More Pollock than Gradgrind

1st May 2009 at 01:00

The map of the London Underground network is a fabulous metaphor for our education system. We have our own neat diagram which charts progress and stopping-off points and lets you see just how far you can go if you stay on to the end of the line.

In reality, the Tube doesn't conform to those neat straight lines and patterns. Harry Beck configured the maps on the principles of electrical wiring diagrams to make them easy to follow, but he left out indications of distance, which would spoil the pattern.

Our education system doesn't conform, either, to a simple flow chart which disgorges, at the end of the line, the highly skilled, the graduate or the PhD. A true representation would be more like Jackson Pollock's "Candy Painted", because there have never been so many opportunities for our learners, nor so many different stopping and starting points or pathways to achievement.

Learning itself is a complex business. What do we want our young people to learn? What will equip children born this year with the knowledge and skills they will need to sustain them - perhaps into the next century?

Facts, Gradgrind said. Dickens's 19th-century monster terrorises Sissy Jupe because she cannot define a horse. Brought up with horses, she has a different knowledge of them from the Wikipedia entry Gradgrind is after. For Dickens, Sissy represents art, creativity, imagination. He contrasts Gradgrind's stultifying, mechanistic system with something organic and nurturing.

Technology, we say. Not facts, but learning how to learn. We embraced new media to allow learning to become a creative, collaborative process. For colleges, it ticks all the boxes. It allows learners autonomy. It allows the lecturer to become a facilitator, sharing discoveries. "You're more like a friend than a lecturer," one student said to me recently.

But now, we are cautioned that the use of technology in education and in the home is producing a generation who will be incapable of feeling emotion, who will not manage a conversation and who will not be able to concentrate long enough to read to the bottom of this page. What do we want? Everything. When do we want it? Now!

Technology offers instant gratification. When I'm creating web content for learners, I am aware that no information can be more than three clicks away - otherwise the user gives up and tries elsewhere.

New media in education is fast, it's addictive - and it's here. Whatever the problems we need to face and resolve, technology has revolutionised teaching and learning wonderfully. We must not let it turn into a 21st- century monster. It is a tool which has to be used effectively. Today, Sissy Jupe would find her definition of a horse on the web. But that's only half the story, as Dickens suggests. For her emotional and tactile understanding of the animal, she must turn to the real world too.

We will find the right balance between the virtual and the real. There has never been a more pressing need for good teaching, for social interaction, for reflection and discussion. In education, the map has been redrawn. We are all fellow travellers now. Learning should be fun, and lecturers should be friends.

Carol Gow is a writer and part-time lecturer in further education.

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