Why innovative teaching is unlikely to come from the UK

The World Innovation Summit for Education awards $500,000 to the most innovative teacher - but British attitudes toward education mean that it's unlikely to ever be awarded to a teacher from the UK.

Here's a sentiment that you hear rather a lot in education futurology circles (yes, such circles exist). If you took a doctor from a hundred years ago and dumped him in a modern hospital, he'd be utterly lost: medical science has simply changed too much. Do the same with a Victorian teacher, though, and they'd probably get along fine. It’d take them a while to get used to the fact blackboards were now white and electronic, and lessons about Nazis might present a few challenges – but the basic model, of one teacher talking at a couple of dozen kids, is pretty much unchanged from the 19th century.

This is odd, because it's not as if it works particularly well: just think of all the amazing stuff from science or history that school managed to make about as exciting as Tipp-ex.

So, there are those who think it’s time to shake things up a bit. In between launching global media brands and hosting inappropriate sporting tournaments, the tiny Gulf state of Qatar likes to play host to the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), where teachers, NGOs and former leaders of the Labour party can debate new approaches to schooling. Since 2011 each conference has also honoured one particularly innovative educator by awarding them the WISE Prize, which is worth $500,000 and a big gold medal, and which PR people tend to refer to in suspiciously close proximity to the word “Nobel”.

This year's prize went to sociologist Vicky Colbert, for the Escuela Nueva (New School) model. Invented in 1975 to improve rural schools in Colbert’s native Colombia, Escuele Nueva sees children, effectively, teaching each other. Working together in small groups, the kids work through a series of pre-designed modules at their own pace; their teachers, WISE says, "modify their role from transmitters of facts to facilitators and advisors”. The goal is to teach kids stuff like critical thinking, teamwork and entrepreneurialism. All this is the sort of thing that would bring Michael Gove out in hives, but it’s now been adopted in 16 countries.

There’s another idea that gets a lot of play at events like WISE: the flipped classroom. In a traditional school, a teacher tells kids stuff, then they regurgitate it in homework. The flipped classroom turns this on its head, setting reading or watching a video as homework, then using class time for discussion and practical work. This, its fans say, allows a class to cover more ground. The fact the kids are active in class should mean they learn more, too.

This is all very exciting, and the sort of thing technologists give impassioned speeches about at conferences. (Although there is a limit. This year's WISE included a debate titled 'Can we have education without teachers?'; the panel's swift and unanimous verdict was 'no'.) But I don't think we'll be seeing it on any scale back in Blighty any time soon – and not just because of Michael Gove.

It's possible to shake things up in developing countries because things are not working particularly well at the moment. A lot of kids aren't in school (an estimated 57 million globally), and a lot more than that are in schools that aren't very good. There's no Ofsted looking over their shoulders, scaring them off of taking risks, either: educators have both the motive and the opportunity to try something radical. If it works, it can spread (Escuala Nueva is now Colombian government policy). If it doesn't, hey, it was worth a shot.

Our schools system will be a lot harder to change, paradoxically because it’s actually reasonably good. Enough people got a decent education for the debate to be beset by an epidemic of 'well it worked for me'-ism, a psychological condition in which people assume that any move schools make away from their own experience of education can only be dumbing down. Gove is the most visible proponent of this, but he's far from the only one. Can you imagine how the Daily Mail would feel about a school that described its teachers as ‘facilitators’? Or one who set homework via YouTube? Imagine the reaction if that school failed.

Schools have moved on since Mr Chips hung up his mortar board, of course, not least because of those whiteboards and all the other whizzy technology on offer; there are patches of more radical experimentation out there, too. But I don't think a nationwide rethink of how the classroom works will be on the cards any time soon. Teachers will stay teachers, the classroom will remain un-flipped, and that time travelling will feel right at home. Maybe this is educational 'rigour'. But, just maybe, we're missing out.

Could a Victorian teacher teach in a modern day classroom? Image: Getty

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.