13 October 2011
One of my most favourite poems is The Four Quartets by T S Eliot and my most favourite lines in it include these from Little Gidding
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end it to make a beginning
The end is where we start from.
It is axiomatic in education that you can’t make changes unless you know what it is that you want, just where you want it to end. It puzzles me therefore that we simply continue to do what we have always done despite getting the same results. In other words, long past the point of knowing where we will end.
Perhaps the issue is that good ideas for change rely not just on the quality of the ideas but also on the setting into which they are placed. This produces a situation in which we do go around in circles and like a bus load of tourists being driven past yet another cathedral or another monument, we close our eyes and have a snooze.
Take the importance of language in education for instance.
It was in 1928 that George Sampson said in a dissenting opinion to a Royal Commission on Education in England that “every teacher is a teacher of English because every teacher is a teacher in English.” Forty years later, after yet another report from a Commission of Inquiry in England called A Language for Life (The Bullock Report), the idea resurfaced as “language across the curriculum.” The bus of sleeping tourists drove past yet another basilica.
Finally in the early part of this century a huge focus settled on literacy. The bus of tourists had woken up and realised the importance of language in education. All over the show literacy was being embedded, new kinds of literacy were invented, it is the fashion of the moment and so it should be.
But why did we miss earlier opportunities for action in this regard? Despite the ideas being of good quality the setting was wrong. The need for addressing language was not yet sufficiently obvious for us to agree that action was appropriate.
The same thing has happened with the notion of a more porous interface between secondary and tertiary education. At last New Zealand and to a lesser degree Australia is exploring initiatives that blur the distinction between secondary and tertiary education, a distinction that has become a clear barrier to many students who simply do make the crossing. It is now obvious that change is needed.
But that is not to say that the calls for change have not been ignored in the past. Back in 1986, a conference paper for the NZ Post Primary Teachers Association had in it a set of propositions written by Phil Capper which argued that the hard edge between secondary and tertiary education was unnecessary. He further argued that secondary schools needed to be working alongside other education and training providers and drew attention to the fact that the traditional work of the secondary school was being challenged. Secondary schools, he concluded, needed to change or face the consequences.
Some seven years later in an official NZ Ministry of Education policy paper, Education for the 21st Century, a view of the future was put forward. In that future students would be able to undertake education and training in more than one setting at the same time and they would be able to combine regular school courses with tertiary courses and workplace training with local industries. This would require agreements between institutions. And just as tertiary institutions would be teaching students that convention said were secondary students, schools would be able to offer polytechnic courses.
Eighteen years later all of this is starting to be given expression. The pattern of circling past a good idea several times before it gets purchase is repeated.
The cynical would say that things have to reach something of a crisis point before people wake up and start looking for the good idea. A more charitable view would argue that there is some truth in the proposition that there is a right time for an idea when a complex combination of factors provide a setting which demands change.
It is as if it takes time for us to develop a clear view of that which we are looking at. T S Eliot was perhaps talking about this process when he concluded his lines about exploration with:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started from
And know the place for the first time
That last line is important. It is not that the issue is new, what is new is that we have become aware of it. It is only by frank and truthful assessment of what is happening that a setting becomes conducive to change.