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Raising Educational Standards: A British Perspective

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We parents, teachers, and administrators used to know whom we were educating, when and where we were educating them, and what we were educating for. We are now uncertain about all three. Traditional education presumes that knowledge about the past and present will be useful in the future. But if the future resembles the present little and the past less, projections based on them are bad guides.

We may respond by saying that education is about teaching people how to find out information, how to become knowledgeable rather than how to be knowledgeable. But that begs questions about motivation. Those who know a lot develop an appetite, indeed a craving, to learn more--but not those who know little. There's another nasty question, too: For what purpose do we learn? Most people learn in order to work better and to live better. If there is no work, what, they will ask, is the point of learning?

It is no surprise to find that educational standards are often abysmal in inner-city schools in the United States or Britain. It is in those same localities that youth unemployment in the last five years has exceeded 40 percent. The punks with their bondage chains and blood-red coxcombs, the black kids with bomber jackets, beads, and badges are saying the same thing: "Look, take notice of me, I exist." But conventional society does not want to take notice. Only violence still has the capacity to shock it into activity.

But when there are jobs for youngsters graduating, the motivation to study returns. The Boston Compact encourages youngsters to graduate from high school because private industry has pledged more than 400 jobs. "Youthemploy" in London's Brixton section places 80 percent of its students, black and white alike; there are now waiting lists for the course.

Education in Britain, as in most other European countries, was for centuries the province of an elite. It was an elite of scholars, rather than an aristocracy or a plutocracy, because it evolved from the Church of England's schools and seminaries, which in late medieval times were open to the children of fairly humble homes. It was only later on, after the English Civil War, that the famous public schools and Oxbridge became the province of the rich. The history of the last hundred years in education has been the reversion from aristocracy back to meritocracy, coupled with the higher basic level of literacy required by industrialization. But whom shall we educate in the age of information?

The critical areas of competition between nations will lie in the quality and use of software. Because microelectronics is capable of being applied to all goods and services, the extent of its use will not be determined by its technical relevance, but by awareness of its potential. The educational level of the working population is therefore likely to determine the speed and extent of the adoption of information technology.

The English-speaking countries have been much more neglectful of human capital, of the need to develop the capacities of their people, than have the Germans or the Japanese. Industrial-relations structures, often adversarial, encouraged and were encouraged by Taylorism--the reduction of the worker's role to simple, repetitive tasks. Management and engineering schools treated the substitution of capital for labor, replacing a man with a machine, as the definition of economic progress. Vocational education was looked down on and split off from academic education, the most renowned of which was revealingly described as education in the humanities.

In the German-speaking countries, the tradition of apprenticeship dating back to the medieval guilds has been maintained in an efficient and modernized system. In Britain, its status was never as high; in the United States, the apprenticeship system only took root in the construction trades.

Today, the educational/vocational division is made nonsense by modern technology. The architect using computer-aided graphics is at once an artist and an engineer. The doctor, lawyer, or literary critic unable to use a computer will be intellectually crippled in a way that is untrue of the professor of classics who cannot mend a pipe or a plug. Early specialization, of which my own country, England, is the most extreme example, is intellectual Taylorism, no longer appropriate, if it ever was, to an age in which those societies will benefit most where information flows freely among traditional disciplines. Robots and computer systems can be designed to enrich work, allowing greater autonomy to individuals; or they can fragment it further, de-skilling those tasks humans still have to do.

The choice may be determined by the quality of the workforce and the nature of industrial relations, whether they are harmonious or antagonistic. Either way, the choice is likely to seem justified in retrospect. Countries with low general standards of education will choose centralized systems in which control rests with management; countries with high general standards will prefer more centralized systems in which individuals can exercise discretion.

When do we educate people? The answer used to be that we educated our children, and that initial education saw them through four or five decades of adulthood, complemented by what we rather coyly called "The University of Life." The assumption made some sense in a society that was slow to change, where the world 50 years on was not too different from the world now. Yet almost imperceptibly, educational resources have been shifted toward inservice training, upgrading, and retraining in belated recognition that one skill or qualification is no longer likely to serve for a lifetime. The buzz words--continuing education, paid education leave, sabbaticals for blue-collar and white-collar workers--herald a revolution in which education, work, and leisure will be interwoven throughout a lifetime, following one another in succession from youth to old age. And that raises the question of where education takes place.

The classroom may remain for young children, more as a place for caring than for teaching, but what will matter will be learning spaces. Video recordings of the best teachers and lecturers combined with individual learning packages, will break the institutional link between education and school, just as Britain's Open University "distance learning" broke the institutional link between university and campus. The poor or indifferent teacher will not be able to hide within the sanctity of four walls, for comparison with the best will be so readily available.

But teachers will not become redundant. The evidence from inner-city training courses for high-school dropouts is the same for Oxbridge: Personal tuition makes a big difference. Britain's collegiate universities have among the lowest wastage rates of any in the world, almost certainly because of the pastoral care and counseling offered by tutors. Wastage rates among black youngsters studying basic information technology in Brixton tumbled when each was assigned his or her own tutor who continued to take an interest for a year or more after the end of the course. The Open University ascribes its record of getting undergraduates through a degree course, a grueling business for someone in full-time employment, to the network of local tutors who correct and comment on students' work and meet them face to face on several occasions each year.

What do we teach? A core curriculum of four or five subjects including mathematics and use of English up to the age of 18, together with a science subject and another language; the use of microcomputers as tools in all these subjects, not just in mathematics. Graduation should depend on mastery of subject, not age. Students undertaking vocational options would study, one hopes, in the same institutions as those choosing academic options, as in the English tertiary (ages 16 through 18) college.

How would teachers fare in such a framework? They would be of high quality (because of the use of long-distance learning) and would be better paid. Some of their pay might be in the form of a merit award, dependent on keeping abreast of the subject through inservice courses, and on the judgment of peer groups and the assessments of students. Tutoring and counseling will be as important as classroom teaching and lecturing, indeed, more so.

To raise the educational standards of a generation--and we must--means a classroom without walls; not extramural but nonmural. The teacher/taught relationship will turn into mutual learning. And it will be very, very exciting.

Vol. 04, Issue 25, Page 24

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