Education: Learning to Dream

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To New Labour, schools are factories churning out workers, but how could education be run in an equal society, asks poet Michael Rosen.

When you're in the middle of teaching and lecturing, it's hard and even painful to allow yourself time to imagine what education could be like. And yet it's something we have to do, because the most potent weapon we have has two edges - the dream of something better and the willingness to fight for it. To which we can add: if our dreams are too dreamy no one will join the fight and it is in the fight itself that we will glimpse new dreams.

Okay, so let's dream. Education should be something that anyone, anytime can have. This means that all education has to be free for all. This would immediately release the fantastic facilities of private education for everybody's use and remove any financial barrier to people doing university and postgraduate courses.

There are other obstacles too. Many places of education have invisible signs over the doors which say who can't come in: boys' schools say 'no girls', girls' schools say 'no boys'; Christian schools say 'as few people of other religions or no religion as possible please', Jewish schools say 'no one who isn't Jewish'; a whole set of schools, with names like 'Grammar' or 'Academy' or 'High School' indicate that 'most people can't come in because they haven't passed a test'. These invisible signs are all ways of preventing the majority of children from having the best possible education.

A question of democracy

The only way to create an education system that is fair to everyone is to first abolish these structures, as they secure privilege and create discrimination. The next step is then to create a set of practices within the new system which allow for variety and choice and freedom for all people of all ages.

Top of the list in my dream would be to reduce class size. Our yardstick here can be the one that private education uses. They seem to think that the education of their children requires class sizes that sometimes dip down below ten. This way, the least sparky, least able of their children get into university. The rich also make sure that anyone who needs extra help with one to one contact gets it. That sounds good too, along with all the labs, gyms, swimming pools, school trips and computers that they have.

But what of the curriculum? At present, schools are run at the end of a long line of compulsion. The government lays down what is taught and how it should be taught. It then polices this through a combination of SATs, Ofsted, league tables and selective schools. Far from delivering 'equality' or 'high standards' all this does is create a semi-secret network of selective institutions, a teaching profession constantly constrained in what it can teach, and pupils and students rarely if ever in charge of their own learning. This cycle of compulsion and passivity needs to be broken. At the heart of the matter is a question of democracy: who owns the curriculum? Who owns the running of schools? The bureaucratic police in charge of education at the moment always hold up their hands in horror at the idea that anyone but them should decide. In fact, even within the last 20 years we've seen glimpses of what's possible when another model is offered. For example, within English teaching a moment of liberalism brought in three projects that showed other ways of working. (They were called the 'Literacy Project', the 'Oracy Project' and 'Language in the National Curriculum' or Linc). Experienced teachers, college lecturers and advisers worked with classroom teachers in every locality in the country pooling ideas about best practice. There was a national base to coordinate things but locally teachers came together in conferences and workshops to hear lectures, have seminars, discuss practice and develop materials. It wasn't perfect. Nervous inspectors could often be seen hovering in the background. It was clear right from the start that the government wasn't 100 percent behind it and indeed at the crucial moment when the materials being developed were about to be published, the government of the day abolished the lot, and the projects were disbanded. Someone noticed that the whole thing had smelt dangerously of workers' control and we moved into the first phases of what Professor Ted Wragg dubbed 'Mad Curriculum Disease'.

As I say, it was a glimpse of what can happen if in education you work with the idea that teachers thrive on cooperation, sharing ideas and enthusiasms, opportunities for personal and professional development, help from experienced practitioners, and opportunities for investigation and research in their own classrooms and schools. Now, in a society that was going through or had achieved a transformation in the ownership of the means of production, it's safe to say that other models of democracy would emerge. For a start, the model I've described might appear as far too 'professional' and inward looking. Parent groups and work committees might want a say in what goes on. After all it's the parents' kids being educated and it's places of work that benefit (or not) from what's taught; it's society and the world that can progress when people are learning and discovering the best ways to live and produce what we need.

Meanwhile, there are the pupils and students themselves. There's a principle at stake here - how does someone take charge of their own learning? Most people thrive on a combination of social and private, practical and theory, talking and writing, listening and speaking. This combination needs to be embedded in a democratic process. That's to say, the people doing the learning need to have some say in how the place of learning is run, how courses are run and what is on offer. At the moment, though, the only model we have of teaching and learning is that a teacher teaches and a learner learns. We desperately need other models, so that we don't go on reinforcing passivity and resentment. It's not impossible to imagine places of education where the people we usually identify as teachers are often sitting as students and vice versa. At present, these moments occur either as carnivalesque treats or as aberrations. I suggest that everyone in a place of education gets to teach and learn.

Hierarchy of knowledge

But what would be the substance of this education? The major obstacle for learners in schools is a false division of what they call intelligence. Education has broken knowledge up into 'subjects' that neither correspond to parts of the brain nor to the real world. Instead they are descendants of a mixture of medieval and 19th century ideas. This false subject division also involves a hierarchy of knowledge, that is to say, some knowledges or intelligences are regarded as better than others. Written is regarded as better than oral, theoretical better than practical, factual, logical and empirical better than imaginative and creative, mind better than hand, brain better than body. Society cannot thrive and develop, we cannot take control of the world's resources in a fair and democratic way if we proceed with these ancient hierarchies and divisions. Individual humans are intelligent in different ways. At present education proceeds by ranking pupils and students according to their success in a very narrow range of abilities - mostly logical and mathematical ones. The rest, unless they have private education, are shunted around in what the pupils themselves perceive as less important courses for people like them who are 'not intelligent'. In one stroke, we teach the majority of people (mostly working class) that they are incapable human beings. It frequently takes lifetimes of struggle either on a personal basis, or through politics, community or 'clubs and societies', to prove to people that they are full human beings. Only when an education system can develop that never penalises people by marking certain kinds of knowledge and ability as inferior will we see human society develop to the benefit of all.

One last thought: testing and exams. The place to start here is, who are the tests for? At the end of the education process, society will want to know that people who say that they can mend a pipe, a heart or a bridge can actually do so. Some kind of guarantee is needed but my guess is that this doesn't have to be a test or an exam. It probably doesn't have to be much more than a set of guarantees from teachers and students that someone took part in the education process required and produced ideas and work together with everyone else. At earlier stages in education, the only tests that anyone should have, ought surely to be ones that help the learner. Together with teachers and parents, children could devise the games and tests which are then looked at by all concerned with a view to seeing what could be done next. As part of this, systems of profiling and portfolios do the job of assessment, self assessment and development much, much better than anything that goes by the name of test or exam under the present regime.

If we do away with the old subject boundaries and hierarchies and exams we open places of education up to people of all ages, all abilities. We also make them places where the boundaries between lessons, clubs, social activity, sport and the arts are broken down. Learning how to get the most out of what's available would be at the heart of a person's education. If this was taking place at the heart of a society committed to a world being run for the benefit of all, then the priorities that would emerge (let's say, overcoming drought, or poor housing) would help people make choices and give people direction and hope.

Michael Rosen's new book of poems, This Is Not My Nose, is reviewed in this issue.