Learning's too good for 'em

19th August 2005 at 01:00
Post-election education debate has come down to this: a diploma or A-levels? Perhaps, in 10 years time, there may be a diploma. Most likely there will be some compromise solution that keeps some poor form of A-level.

However, all this chatter will make little difference because it largely concerns the form of education and ignores the strange changes that are affecting what children and young people are being offered as "education".

While parties who are interested in delivering various qualifications defend their projects, education at all levels is going backwards.

We are seeing the rise of a new philosophy of educational atavism. By this I mean a throwback, not just to the class-based divisions of previous educational periods, but to a dehumanising and misanthropic approach to education.

The basis for this atavism is the repeated claim that we that we live in times that are so complex and uncertain that we cannot just teach and impart knowledge but need to do something else first.

Today's educational thinkers believe that no one can cope - that, to put it precisely, all children and young people are thick.

Three well-known illustrations of what I am calling educational atavism may shock more than a few of their acolytes.

The first is the idea that young people need to have more confidence and improved self-esteem before they can learn. This is familiar enough and has been subject to much criticism. It is a key concept in the rise of a therapeutic educational culture.

The second is the increasingly popular pseudo-scientific idea of "emotional intelligence" that Kathryn Ecclestone (senior education lecturer at the University of Exeter) has criticised in FE Focus for similar reasons.

The third is the more damaging claim that it is important for children and young people to engage in "learning to learn". This is worryingly labelled by Guy Claxton as "learnacy". What all the supposedly exciting and innovative techniques amount to is the idea that children and young people need to learn to learn before they can, er, learn.

What we are being told is that children, young people and even adults cannot learn until they have built up their self-esteem and emotional intelligence and acquired the skills needed for learning.

These are all about something that precedes education. These are not like the old sociological barriers to learning such as coming from a working class or ethnic background, which meant that some people had supposedly missed out on education and compensatory education was needed - although this was always a dubious claim. The new barriers to learning are much more like the Victorian upper-class attitudes that saw the impoverished masses of London's East End as a different sub-human race that was unintelligible to the civilised, or even more like the attitudes of the Dark Ages that saw serfs as akin to animals and tried both for various crimes.

Out of a fearful view of the need to cope with change comes a philosophy that sees people as less than human.

What people who advocate "learnacy" forget is that a defining feature of being human is the ability to learn and keep on learning.

Human beings in all societies have a voracious desire and capacity for knowledge. Ordinary people do not have to be trained to learn or sort out their emotions (or whatever) before they can learn.

So why not just get on with the business of learning? The answer is that, because of their fears for the future, not only politicians but many teachers and lecturers are starting to believe that many people are just not up to learning.

The idea that they need to learn differently is leading to the idea that they need to learn because they have transformed into something quite different and are nothing like they were in the past.

The obsession with behaviour and the idea that pupils and students are all "buggers" is entirely similar. They can't behave. They are like animals and need training. The stereotype of the "hoodie" youth reflects this belief: what creatures are coming into being beneath those hoods?

In the years of the youth training scheme and beyond, there used to be a concentration on "employability". Although there were few jobs, the idea was that people weren't being hire because they did have the skills needed to make them employable. This was always an obvious and cynical endeavour to blame people for economic failings. What we have now are pedagogical initiatives that are blaming people for societal failings.

One university is already offering teachers a qualification in emotional literacy. Before we have a 14-19 diploma pathway in "learning to learn" let's recognise it for what it is - sheer learnacy!

Dennis Hayes is the author, with Kathryn Ecclestone, of the forthcoming book The dangerous rise of therapeutic education:how teaching is becoming therapy RoutledgeFowler pound;25.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today