Time for a radical shake-up

Piecemeal change is not enough. The real need is still for a sustained, systemic shift to entirely n

Most people now accept that there is a major crisis in the world's natural climate and that it's got something to do with how human beings have been behaving for the past 300 years. In the interests of industrialism, we've looted a selection of the earth's resources and imperilled all of them. One climate crisis is probably enough for you. But I believe there is another one whose origins are the same and whose consequences are equally perilous. This is a crisis of human resources.

The evidence is growing that we are systematically wasting the talents and the sensibilities of countless people, young and old and that the social and economic costs are immense. Education is at the heart of the problem. Why is this and what are the implications?

Governments everywhere are busily trying to reform education systems. This is good but it is not enough. The real challenge is to transform them.

There are many attempts all around the world to do just this. Some of these are coordinated by networks of educators, like the International Network for Educational Transformation; others, as in the UK, by government agencies like the Innovation Unit, by private philanthropy like the Paul Hamlyn and Gulbenkian Foundations, by independent think tanks such as the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), and by specific programmes like Headteachers into Industry.

Transforming education means questioning some of the basic features of education that are often taken for granted. One of them is the distinction between academic and practical education.

Current systems of mass education are an awkward hybrid of 18th-century cultural aspirations and 19th-century economics. They emerged in the 19th century to meet the demands of the new industrial economies. Those demands had a profound effect on the organisation of mass education. But the culture of education was moulded by the intellectual preoccupations of the Enlightenment. These two forces, the one economic, the other a view of the mind, have often been at odds with each other. Over time, the tensions between them have buckled and distorted the systems they created.

Organisationally, education systems were not only developed in the interests of industrialism but in its image. For example, they are front-loading. They focus on young people, purportedly to prepare them for something that happens to them later. They are based on standardised curricula and systems of assessment that promote conformity not diversity. They are linear, with students grouped by age, progressing through the system in batches. It seems the most important thing they have in common is their date of manufacture.

They are also driven by assumptions of economic utility. This is one of the reasons for the hierarchy of subjects in schools: maths, languages and sciences at the top, the humanities and the arts near the bottom. Teaching beyond primary schools is based on the division of labour among separate specialists. To this extent schools function something like assembly plants. I could go on.

The organisation of mass education may be modelled on industrialism, but its intellectual culture owes more to the Enlightenment. Ironically, although public education emerged to meet practical, economic needs, it is rooted in a view of the mind that venerates theoretical knowledge over its practical application. The hierarchy of subjects is based in part on assumptions about economic utility. Students are often steered away from arts courses, for example, on the basis that they won't get a job as a musician, artist, writer or dancer. But there is another force at work.

On the whole, students are not discouraged from doing mathematics on the basis that they won't find work as mathematicians. This is because our education systems are dominated by particular ideas of academic intelligence. Students are divided into sheep and goats on that basis. The other abilities of many students are stifled or squandered. This is why some of the smartest people in the country passed through the whole of their education thinking they weren't. At the heart of the system is an intellectual caste system, which is educationally bankrupt, economically inadequate and culturally corrosive.

Transforming education means thinking in radically different ways about human capabilities and acting differently to cultivate them. This was the essential message almost 10 years ago of All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education, the report I chaired for the UK government. Although at the time the government's embrace of the report was less than rapturous, the principles it promoted have been surfacing in bits and pieces in national educational initiatives ever since. But piecemeal change isn't enough. The real need is still for a sustained, systemic shift to entirely new styles of education.

There are three main processes in education: the curriculum, which is what students are meant to learn; pedagogy, which is how learning is facilitated; and assessment, which is how judgments are made about progress and achievement. Transforming education involves all of these. At the heart of this movement there has to be a sharper understanding of what really motivates people to learn at all and of the multiple talents through which human beings thrive and communities prosper. It means a shift from conformity to diversity, from standardisation to personalisation and from a hierarchy of subjects to a genuine ecology of talent.

A few weeks ago, I was privileged to be given the Benjamin Franklin medal by the RSA. The RSA was founded in 1754, at the height of the Enlightenment and in the early days of industrialism. Franklin was one of its early members. An inventor, entrepreneur and political visionary, he was always the first to question what other people took for granted. The systems of education that emerged from that period may have been right for their times. They are wrong for ours. Reinventing education for the 21st century means challenging assumptions that too many people take for granted now. If he were living in our times, I've no doubt that Franklin and his kind would be leading the charge for change.

Sir Ken Robinson is an internationally recognised leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources. He has worked with governments, international agencies, Fortune 500 companies, not-for-profit corporations and some of the world's leading cultural organisations. His new book, The Element: A New View of Human Capacity, will be published by Penguin in February 2009

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.