III. NEW WAYS TO LEARN

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  • III. NEW WAYS TO LEARNAuthor(s): TYRRELL BURGESSSource: Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Vol. 127, No. 5271 (FEBRUARY 1979), pp. 143-157Published by: Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and CommerceStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41372900 .Accessed: 28/06/2014 17:39

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  • III. NEW WAYS TO LEARN

    by TYRRELL BURGESS Head of the School for Independent Study at the North East London Polytechnic ,

    delivered to the Society on Monday 2jth November 1978, with Sir Toby Weaver , , until recently Professor in Educational Studies

    at the Open University , in the Chair

    The Chairman: In introducing the first of this trilogy of lectures Lord Wilfred Brown (I think I ought to refer to him as 'Capability Brown') gave a short survey of the historical, educational and industrial landscape that you would be invited to traverse with the three speakers. In the first lecture Mr. Correlli Barnett documented with scholarly thorough- ness our inveterate national unwillingness and incapacity to develop an educational system which would include among its aims the develop- ment of capability, which he defined as the ability successfully to tackle the practical situa- tions of life. He illustrated in detail how over the last hundred years and more a succession of prophets had drawn public attention to this disastrous failure and its likely consequences, only to be met by ostrich-like incapacity to grasp the fact that if we were to prosper as a nation and to enjoy the quality of life to which we aspire, our educational system must foster what he called individual and collective cap- ability in the business of being an advanced industrial economy. Education for capability, he concluded, can alone keep Britain an advanced technological society and save her from becoming a Portugal, perhaps even an Egypt. If I may liken Mr. Barnett' s lecture to the first of three movements of a sonata, it might well have been marked andante lacrimoso.

    In the second lecture Professor Charles Handy (this second movement was allegro appassionato) projected us eloquently into the new world for which we should already, he claimed, be design- ing the education of the coming generation and our own. He gave us clues to its shape and

    substance as the communications revolution, the substitution of work don for mere employment, the flight from size to the virtues of small com- munities, and the economies of quality. Professor Handy went on to tilt against the primacy of knowledge, the institutionalization of learning, and what he called the age-bonding of education. But when questioned afterwards he modestly declined to answer the third of his three self-set questions - What? So what? What now? - beyond saying that what we needed now were more conspicuous experiments in processes of learning. Like his predecessor on this rostrum he left it to Mr. Tyrrell Burgess, our lecturer tonight, to tackle the sixty-four dollar question - What now ?

    The first, but only the first, move towards the solution of a problem is to analyse it and under- stand it. The object is to develop the capability to solve it. That is Mr. Burgess's formidable challenge tonight. Mr. Burgess is no theoretician. He is a teacher, a journalist, author of many stimulating books, researcher, publisher, school governor, designer of institutions, and active member of local government bodies. He has spent the last seven years at the North East London Polytechnic. There, as head successively of the Centre for Institutional Studies, the Development Unit for the Diploma in Higher Education, and the School for Independent Study, he has with his colleagues, some of whom are here, designed and successfully launched just such a conspicuous experiment in learning as Professor Handy called for. He is to tell us how he came to do it.

    The following lecture was then delivered. This lecture is an analysis of the weakness of educational theory and practice with

    proposals for its improvement as a service to individuals and to society.

    Education ment. duals and

    It seems society,

    is a permanent to

    the offer,

    hope to both

    of

    disappoint-

    improve- indivi-

    Education ment. It seems to offer, to both indivi- duals and society, the hope of improve-

    ment. It is sought as a remedy for personal and social ills. Yet its performance always seems to fall short of what might be expected. Individuals and society are alike dis- illusioned. It comes to be regarded with a mixture of hope, affection and frustration. As a consequence, public respect for educa-

    tion is characterized by booms and slumps. In boom times education is seen as a founda- tion of social and economic life and of its development in order and prosperity. Central and local government is encouraged to increase educational spending. Electoral promises can be summed up in one word - more. Public inquiries on the salaries of teachers unanimously recommend large increases. Almost at once a reaction sets in

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  • JOURNAL OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY OF ARTS

    and people begin to wonder whether we are not spending too much or whether we are getting value for money. It seems evident that education is making little direct contri- bution to the problems of, say, unemploy- ment or urban crime. Individual students and pupils are heard to doubt whether the outcome of their education offers enough compensation for the boredom of the process.

    At present education seems to be in a minor slump. It is under fire from all sides and is on the whole defending itself rather badly. The criticism comes from pupils, students and their parents, from teachers and employers, from friends and enemies of education alike. It is possible here to indi- cate only the range and nature of this criticism. Let us start with pupils at school. There have been a number of serious studies of what pupils think and want, from the Schools Council inquiry ten years ago1 to John Raven's massive research published last year.2 These reveal that pupils have clear and coherent views about what school is for and that they find that the schools themselves have other objects. In particular pupils wanted an education which enabled them to deal with their personal problems, to get and hold a job, to apply their know- ledge and to be the confident masters rather than the slaves of circumstance. Generally speaking parents agreed with their children in this There have been similar surveys3 of the attitudes of students. They too demand 'relevance'. They complain that their courses tend towards the mere accumulation of knowledge, are overcrowded with detail and give little time to think. Many see their educational experience as 'tricks and dodges' and their courses as consisting of anything that could attract a twenty minute question in the final examination. They may find that having knowledge does not at all enable them to apply it: even when theory and practice are integrated students may not be able either to apply the theory or to describe and defend their practice. Many come to fear that their courses are directed to no voca- tional end, and even those on a supposedly vocational course may see its relevance as spurious because they seem to get no nearer to the practice of their specialism. Other students complain of narrowness and stulti- fication. They complain that final examina- tions frequently demand little more than memory, or hanker for more command over their educational experience.

    144

    FEBRUARY I979

    Many of these criticisms are echoed by teachers. Those in secondary schools, in particular, see themselves as victims of external circumstance. They complain of the tyranny of society which requires them to be not so much educators as selectors, serving the division of labour, and of an examina- tion system which is the expression of this tyranny. As John Raven found, teachers are conscious that they do not concentrate on the objectives they consider to be most important, and he rightly says that the con- sequences of this are insidiously demora- lizing.

    It is often claimed that the perversion of education by selection is supported by employers, who express their demands in terms of certificates, diplomas and degrees. This is true but it conceals the criticism which employers have of the system which offers these certificates.4 What employers typically say is that they take the possession of a certificate or a degree as a very general indication of a level of capacity and applica- tion. They do not see it as indicating the acquisition of any information or skill that can be productively used. They all assert that it is they who have to educate and train the young person who comes to them, whether he has CSE or a degree. Many go further, and claim that the more education a young person has received the less fitted he is for the problems that he has to face as an employee. On this view an employer takes a graduate rather than a non-graduate only because he imagines that the qualification is an indication of capacity : he takes it also as a warning that much will have to be done to eliminate the incompetence systematically induced by the process of graduation.

    These criticisms, of pupils, students and their parents, of teachers and employers, are reflected in a long-standing view of educa- tion held by all the lecturers in this series, and by their chairmen. It was elaborated recently in this building by Patrick Nutt- gens.5 Broadly we all believe that there is a serious imbalance in British education and training. The idea of the 'educated man' is that of a scholarly, leisured individual who has not been educated to exercise useful skills. Those who study in secondary schools or higher education increasingly specialize; and normally in a way which means that they can then practise only the skills of scholarship, to research but not to act. Their knowledge of a particular area of study does not include ways of thinking and

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  • FEBRUARY 1979

    working which are apt outside the education system itself. This is damaging both for individuals and for society. An education which concentrates on analysis, criticism and the acquisition of knowledge and neglects the formulation and solution of problems; doing, making and organizing; and con- structive and creative activity in general, inhibits the satisfaction derived from per- sonal capability and denies to society the benefits of competence.

    To these specific criticisms are added more general ones. There are those who regard education as having developed to the point of being an expensive luxury. There are others who seek a solution in accepting it as a selective process and wish to concen- trate on making the selection more 'efficient'. There are many, on all sides, who are con- cerned about the quality of education and ways in which this can be measured. Many reformers are bewildered by the realization that the expansion of education has not itself led to a more rational, egalitarian or viable society. At the extremes there are those who believe that education can be saved only by removing it altogether from its institutional framework: they would de-school education and society.

    The criticisms that I have outlined here are not new. They echo similar criticisms which have accompanied the development of education in England since the beginning of the nineteenth century. Indeed they form part of a debate about education that has been going on at least since the Greeks, a debate between two traditions which rest on quite different assumptions about the pur- pose of education. I have elsewhere6 characterized these as the Autonomous' and 'service' traditions. The first sees education, especially higher education, as an activity with its own values and purposes, affecting the rest of society obliquely and as a kind of bonus. The second explicitly expects educa- tion to serve individuals and society and defends it in these terms.

    I characterize the autonomous tradition as aloof, academic, conservative and exclusive. People and institutions acting in this tradi- tion and with this view of their purpose think it right to hold themselves apart, ready if necessary to resist the demands of society, the whims of government, the fashions of public opinion, the importunities of actual or potential students. Many of us are glad that they do so. In totalitarian countries their stand may be heroic: educational institu-

    EDUCATION FOR CAPABILITY - III

    tions are often the first to be attacked by tyrannical governments. We can be glad of them in democracies, too. Democratic governments can err. Popular demand may be foolish. Both can be arbitrary, unjust and capricious. A democratic society is a plural society, one in which criticism is welcome and alternatives possible. What is more, democracies recognize that there can be no certainty where human knowledge and understanding will next be advanced. Many of the greatest advances have been made against political oppression, popular indiffer- ence or worse. The creations of the human mind themselves achieve a kind of autonomy, imposing their own disciplines and creating their own problems, and it is right that there should be people devoted to following the disciplines and solving the problems. This is particularly true in areas where most people see little promise: you never know when a discipline may be urgently needed.

    This aloofness is expressed in academic attitudes. Defenders of an autonomous tradition claim to be concerned with the preservation, extension and dissemination of knowledge - for its own sake. They speak of pursuing truth or...