresh thinking in the education world at large is striking. Particularly at fault are the education philosophers, who seem to be locked in arcane discourses far removed from the realities of the classroom and the needs of children.

Among the star thinkers, I would pick out David Hargreaves for his work on personalised learning and "deep leadership"; David Hopkins for his work on "system leadership"; and Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam for their work on assessment for learning, discussed in last week's TES.

A cadre of still more imaginative minds lurks behind the scenes, and has yet to have its influence fully felt. Among these figures, I would list Ken Robinson for his work on creativity; Tony Buzan for his writing about spiritual intelligence; and Paul Robertson for his thinking on music, the mind and the spirit.

Of even greater import is the work of Professor Martin Seligman, who 10 years ago at Pennsylvania University began the work that has led to the teaching of wellbeing and the introduction in secondaries this year of the social and emotional aspects of learning programme. He is also responsible for the Penn Resiliency Program, which is being trialled in several education authorities.

Howard Gardner of Harvard is in the same league, with his work on multiple intelligences, which knocks for six the idea that schools should just be concentrating on developing intellectual intelligence. His thinking about the breadth of intelligence harmonises with that of Kurt Hahn - a key influence on the development of the International Baccalaureate - and has powerfully influenced my own school's teaching of the "eight aptitudes".

Arthur Costa of California State University is also in the same league. His work on the teaching of thinking and independent learning has culminated in "habits of mind", a set of 16 intelligent behaviours - including flexible thinking, meta-cognition and applying past learning - that help pupils to develop their own independence of thought.

In the spirit of stateindependent partnership, my school is combining with Uplands Primary in Sandhurst, Berkshire, next month to offer a one-day conference with Arthur Costa - a rare opportunity to hear him speak and put his work into practice. The development of autonomous pupils should lie at the heart of any effective school system. If only his work - and that of these other giants, as opposed to the pygmies - could be allowed to have more influence, Britain would boast a wonderful education system, to be emulated by others across the world.

As an end note, I am writing this on the day of the strikes. I admire the unions in many ways, and am pleased to be speaking shortly at a National Union of Teachers conference, on happiness. If teachers are to make schools what they ought to be, they should be paid much better and valued more highly by parents and society. But I deplore going on strike. No good will come of it, any more than any good came of strikes in the 1980s. It damaged a generation of schoolchildren, and reduced respect for teaching as a profession. If we want to be treated like professionals, we should act like professionals.

Anthony Seldon is master of Wellington College in Berkshire.

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