Save Big L from the pop psychologists

21st November 2003 at 00:00
Bill Lucas has kidnapped the woman Lifelong Learning, whom I christened Big L, and she needs to be rescued before she comes to any harm (TES, October 17). It is not Bill I worry about so much as his views. Big L already has a bad reputation for being all talk and no data, and Bill's pop psychology will make matters worse.

For example, in his article and even more in his book, Power up your Mind, Bill argues by means of sweeping generalisations without evidence. In his article he claims that some 90 per cent of lifelong learning is informal.

The 90 per cent sounds precise, but it has been plucked from the air.

Similarly, in his book he writes: "You remember 20 per cent of what you read, 30 per cent of what you hear, 40 per cent of what you see, 50 per cent of what you say, 60 per cent of what you do and 90 per cent of what you read, hear, see, say and do" (p126).

Here we have entered the unscientific world of educational consultants, whose powerpoint presentations are all colour and no content, and whose conclusions have no basis in research. A moment's thought would reveal that the quoted percentages are nonsense. Do I remember 50 per cent of what I say? Does anyone? Does Bill have any idea how much I talk and how much I forget?

The cause of lifelong learning will not be advanced by superficial, patronising and mistaken views or by trivial mind games and activities.

The invention of the ugly term "learnacy" is of little help and the five Rs (resourcefulness, resilience, remembering, reflecting and responsiveness) are not eternal truths but a personal and constantly changing selection by Guy Claxton from a vast psychological literature.

The reader is not told that many of Bill's favourite ideas (for example, learning style, the learning cycle and experiential learning) are hotly contested, some are very poorly supported by empirical research, and a few have been dreamt up by Bill himself. For example, without any research or evidence, Bill has added a tenth type of intelligence to Howard Gardner's nine.

No wonder Big L is finding it an uphill struggle. We would be better stirring the pools of complacency by asking why, if Big L is as old as the hills, she is making such little progress. In his book, Bill deals with the 10 most common barriers to learning and fails to mention lack of money, transport or suitable childcare. Nor does he mention government policies like top-up fees and the relentless regime of testing that are turning more and more people away from learning.

A programme of reform based solely on pop psychology has little or no chance of success. For a start, we need to question the modern assumption that making learners more knowledgeable about their learning will either dramatically transform their ability to learn or raise standards. What evidence is there? How and why does it happen? The concentration on this one factor may lead to neglect if so many other important aspects of learning, such as the optimal social conditions, are ignored. This is not "scoffing" but healthy scepticism and respect for the primacy of evidence.

This brings me to the most serious weakness in Bill's approach - the absence of a sociological, economic or political dimension. His article and book are devoted to Big L but the words "class, race, poverty, inequality, unemployment and redundancy" are notably absent.

His book is about improving learning in organisations but there is no mention of the huge and still widening inequalities of access to training in the workplace. Nor is there any discussion of Bill Williamson's view that Big L has been hi-jacked by the Government to serve the short-term needs of British industry. Instead, we are offered "10 tips for holding brain-friendly meetings" (p100), "10 ways to boost your motivation" (p66), and "10 ways of cutting down stress at work" (p232).

The first means of reducing stress at work is apparently to "create conditions where employees have maximum control over their working lives".

Teachers in schools, FE colleges and universities will smile wryly at pop psychology's failure to confront power, hierarchy and the new, rampant managerialism.

If Big L is to succeed where recurrent education has failed, if she is to be any more than a passing fad like "the learning organisation", then she will need to present hard evidence on how to engender a love of learning in all people, how to maintain it throughout life, and how to enable people to separate for themselves the wheat from the chaff.

Frank Coffield is professor of education at the Institute of Education, University of London

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