The Transformation of Education

The following essay was sent by Sir John Whitmore to Quinn Simpson and many other friends and colleagues in July 2009.

Over the last two weeks since his passing, many beautiful tributes have been written in his honour by Graydin, The Institute of Coaching and The International Coaching Federation.

Education has failed us badly, and it is failing our children even worse. The fine words and intentions of our politicians will not scratch the surface of the issue. Teachers’ associations and unions, the National College of School Leadership, the department of education, state schools and private schools alike are so focussed on local and short-term concerns that they don’t even know that there is a bigger issue, let alone know what it might be. It is this.

Our educational system is not preparing our children to survive, let alone thrive, in the life they will face once they step out of school and into our troubled world where they will have to take care of themselves. Our current economic crisis and the lack of employment, combined with the pending environmental crises and the lack of solutions, make it all the more imperative to view education through new eyes. Life in the fast-changing and unpredictable world of today calls for flexibility, emotional intelligence, collaboration, wisdom, self-belief and self-responsibility. Why does our education system not address these at all?

The reason is that institutions rarely look outside their own back yard for understanding or solutions. The expression that we ‘cannot see the wood for the trees’ is nowhere more relevant than in schools and academia, for they are still trapped in the silos of reductionism. Scholars pay lip service to whole system thinking, but how many actually engage in it? And how much bigger is the whole system today than it was only a decade ago?

All the following indicators have sprung to the fore in the past decade. Of course they existed long before that, but they are now hugely magnified.

  1. A lack of fulfilment and satisfaction at work
  2. The recent decline in the respect with which corporations are held
  3. The growth of consumerism and anxiety-based acquisition
  4. The power of celebrity and addiction to brands
  5. The failure of capitalism to effect trickle down for the poor
  6. The global dominance of the US-based political/military/corporate cabal
  7. The fast expanding gap between the rich and the poor worldwide
  8. The extent and the impact of climate change that is imminent
  9. The looming global water shortage
  10. The endemic denial, ignorance and selfishness of humanity
  11. Globalisation, immigration and cross-cultural issues
  12. Religious fanaticism in Islam and in the USA in particular

These trends are putting enormous stress on our society and our institutions. Did education not notice them? How are they related to education, and indeed how are they related to each other? Most are effects of the fundamentally flawed economic system that we created, and all are issues that we are obliged to face now, while our children will be even more challenged by them in the future. All twelve are destined to increase to crisis point in the next couple of decades. The problem is that the impact of these issues on our children is already surpassing the relevance of much of what they are now being taught at school. The denial that they are all signs of a far greater malaise is widespread; but their collective impact is already upon us.

Times are changing fast, but the great cumbersome vessel of education is taking a long time to respond, in part because it does not know which way to turn. To find the answer to that, we have to remind ourselves of the purpose of education. Our duty to our children is to prepare them for life and to advise them about what they are likely to meet in the future. However, most teachers and parents alike are unable to informatively discuss the twelve issues above, let alone the big picture. Uncertainty, a lack of comprehension and a lack of leadership are bound to evoke emotional reactions in the young, so outlets for expression and cogent answers will be needed. This puts a huge responsibility onto our schools, so how can they be adequately equipped? However, let us set aside this current list of emerging issues, for the moment, and look at what underlies them all.

To find out how we fell into this situation, we have to go back 200 years to the start of the Industrial Revolution. Prior to that time, mankind had largely lived on its metaphorical income; in other words, we had lived on what we could grow and what we made, largely by hand. Then we raided the bank and plundered the nest egg — the millions of years of stored sunlight energy in the form of coal and oil. We flourished and population and wealth grew fast. We built steel ships, bridges and railways for mass transport and soon came to believe we could engineer our way to utopia.

Then we built cars, trucks and aeroplanes and enough weapons to fight two high-tech high-kill wars, and that was followed by the electronic revolution that took us to the moon and brought so many other exciting benefits. Meanwhile, our education system became increasingly skewed towards quantitative knowledge and technology while the qualitative, literature, art, our spiritual aspirations and wisdom were sidelined in the rush for material gain. Soon we had developed the technology that could destroy all life, by nuclear weapons or unlimited energy emissions, but not the sense to use our knowledge wisely and meet the needs of all of humanity, which we could so easily have done. We now stand on the brink of the sixth extinction.

So our schools became knowledge centres and we entered the knowledge age, and we all but forgot about wisdom. It was not until the bankers and the politicians failed us so badly that we realised that there had been no wisdom in their schoolbag and that we would have to become more self-responsible, for they were not capable of caring for us as we had mindlessly assumed. Yes, they had failed us badly, but so had our schools and schooling, and we failed ourselves and our children by not demanding qualitative education and wisdom teachers, instead of making do with algebra and quantitative league tables.

Most people still say that education is to equip children with the knowledge and the skills they will need to find employment for them to support themselves and their family. So what knowledge do they need and what skills? As more and more up-to-the-minute information is available on the Internet, the ability to access knowledge fast is more important than learning the knowledge itself. While foreign languages would seem to become more important as the world shrinks, English is also now widely spoken everywhere. Manual and manufacturing work has largely left British shores, and so have call centres and the like. Is algebra important today? How important are sport, art, poetry, self-care and healthcare? What about environmental care and resource management? Is there no time to teach wisdom?

What should we tell young children about the purpose of school? Is it really just to get the qualifications to get a job? That is probably the message that is received anyway. What do the schools want? I suspect it is to climb the wretched league tables thereby putting school needs ahead of the children’s wellbeing. It is wisdom that is missing here, the first step to which is emotional intelligence.

In the workplace, the development of emotional intelligence has, not surprisingly, been widely sought during the past decade. Many popular books have appeared on the subject and many training courses in it are now on offer to business. The best known author in the field is Daniel Goleman who reviewed much research on the qualities of the most effective people in the workplace in terms of relationships and productivity. His conclusion was that emotional intelligence or “people skills” are twice as important as academic, technological or intellectual skills for success at work, and more important still for leaders.

EQ designates Emotional intelligence and IQ represents Academic, intellectual or technological knowledge.

School is indeed to prepare our young for work life; we now know why more attention was not devoted to emotional intelligence in school. I have yet to meet anyone who had a single class in it at school, and yet schools could provide an ideal forum for the development of social skills. It is assumed, of course, that children will gain such skills merely by their interaction with each other and with adults, and they do to some extent, but so much more could be done. Of course, other reasons that emotional intelligence is sidelined by schools include time, ignorance about EQ within the school system, the difficulty of measuring qualitative social skills, the focus on ‘techknowledgy’ and the need to deliver measurable quantitative results for the sake of those league tables. What does that say about our schools’ purpose to prepare a child for life or for work? And how do we get back on the wisdom trail?

Beneath the behavioural manifestations of emotional intelligence lies the foundation stone of personal psychological development, which is self- awareness or self-knowledge as it has been traditionally described. Personal development has always been the hallmark of effective people, but today it is paramount for leaders who are faced with so many new challenges. Developmental qualities such as presence, vision, values, fearlessness, self-responsibility, self-mastery, awareness of others, authenticity and agility should be given at least equal standing to academic qualifications or technical skills. Again, schools provide the perfect opportunity at the right age for children to develop their self-awareness. The problem is that, once more, the school establishment and school teachers have little idea what self-awareness is, let alone how to develop it in children. Is that a good enough reason to leave off the school curriculum that which is just about the most valuable thing any child can have?

So what do we really do? We ignore all that and tell children that school is about getting qualified for a job. A child whose sister and father are both out of work or whose brother is in work but is miserable (as is half the work force) is hardly going to be inspired by being told a job is what life is all about. Do not schools have the duty to help children aspire to more than that, especially in our consumer culture where so many jobs are utterly soulless?

The problem is that quantitative academic or technical skills have for too long taken precedence over the ultimately far more life-giving qualitative development of the person, something that many feel to be the very purpose of life itself. That is what we have been told by secular and religious wisdom teachers, poets and playwrights down through the ages, but we still manage to ignore it. Now in the guise of emotional intelligence, it is back on the agenda and it represents a couple of rungs on the ladder of personal psychological development.

Children should know that. They could be taught from an early age that their life will be a unique journey of self-discovery during which they will play, play sport, have a job, help others, have successes, have disappointments, have joy, have a family of their own if they want to, and many other things all as a part of developing themselves. For the youngest, it could be taught as a game of snakes and ladders. How much more inspired they would be to go forward into life, if that was the norm. Do we not owe that to our children?

There is one more step, however. We now know from research and experience in many cultures that humans, collectively and individually, have a proclivity to evolve psychologically through a similar and predictable series of stages. It is as if we are programmed to evolve psychologically, just as we are biologically, for Darwinian survival of the fittest. There are countless models that illustrate this developmental progression. Some address individuals, others address teams and cultures. Some refer to how we think at each stage, others are about what we think, and yet others are about values. Some are very complex multi-stage, multi-dimensional models. Others just consist of three simple stages, such as the progression from Dependence on an authority, through striving for Independence on the way to collective Interdependence. They all can easily be overlaid on each other to reveal a remarkable evolutionary consistency.

Here below are the names and descriptions of the four stages of a model compressed down from more complex ones. This one can be applied to individuals or to cultures, and you will not find it difficult to identify the stage of development currently occupied by some cultures, some corporations, some political leaders, perhaps some of your friends, and, of course, of yourself. It may well cause you some concern when you see where we are and how far we still have to go.

Egocentric (me) A stage characterised by narcissistic self-absorption, bodily needs and desires, emotional outbursts, unsocialised impulses, and an incapacity to take the role of the “other”; seen today predominantly in infants and young children, rebellious teens, wild rock stars, and criminals.

Ethnocentric (us) An expansion of self-identity to include one’s family, peers, tribe, race, faith group, or nation; commonly seen in children aged seven to adolescence, in religious myths and fundamentalism, the “moral majority”, Nazis, the KKK, right wing politics, patriotism, sports teams, school rivalries.

Worldcentric (all of us) An even greater expansion of self to embrace all people, regardless of race, gender, class or creed; a stage of rationality that questions rigid belief systems and transcends conventional rules and roles; commonly seen in late adolescence, social activism, multiculturalism, science, moral relativism, liberal politics, the “global village”, New Age spirituality; the emergence of integral cognition.

Kosmocentric (all that is) An identification with all life and consciousness, human or otherwise, and a deeply felt responsibility for the evolutionary process as a whole; “super-integral” cognition and values; innate universal morality; spirituality beyond mere personal motivations; an emergent capacity, rarely seen anywhere.

Kohlberg and Gilligan

At least if we are aware of this evolutionary journey, we can speed up our own to great benefit to ourselves and to others. As we evolve, we become less selfish, less fearful and less greed driven and more secure, more altruistic and more visionary. It is the lack of these higher qualities, collectively and individually, this lack of wisdom, that has resulted in the appalling destruction of our habitat, the abuse of social justice and the lack of meaning and purpose in our lives. Unless we re-cultivate this more elevated side of ourselves and change direction urgently, our grandchildren will have no life at all.

Is this goal not a more important one for education than a job or league tables? Everyone from the government, the NCSL, the unions, head teachers, all other teachers and, most importantly, parents themselves need to wake up and embrace the challenge of change without fail. Who will take the lead?

© John Whitmore 8th July 2009


Now the National College for Teaching and Leadership, a merging in 2013 of the National College of School Leadership and the Teaching Agency.