A lecture on dynamic learning


I’ve always enjoyed the gentle irony of progressive education: its high priests, while invariably eschewing traditional forms of instruction, can always be relied upon to preach from the front. And so it was on a wet and windy Wednesday in half term that I went to Green Park to listen to Charles Leadbeater give a lecture on ‘dynamic’ learning. The full title of the event: ‘A new global learning movement: how we make education dynamic.’ Now, I like lectures. So don’t think for a second that I have any issue whatsoever with the format of the morning. And the Royal Institution is a perfect venue for it. Established in 1799, by the leading British scientists of the age, its explicit aim is the ‘diffusion of knowledge’.

But, as a teacher, it always sticks in the craw when someone – who either has never or who no longer teaches – lectures you about not lecturing. I’ve had it before from Ofsted inspectors and it really grinds my gears.

The reason for this is because lecturing people works. You can say it to them. Or they can read it themselves. But the basic mechanics of instruction are not altogether that complicated. That’s why Charles Leadbeater chose to speak to us (admittedly with a smattering of pair work) from the front. And, in evolutionary terms, our brains haven’t changed much in the last 2000 years. If direct instruction, memorisation and practice were good ways of passing information between generations in AD 16, they’ll probably work in AD 2016, too. Leadbeater’s argument is rooted in the same sort of inscrutable prophecy making as Ken Robinson’s: the next 20 years will be radically different to the last 2000. The corollary of this, according to their argument, is that we should radically change our modes of instruction to spend more time on personal agency, social awareness and personal skills and less time on that devil-word – knowledge.

But for all Leadbeater’s valiant attempts to win me round, I just don’t buy it. At the core of his argument is that ‘the purpose of education needs to shift from learning to follow instructions to learning to solve problems.’ But the more Leadbeater told me about how the next 20 years would be different from the last 2000, the more the juxtaposition of those words in that place seemed to jar. I was sitting in the same institution that had been founded by Cavendish and had at various times been graced by the likes of Faraday, Dewar and Perutz. If you want some good examples of problem-solving then what about ‘How does an electro-magnetic field work?’ or ‘What does the molecular structure of haemoglobin look like?’

And, for me, this is the sort of category error perpetuated by progressives: problem solving (a skill that we all want to see our pupils achieve) is totally dependent on domain specific knowledge. That is why Faraday, Dewar and Perutz were able to problem-solve (in their fields) and it’s why traditional teacher-led instruction necessarily precedes the activity of problem solving (the making of connections of between items of knowledge). It’s why classroom activities or schemes of work that distract from the basic task of absorbing new knowledge can be, at best, a distraction and, at worst, an incredibly damaging opportunity cost, particularly in the formative stages of instruction. Lucy Crehan did a good job at holding Leadbeater’s feet to the fire on this in the Q&A session, but it’s so important, and so easily misunderstood, that it needs repeating.

Then there was the more intractable philosophical conundrum of what education is for. I’m pretty clear on this: for me, education is the passing on of what we already know about the world to another generation. Its economic utility is not our objective. A helpful by-product? Definitely. But not its purpose. I don’t think Leadbeater is so sure. He justifies ‘dynamic’ learning on the basis that ‘better paid and more fulfilling jobs will require non-routine problem solving.’ The financier I spoke to over coffee was clear. He called it the ‘bifurcation’ of the jobs market: a world where some people create jobs and some people work for them. Lurking behind the flim and the flam of the supposedly progressive 21st century skills agenda is a more slippery argument about preparing workers for jobs that do not yet exist.

And here we get to the worrying relationship with the private sector. Now, I’m no Marxist, but even I find the influence of profit in education unsettling from time-to-time. I don’t think the Leadbeaters of the world are necessarily just out to make a quick buck; I know that there are many teachers and many educationalists who really do believe that the principles of instruction need to be radically overhauled. However, the older I get the more sceptical I become: Who is paying for this? What financial stake do they have in its success? And – the most important question of all – how much will it cost them to change their minds? (Sir Ken keeps popping up on my Twitter feed advertising Persil. Imagine how much money he stands to lose if John Hattie suddenly finds out that #dirtisbad?)

Half way through the lecture we were asked to discuss with our partner whether the picture of a washing machine was a fair representation of the sort of world that young people are going in to. It was on this that Leadbeater justified a new ‘dynamic’ form of learning.

I turned to my left, keen to hear what the lady next to me thought about this crucial predicate in the 21st-century skillogism:

‘Oh, I’m in marketing for Pearson. I’m just here to watch.’ Well, quite.

And it was interesting because as I looked around I suddenly understood why I had felt under-dressed from the beginning (I really wish people would specify dress codes to these things…): the vast majority of the people attending the conference were not practising classroom teachers. This was a room populated by educational consultants, higher education lecturers or Pearson employees. Actual sweat-blood-and-bile classroom teachers were thin on the ground.

I know this because I went back to the Eventbrite page and counted the number of registrations that could possibly count as someone who works in a school. Of the 223 who had registered to the event, I counted 32 whose employer was a school, ‘Teach First’ or university (the latter could conceivably be doing a PGCE). But let’s say that I’ve miscounted and there were actually 40. That’s 18% of the room if all those who had registered turned up. I suspect it was fewer.

One of the most perverse of the perverse incentives in education is novelty. Sometimes what is new IS what works: I tell anyone who will listen that Quizlet is the best things since bottled Doom Bar. But often what is new does not work. And to seek the new for its own sake (or, dare I say it, for the sake of profit) is a dangerous distraction when distractions are the last thing our education system needs.