The value of one daring question

31st January 1997 at 00:00
Last week, Frank Coffield argued that John Dewey's controversial pedagogic creed is still relevant 100 years on. Here he opens an election-year debate with a statement of his own educational beliefs

I believe in doubt. I believe in questioning everything and in fostering a healthy scepticism in learners. I also believe that the mark of good teaching is providing learners with the means to go beyond what they've been taught. Merchants of doubt, however, find themselves saying what people don't want to hear.

Education conferences remind those who teach how ineffective and, at times, alienating the transmission model of teaching is, and that learning cannot be reduced to the passive absorption of what is being transmitted. Yet we, the experts in learning, do not run conferences in ways that accord with what we know.

The successful introduction of innovations in teaching, learning and assessment is now a high priority and none of what follows is meant to detract from the many imaginative developments in pedagogy. But the innovations are scattered, non-cumulative and patchy in their impact.

If the dominant pedagogy of transmission and assimilation is not changed, this country will not become a learning society and lifelong learning will remain just an attractive slogan.

I believe that the new managerialism is destroying trust among colleagues, by bringing to the fore those "apple polishers" who have learned from their schooldays to suck up to power. Management time would be better spent creating a culture of mutual learning than in developing narrow performance indicators or producing glossy brochures. We can deal with managers behaving badly by acting together within our institutions.

The most abused word currently in the English language, "partnership", is code for increasing corporate funding to make good the declining state investment in education. And those institutions that most ostentatiously broadcast their equal opportunities policies tend to promote fewest women and ethnic minority students. Students and staff should now insist that such institutions live up to their mission statements.

More than ever before, knowledge is the key to progress. I do not believe in a knowledge-free curriculum that stresses "core" skills. Some employers are impressed by graduates who can work co-operatively, communicate effectively and tackle problems imaginatively rather than by students who have mastered a body of knowledge.

But what will these graduates be co-operating about? What knowledge will they be communicating? According to one commentator, "key skills are, by definition, transferable and not context-specific".

I believe that one good question is worth 1,000 worksheets - the kind of question that disturbs the learner's equilibrium and moves him or her on to a higher level of understanding. I believe in the power of praise and laughter. But I do not believe that learning is always fun.

We need to acknowledge that it is often disturbing, that growth often results from struggle and that "hot-blooded cognition" is needed to achieve real change. The claim that learning is "fun" contradicts the experience of those learners for whom it has been dull, irrelevant or an attack on self-respect.

The "lack of motivation" of disaffected young people is a euphemism commonly employed by professionals to cover their failure to understand youth culture. The problem needs to be reformulated: institutional structures and the dominant pedagogy have not worked. The onus to change should be on institutions as well as on individuals.

So, to the heart of the matter: if we want to improve the quality of learning, we need to take account of the theories of learning espoused by teachers and students because, behind every form of instruction, lies some notion of how learning is best achieved.

The current fashion is to lambast teaching and to eulogise learning instead of understanding them as elements of a single, reciprocal process.

How teachers view the learning capacities of students is crucial. Are they passive absorbers of information, accurate imitators, lone scientists, apprentice learners, constructive critics or collaborative creators of knowledge? What sense do students make of the learning they are invited to do?

How does the pedagogy of teachers connect with issues of power and control, of success and failure, and of inclusion and exclusion? Can British society break away from our mean concept of human ability towards an approach where everyone is thought capable of continuous improvement? Such questions should be at the centre of the curriculum of teacher education and research.

I believe in the power of collaborative learning and in the discipline of exposing ideas to the critical scrutiny of others. There must also be room for the individual dissenter.

The European Commission's policy to centre the move to the learning society on the individual is fundamentally misguided, and the British government's promotion of lifetime learning by means of a stream of unco-ordinated initiatives falls short of a strategy. Instead, we need a multi-level approach that gives the pivotal role in creating a learning society to transformed institutions.

Just as with pupils in school, the peculiarly British problem is the long tail of underachieving institutions and firms. We need to follow up the National Skills Audit with a national audit of our key institutions, their inter-relationships and co-ordination.

We also need to consider establishing some new ones. I would follow Jerome Bruner and advocate as a millennial project a National Institute of Education to break new ground by developing educational policy in the light of independent research, and to create what the UK lacks: a national forum with a regional network to debate the future of education and this society.

But the fundamental problems faced by education are neither pedagogical nor created by teachers. Schools in certain areas are in the front line, soaking up some of the pain caused by the reconstruction of industry and the resultant destruction of communities. So we need to reformulate the social and moral purposes of education.

But the one-sidedness of the government's vision is captured in the title of the White Paper on the education and training of 14 to 19-year-olds, who are to learn not to shape the future of British society but "to compete".Together we can do much better. To begin with, we could build a Britain "worth living in and for", a prosperous, just and cohesive society for all age groups and all sections of the population.

We need uplifting new visions, a social theory of learning and a model of change that involves the agents of change, teachers. What we are likely to get, whoever wins the election, is incremental improvement with our hopes naively invested in information technology.

The challenge is to convince the politicians to close the gap between our rising aspirations and their short-term calculations.

Frank Coffield is professor of education at the University of Newcastle and director of the Learning Society Programme

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