What is school for?

Ross Ashcroft of Renegade Inc. interviews Graham Brown-Martin

This interview was recorded for Renegade Inc on September 7th 2016 and first appeared on the Renegade community. Reposted here with kind permission.

Meet the Renegades — Graham Brown-Martin


Graham: Hello, I’m Graham Brown-Martin. My interests are in innovation, society and education. I’ll be talking about how we can transform our education systems to help young people meet the challenges that face their generation for today and tomorrow.

What is school for?

Ross: So Mark Twain famously said that he didn’t allow his schooling to interfere with his education. You’ve dedicated an enormous amount of your life, probably because of a lot of experiences that you’ve had schooling right through, to reforming education but also redesigning school. A lot of people now you speak to when you talk about their schooldays, it’s Marmite a lot of the time. They either loved them or a lot of them have had traumatic experiences. How, when we sit here in 2016, do you begin to start thinking about designing schools that are fit for A, the workplace and B, human beings?

Graham: I think that’s a very good question and that’s really what’s been driving me, certainly during the last 10 years. When I set up Learning Without Frontiers, it was really a way of bringing together a lot of people from different aspects of my career. So there were filmmakers, musicians, graffiti artists, scientists, academics, of course educators, and the point there was to have a new conversation about the future of learning but also the future of how our schools work and I think that was really in response to a fairly eclectic career. To be honest I wasn’t a career educator. I started off in educational technology by accident as a young man and built a number of companies in that field and then disappeared into the entertainment industry, so record labels, disrupting the music industry and feature films and so forth.

So coming back into the UK in 2004, it seemed like a good idea to try and bring these disparate people together because it struck me that, and with a young daughter in tow, that the education system hadn’t changed very much in a long time. As a sort of an adjunct to that, I remember my young daughter when she was four or five asking her … My mother, her nana, “What was school like when you were at school, nana?” And she said, “Probably the same.” And I don’t think my mother meant that in the way that it came out but I think she was absolutely right. And so I embarked really 10 years ago on this sort of obsessive interest in why school was like it was, why education was like it was, what it’s purpose was and there’s a variety of answers to it, of course.

The old answer was that you go to school, you work hard, you get good grades, you go to university, you get a good degree, you get a job for life and in a way that was the sort of big lie of education that education was this passport to job security, a job for life and so forth and there may well have been a time in human history where that was true, certainly in Western countries like the UK, Europe, America and so forth but it’s certainly not true now and so the question then becomes what is school for now? What do we need? And that’s when you start getting into the strange debates or viewpoints. There’s still very much a view and I think that one of the problems is that the education or the … Particularly in global education has been the conversation has been dominated by economists.

Ross: Which by the way is a disaster.

Graham: Economics is a sort of poor relation of the social sciences in the sense that it’s not … I’m not suggesting it’s entirely useless but because it has a sense of using mathematics and spreadsheets and so forth and data and evidence …

Ross: And makes the assumption that human beings are rational.

Graham: Exactly, it makes … And treats human beings as data and so forth. You get a response that increases in GDP mean that wellbeing and everything else is increased, so those metrics I don’t think are working. So what else is education for? I think that often we think about grades and the qualifications and so forth but they’re really the sort of proxies for wanting our children to live well, to live well in the world and so forth and then when you start thinking about what does living well in the world really mean?

Ross: But isn’t that a better question? How do I now live well?

The challenges of this generation

Graham: And I think that’s the point. I think that when we start asking … Back to your original question is how do we design schools? How would I design a school? I think we have to understand what our purpose is. And so when we start looking at purpose then it’s like think about wellbeing, think about maybe the purpose of education is for the benefit of all. Maybe the purpose of education is to equip this generation with the skills and knowledge to meet the challenges of their generation. I look at my children, I look at the children that are going into school now. So what does the world look like for them in their lifetime? What does the world look like in this century? What we do know about this century and it’s quite clear, we know population is going to grow very fast. It’s grown very fast since I’ve been alive. When I was born, there was about 3.5 billion. Now there’s 7. By the end of this century, there’ll be by the most conservative estimates 11 billion people.

Where is the population growing? The continent of Africa, for example, and I pick on that one for very specific reasons which I’ll come to, that’ll be 4 billion people end of this century. So not some far off Star Trek thing but end of this century, 4 billion people. We know that climate change is a thing. We can argue about the reasons and so forth but we know it’s a thing. We know antibiotic resistance is a thing. We know ideology is a thing. We know an ageing population and diversity and these are not necessarily dystopian issues, they’re simply challenges which the children going into school today have to be able to solve. When we start putting those things together is when it becomes interesting, when you start comparing population growth with climate change, for example. Now in the global North, the impacts of climate change are going to be comparatively trivial compared to what’s happening in the global South and the equatorial regions.

So back to our continent of Africa, it is less equipped to deal with the impact of climate change than, say, Europe, which not only affects the population of Africa but also affects all of us because in a globalised world, we are interdependent whether we like it or not. We’re seeing an example. The first example of mass migration of people is a result of climate change in Syria. Now yes, that’s escalated into warfare and so forth but the start of that conflict was the result of lack or irrigation and so forth, which then escalated as I said but only four million people looking for homes, our fellow human beings looking for homes. When I was doing my book, I spent a week living in a refugee camp with families and children and teachers and so forth. And no one chooses to do that. It’s not Glastonbury, do you know what I mean? It’s quite tough, especially in the winter. And the point is we’ve caused a lot of fuss about that in Europe, particularly in the UK.

As we’ve seen with Brexit, which was highly based around immigration and xenophobia and racism, let’s call it racism because that’s what it was. If we do nothing in terms of what’s happening in terms of the stuff that we actually genuinely know that isn’t just some futures vaporware, there’ll be 400 million people on the move in the children’s lifetime that are going to school today. That’s a huge number, of course. That’s more than the population of Europe and we’re not equipped to have any of those conversations or allow the next generation, the children that are coming through to make the decisions that will make the world a better place because we haven’t embedded the notion of for the benefit of all.

Ross: And this hyper-individualism that has been rampant in schools, certainly since Margaret Thatcher I think intensified it, but we have had this if I do well then … I’m all right, Jack mentality but what you’ve just done with just listening to you talk there is you’ve painted a huge amount of context but when we start talking education in school, we go right down to a very narrowly defined definition and we might think all these things are happening fine but ultimately we think it doesn’t have anything to do with us.

Graham: Yeah. I think that’s a good reflection. This is what has I think prevented us as a species confronting the issues around environmental change, around population, the fact that we have a global system which means the majority have less so the minority can have more and the growing inequalities are indeed becoming very sharp in that regard, even in what we would’ve regarded as traditional middle classes, the middle class squeeze and so forth. We are now seeing a ever smaller number of global corporations vacuuming up the wealth from all over the world and depositing it somewhere where it’s not paying back into society. This seems like a sort of a zero-sum game actually because we talk about companies like Apple and Google and Facebook and so forth being disruptive but they’re not disruptive at all. If anything, they’re calcifying structures, societal structures of the Industrial Age, calcifying that into the Digital Age. We still have a white, patriarchy. That’s being embedded within the digital landscape. Even if you want to think of it as a new Industrial Age through digital, it’s embedding those principles, those ideas, those concepts at a structural level. Then in turn, that’s what we’re seeing in education now.

Ross: What does that mean?

Frictionless cultural transmission and reproduction

Graham: So in education, we know of E. D. Hirsch was a sort of management and education guru from the United States.

Ross: The word guru always terrifies me.

Graham: Of course and of course, he follows in a long tradition of other gurus such as Frederick Taylor, the manufacturing guru and Juran and Deming, the total quality manufacture …

Ross: Now I am … That’s terrifying.

Graham: And you should be terrified because this is what’s happening with global education now. In public and state education globally is the power and control ois being transferred to large multinational corporations. Now the problem with that is that, going back to E. D. Hirsch, who has this idea of foundational knowledge, which sounds like a great idea.

Ross: Love it so far.

Graham: But it’s core knowledge, it’s a sort of cultural transmission.

Ross: What does that mean?

Graham: It’s the sort of foundation. The idea is that in order to progress through the education system, you have to have a core level of knowledge, so a sort of foundational knowledge from which you then gain more knowledge, which in principle sounds like a good idea, of course. So you learn to read and write, learning number, frameworks, concepts and so forth but even then you run up against immediate problems because in its rush to standardise education, quite often the language of use for that will be English. So when we say literacy, for example, in developing countries, we mean English. So sort of a neocolonialism. Why is that a problem?

It’s a problem in lots of ways, of course, and linguists will tell you much more about that and language experts will have much more knowledge but at a simple level, it means that the language and the mother tongue of entire communities becomes frozen in time because the language of science and mathematics and engineering and art and so forth is constantly. Language is organic and so that grows in English and not in the mother tongue, which means that the mother tongue isn’t used as frequently and the problem with that is that there are whole concepts and views and thoughts … I think I’m right in saying that Danish has something like 30 different names for the word friend and they’re all different kinds of friend but we don’t in English. It’s quite a reductive language in that respect.

And so we see a sort of reductionism in that cultural transmission, we’re also providing a number of structural reinforcements in terms of how society operates. So the sort of structures that we know that exist in society today. Structural oppression, structural racism and so forth, these become embedded in some of that. So really at a young age, the issue then is that education as a globalised commodity operates on the basis of standardisation and so from again, Frederick Taylor, I mentioned him earlier who was a manufacturing guru…

Ross: He’s arguably the world’s first management consultant.

Graham: Well he was arguably the world’s first management consultant but also the first user of big data in the sense that what he was trying to do and with good reason was to transform craft production into mass production. So where you had craft on a manufacturing line, if we could simply measure what people were doing to create that car or to create that spoon or cup or what have you, if we could just measure the processes and get them absolutely right, we could get to a point where we didn’t have to have craftspeople on the production line.

Ross: You could actually just get a utilitarian worker.

Graham: You could get a utilitarian worker, give them a limited amount of training and put them to work. Now in education, we’re seeing that happening in fact.

Ross: The Taylor approach. The Taylorism.

Graham: Neo-Taylorism, which is this idea of measurement and so if we take the E. D. Hirsch type model of this is the content that we have to transmit, so it’s about a conversation about what education is for. Is education about the transmission of content? There’s a whole body of opinion that believe education is all about subject matter, subject material, that we need to transfer this subject material into your head and then test to make sure it’s stuck. Now you would have gone through an education system like that. I would’ve gone through an education system like that.

Ross: Yeah. Not very enjoyable.

Graham: Not enjoyable at all. I was expelled, I never finished it, so I don’t have a GCSE or an O-level to my name and I’m quite happy with that, although I have to say being born white and male was probably the best break that I ever had but nevertheless, it wasn’t for me because in one sense that’s all based around factory approach. It’s all based around standardisations and so forth. Now this is not a new conversation about education. This conversation about education has been going on for the past 30 or 40 years. The reason why it’s become more relevant today is because of digital technology. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the transformative nature of technology and as a young man, I got a job at a computer manufacturer in Oxford. I was like 17 just turning 18, I had blue punk hair and all this kind of stuff.

I ended up being the taxi driver and demonstrator for a gentleman called Seymour Papert who was an artificial intelligence pioneer with Marvin Minsky many years ago and was also a fabulously visionary educator and was effectively the father of an educational theory called constructionism, which talks about education not as a transmission of knowledge but as a reconstruction. So it’s about experiential learning, it’s how … I think in a way it’s much deeper learning, isn’t it? Rather than being able to recite the kings and queens of England and so forth, to be able to demonstrate that you can do something and I think my interest in technology and education originally stemmed from Seymour Papert. For me as a kid who was very intense, that I’d want to dive deep, not shallow into certain subjects, for me the advent of a microcomputer and the pervasive computing would allow young people to have this very much amplified learning and experiential learning and building projects around … And the way we work today in the real world.

We’re agile with computers. There’s no end of things that we can do by finding information, connecting with people and so forth. When I met Seymour, which would’ve been in the early 80s, I think that we all believed computers would have this profound impact in education but what’s actually happened is that computers and technology are being used to reinforce the ways of 19th century school. So rather than create new ways of learning, new pedagogies, it’s actually reinforced the purpose of school as passing tests. The purpose of school has become content distribution and so in a sense, we’re not changing or transforming our education systems for the better because we are tied into a business model which consists of content ownership and assessment.

The tyranny of measurement

Ross: Dissemination. Dissemination and assessments.

Graham: So effectively we’ve got the public education systems effectively distributing content produced by and owned and copyrighted by a corporation and you have to distribute that content because that’s the content that’s going to be tested on by the examination which is also owned by the same company.

Ross: So let me just flag up one big flaw in their plan, that people are starting … We’re having this conversation. Some people are watching this conversation. People realise, or people are starting to realise that that standardisation, that sameness, that mediocrity, with the occasional burst of colour from the private sector or whatever, isn’t going to equip people for the future. So people are starting to self-learn, they’re doing self-paced learning, they’re thinking differently about the world, they’re watching all sorts of things across the internet and let’s come to WBEH, the centre can’t hold because you can’t keep … You can’t centralise in this way, keep everybody happy and expect that this throng of people will just compete with each other all the time and out of that, we’ll get to some brave new world. Human beings are too complex, too varied, too culturally aware now, they’re informed and they don’t want to comply with that overarching narrative. Or am I just the utopian, panglossian guy who thinks, “Oh, well … We’ll be all right.”

Graham: I think probably you and I are both idealists in a way and despite seeing potential problems in the future, are optimists about the human spirit.

Ross: Totally. Otherwise, why do all of this? No point …

Graham: Exactly. What’s the point? And I certainly am optimistic and when I talk about the challenges that my children and your children face, I don’t mean that in a dystopia. It’s like saying, “Oh, look. We’re almost out of milk. Someone needs to go to the shop.” Do you know what I mean?

Ross: I love that. All those things and you’ve pulled it down to, “Oh, just some milk, mate.”

Curation, Resilience, Context & Curiosity

Graham: But we have to deal with challenge.

Ross: As we conclude, a lot of people watching this now are saying, “Graham, you’re right but I’m locked into this. I want to do the best for my kids. I want to do … I want them to have a … Who doesn’t want them to have a wonderful life and successful future and financially secure and all those things? How do I navigate this? I don’t want to rip up … I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I don’t want to go and live in the woods and be some … “

Graham: White survivalist.

Ross: Prepper. Loony with a tinfoil hat. I don’t want any of that. I just want them to have the best possible education so they can live well. I don’t want them to be a billionaire. Might be quite nice.”

Graham: Well I’m hoping that one of them will be because I’ve spent my pension.

Ross: Me too. I’m just looking at my daughter going, “Professional golf, you like it, do you? I’m a great agent.” But people are sitting here now going, “Yeah but what do I do? How do I navigate this?” Three things that people can do now to ensure themselves against corporate interests not delivering the best education for their children.

Graham: The research, which is the good news, is actually that your child can go to a pretty crappy school, but if you as a parent are interested and remain interested and remain engaged in your child’s education, that is the biggest factor in terms of their success.

Ross: Right, great. Because that means we’ve got autonomy. We don’t feel helpless.

Graham: Exactly and it is great providing you have reached a position in your life where you have that capability. Of course there’s an awful lot of people who, from a position of employment or wealth or whatever, that just don’t have that capability. There’s people that are holding down three jobs. We live in a society where, living in London, if you’re on minimum wage, just getting from zone 4 to zone 1 is an hour, do you know what I mean? So yes, the good news is if you’re engaged in your child’s education, if you participate and you’re interested and you provide the opportunities for enrichment. Take them out and build something in the back garden or at the park, to galleries which are free, engage in those things if you can.

Ross: So we curate our education and we’re interested in our children, great. Second thing because they come home and they say, “Yeah but little Johnny has got an A and I’ve got a B,” and there is that intense competition which some people … And I just didn’t thrive in that environment.

Graham: The second thing then, and of course I’m having this conversation a lot with my own kids, it’s trying to find that balance between giving your child a useful amount of pressure because there is a sort of a fetishization I think around failure. Now, a wise man once said to me, “It’s better to be a flamboyant failure than a benign success,” and I’ve been very good at the former, so …

Ross: I’m stealing that.

Graham: On the flipside, yes, children need to be able to fail safely but there’s a reason why failure hurts because that’s where we get our best lessons. Losing for me is a much more powerful emotion than winning.

Ross: Totally.

Graham: Give your child an environment where they can fail but also don’t let them lose the opportunities to fail in terms of building up their own resilience because I think that’s important.

Ross: Excellent. So we’ve got curation and we feel autonomous because we can do that. We’ve got that ability to build self-resilience.

Graham: Yes.

Ross: Lastly …

Graham: Curiosity.

Ross: Excellent. Okay.

Graham: Curiosity I think is key and I think that curiosity is back to this industrialisation of education because it doesn’t allow for curiosity because the teacher who may want to stimulate curiosity and creativity and so forth is under so much pressure to get those kids through that content. “I’ve got to get the kids through this content.”

So they can go through a spreadsheet and tick it and say, “I’ve done it.”

Graham: Because that’s how they’re rewarded, do you know what I mean? You imagine how soul-destroying that is for the teacher?

So the biggest problem that we face in education right now is disengaged teachers.

Ross: Cool. So curation, self-resilience …

Graham: Curiosity.

Ross: And curiosity. And really the thing that struck me that you’ve talked about throughout this interview is context.

Graham: Yes, context. Of all of this thing, all of those elements that you’ve got there, what I learnt from travelling to 36 cities in 18 countries and five or so times around the world, lots of different contexts from being in a refugee camp on the Syrian border, up a mountain after an earthquake in China, out in rural Bihar but then also in Silicon Valley at High Tech High, the offices of Google and so forth, so a very diverse, very cultural mix. What I learnt from that, in education it’s the context that is king, not the content and yet we have an education system which is all about distribution of content and then testing retention, a sort of globalised version. And the problem with that is we end up with a sort of algorithmic culture, an intellectual monoculture, if you like.

Ross: Which is incredibly fragile.

Graham: It’s incredibly fragile because in a monoculture, as in the natural life, biodiversity is great because if there’s a threat, you have multiple solutions to that challenge. If you end up having a monoculture, as we know from farming and so forth that there’s a threat that gets wiped out and we do have threats now. We have threats to our society and threats to our species. We have species-level threats. We know what they are as I mentioned earlier, population, environment, antibiotic resistance and so forth. So in a sense, education relies on human beings who relate that context because it’s an individual thing, it’s a true personalisation and so rather than deskilling the profession and not investing in the teaching profession, we need to invest more in that. We need to elevate that profession but what we’re seeing at the moment is this … And indeed as we’ve seen in parts in the global South, which will come into the global North, is an attempt to reduce the cost, the human cost of teaching by effectively de-unionising and having unskilled practitioners. Effectively reading 19th century education scripts from a tablet to a bunch of kids.

Ross: That will not do. We have to … And because I’ll be honest, when you started talking I thought, “My God, there are so many challenges,” but actually at the end of this piece, I now feel a lot more empowered because you can take the autonomy back and say, “We can curate. We can build self-resilience. We can also engender that curiosity.” And provided the context is right and we keep talking about the context, you can … Children can survive this draconian system that’s trying to be supplanted from where it is at the moment onto a population that frankly don’t … It won’t be useful for.

Graham: I agree. The key really is to open this conversation to a much wider audience or the general public. At the end of the day, the education structure, the education superstructure exists by our consent through the democratic processes and so forth. We need I believe parents to become more involved in this conversation, it needs to be opened up so that there is discourse around this and to be involved because do you want to send your child to a factory? Do you want your child to have a factory education? Think about what it is, why you’re sending your child to school.

Ross: Graham, thank you very much for coming. Congratulations on the book. It’s no mean feat, right? Look at the size of it.

Graham: It’s a real door stopper, that.

Ross: Learning Reimagined, how the connected society is transforming learning. This is a Renegade Inc pin and it’s for those who think differently. You certainly do.

Graham: Brilliant, I shall wear this with pride. Thank you very much.

Ross: Thanks for coming by.

Graham: Thank you.

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