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 is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.