Climbing The Hill

A Tale of Two Ideologies:  Our Gutenberg Moment
Category: Leadership Learning

A Tale of Two Ideologies: Our Gutenberg Moment

Last year, civil servants and ministers held a private meeting with a select representation of school leaders to discuss strategies for improving the academic achievement amongst disadvantaged pupils.  On the table was a proposal that 100% of pupils should be expected to meet the phonics pass threshold.  After all, “it was only a memory test.”  There was disbelief when a head-shaking school leader pointed out the published results also include pupils newly arrived to the UK from overseas and those with complex SEND needs, making it quite a feat to guarantee all pupils could reach the pass mark!  The minister was stunned, assuming such pupils were removed from the data set, which forms one strand of the school accountability measures.

The story highlights three key points:

  1. We should never make education policy on the short-term whims and hunches of politicians
  2. Quick fix strategies, (drilling 5 and 6-year olds in nonsense phonics words), to improve education, (empowering students to make a real difference in the world), rarely works
  3. Educators should always challenge the perception that learning should ever be a simplistic, linear, error free process.

Fast forward a year to January 2020 and 5,300 miles across the Atlantic Ocean.  A group of 18 UK school leaders had the privilege to spend 4 days, leaning into Apple’s inner sanctum in Cupertino, California.  The purpose of the visit was to better understand how Apple develops people, harnesses technology to improve education for all students, creating an organisational culture which empowers and inspires.  Defining the week was an opening lecture from Dr Jon Landis.  He outlined our 21st century education challenges, setting the scene between 3 distinct epochs:

  • The industrial Age:  productivity
  • Information Age:  efficiency
  • People Age:  purpose

Organic vs industrial  Page 1There were clear parallels drawn between an Industrial Age, where mass production of goods and repetition defined what we valued, and our own education system.  It manifests in the purpose of education - the way we measure learning through high stakes exams.  It is enshrined in cliff edge accountability which still dictates the behaviours of teachers and students.  It is visible in the curriculum models defined by Ofsted’s latest report framework:

  1. … pupils can develop their knowledge and skills in a logical order.
  2. … knowledge is sequenced so that pupils’ understanding builds steadily.
  3. … plans for subjects have been arranged in a logical way.  
  4. [Teachers] check that pupils gain skills and knowledge in a logical order, which helps them to remember more.

Yet less than 50% of disadvantaged students leave Y6 having met the ‘expected standard’ in reading, writing and maths, while around a third of students are leaving secondary education aged 16 with less than a grade 4 ‘standard’ pass.  We plough long, narrow furrows which concentrate on short term, linear, sequential knowledge in specific subject areas, failing to release the potential of students as ‘whole’ learners who are able to see how education connects to the wider societal needs.  

Apple gave a clear message that an unpredictable world necessitates we locate learning less in predictable cognitive entrenchment and more on interpretation, context and inter-disciplinary approaches to meaning making.  Learning and skills in the People Age are relationships centred, inter-connected and cross traditional domains of knowledge.  In other words, they span the domains of learning.  Slide1

Anyone doubting that the ‘People Age’ is upon us should take a wander up to the local high street.  Banks are starting to look more like coffee shops; cashiers are leaving the protection of glass screened counters to interact more freely with customers. In the People Age, the focus of work is connection, purpose and meaning.  The workplace is governed not by rules but by culture and the culture is evaluated not by well-meaning intentions but through lived experiences.  The People Age necessitates we ask less of the planet and more of ourselves.  It provides a duty to descent.  It means moving away from predictable, repetitive task-oriented learning towards complex problem solving.  People do not want to ‘play’ work, they want to impact positively on the work they do.  The Global Challenges Insights Report 2017 captures this paradigm shift:

We need to champion a new kind of learning; one which values teamwork, creativity and the diversity of opinion held within our classrooms.  We need to educate our children to think more critically, more ethically and become more geopolitically aware.
Global Challenges Insight Report:  The Future of Jobs 2017

The Apple study visit confirmed the world our 21st century learners are entering is increasingly dependent on our capacity to work collaboratively to execute complex projects; where success is determined by the ability to use teamwork, risk taking, asking more questions and thinking more creatively.  This requires a new language for learning to ensure we think beyond traditional boundaries:


The additional challenge we face is the way in which knowledge has become synonymous with measurement.  Curriculum reform has locked one type of knowledge firmly in the domain of accountability.  The representation of knowledge has been calibrated to maintain the status of examinations, reinforcing the importance of ‘classical’ or domain specific knowledge.  This begs the question, whose knowledge is esteemed most and which knowledge carries greatest currency?  Success is found in short term success of memory retention which is reliant on the world remaining static and predictable.  This representation is problematic because it:

  • Mirrors the education experience of a limited group of people in society, therefore excluding a large proportion of learners across the country
  • Creates and maintains a hierarchy within the education system that is predicated on the value of memorising knowledge content (easier to measure through high stakes exams)
  • Overall, leads to decreased student agency with formal education (see evidence from the 2019 Good Childhood Report)

We are at a ‘Gutenberg moment’.  Formal education is not meeting the present or future needs of society, work or the environment.  We still use an Industrial Age model to assess learning and we have not aligned curriculum goals with the true purpose of education.  We are neither:

  • Providing students with the tools to ‘meet the world’ 
  • Developing the inter-disciplinary skills that will equip 21st century learners with the knowledge required to maximise conceptual thinking across domains of learning.

Without both, students will not be equipped to tackle the urgent challenges that are moving rapidly towards us - nowhere more tangible than the rapidly declining health of our planet.  Nor are we developing student knowledge which allows them to reimagine the possibilities of how technology might be utilised in solving the problems we face.  A week spent with 18 inspiring and optimistic school leaders, facilitated by Apple highlighted, there is another way.  It is our moral imperative to ensure we make the possibilities a reality.

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