Alex Beard is part of an interesting new generation of teachers: young, bright graduates, often educated privately or at Oxbridge, who have rejected the corporate or consultancy path and chosen instead to work in disadvantaged state schools. Some, having quit teaching relatively early on (a 2016 study found that Teach First, the natural home of many such graduates, has lower rates of retention than other routes into the profession), have since moved on to influential positions in policymaking, educational leadership or the media.
During Michael Gove’s early period as education secretary, a few of this generation, supremely sure that they alone held the key to future excellence, turned their polemical firepower on the supposed weaknesses of an earlier generation of progressive educators. As the coalition-era reforms falter and fail, Beard wisely takes a different approach: by looking to the future, not to the past, and by going further afield, to examine experiments and systems around the world.
He begins with his unhappy experience as a novice teacher in a south London academy. Coming to the job brimming with dreams of Plato’s academy and Robin Williams’s turn as an inspirational teacher in Dead Poets Society, the reality of life teaching English proves a brutal awakening. His pupils are bored and mildly disruptive, and he can’t seem either to improve their marks or get them to engage. Yet he “quickly found that there was no fundamental difference between them and the kids I’d been at school with… but where society had given us a leg-up, it was letting these kids down”. There must, he concludes, be a better way.
So begins a dazzlingly fast-paced journey through the classrooms and laboratories of the globe in an attempt to tackle the Big Questions of our age. Could artificial intelligence, for example, boost the potential learning power of all? Not according to the latest experiments in neuroscience that prove that robots cannot substitute for “the embodied, emotive, subjective” sophistication of language acquisition or the complex processes at the heart of successful teaching and learning. The extraordinary feats of the contemporary technological revolution can, at best, be put at the service of what Beard sees as the ever more noble craft of teaching.
A seemingly star-struck observer of every classroom and teacher he encounters, the author cleverly lays a snail’s trail of humanist scepticism. Impressed by the relentless work ethic instilled in disadvantaged students in US charter schools and one celebrated London academy, Beard also recognises that the cult of sheer grinding effort risks ending up like the punishing South Korean system, where teenagers work insane hours and seriously imperil their emotional well-being.
While he concedes that grit is necessary to survive the gruelling global race to the top into which most education systems are locked, he is drawn to the creativity of the surreally laid back Finnish model. Here, des-pite little formal testing, mixed ability classes (enforced by law) and lessons that sound improbably fun, the country still comes out near the top of the global league tables.
Learning-by-doing is not just a progressive pedagogy; it pays off in the contemporary economy. At “42”, a teacher-free, 24/7 university based in Paris, where aspiring web developers work together to solve increasingly difficult challenges, every graduate moves into a well-paid job in the tech sector, the book claims. At High Tech High in California, “open-source” learning and team work is producing teenagers “already doing the type of work for which someone might hire them, so high were the standards”. It’s the kind of schooling the Confederation of British Industry would die for.
Slowly, Beard edges us towards an ever enlarged and more stimulating vision of what education might achieve. Meeting Joshua Wong, the Hong Kong student who, at 14, successfully mobilised mass protests against the Chinese government, he argues that encouraging young people to challenge received thinking and change the world is just as important as gaining qualifications.
Beard is, in some ways, reinventing the progressive politics of the 1960s and 1970s for the 21st century, a tradition that has lost some of its confidence but none of its passion in an era of retro-traditionalism and an obsession with metrics. Beard’s manifesto includes a belief in the “natural born” learning capacity of all, learning for life (he calls it “learn forever”) and the central role of creativity and co-operation in education.
There’s a hint, too, at what governments might need to do to bring this about when he quotes from that genius of a scriptwriter, Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing. “We don’t need little changes; we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. Competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens.”
Never mind that Beard gracefully evades the politics behind the pursuit of such a noble aim, and invests in generalised hopes of solidarity and “shared decisions” about the future. This is a book that sets out to explore our deepest dreams and most profound possibilities. For now, I’m happy to settle for the goosebumps.
Melissa Benn’s latest book is “Life Lessons: the Case for a National Education Service” (Verso)
Natural Born Learners: Our Incredible Capacity to Learn and How We Can Harness It
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 352pp, £18.99
This article appears in the 29 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How politics turned toxic