A superficial Review

In one of the most quoted poems in the English language – If, by Rudyard Kipling – there is a couplet that reads “If you can bear to hear the truth you have spoken, twisted to make a trap for fools”… then, says Kipling, “you will be a man!”

Well, having read the Review of Overschooled but Undereducated in the Times Educational Supplement by Michael Shaw I am not sure who is doing the twisting – Shaw or myself.  In writing a book on education which could be read by as large a proportion of the English public as possible, I was faced with a tough challenge, for traditionally the English prefer to leave the discussion of educational theory to professionals.  In that lie the seeds of many of the country’s current dilemmas.  At a time when conventional educational theory, largely based on a mixture of psychology and historical precedent, is being challenged by the emergence of research in genetics, neurobiology, anthropology and complexity theory, traditional educationalists are not well equipped to deal with such ideas.  If the electorate can’t evaluate such matters they can’t challenge politicians to respond to their concerns, so leaving the door open for politicians alone to define the agenda.

While Professor Gus Nossal, one of the world’s most respected microbiologists, an FRS and President of the Australian Academy of Sciences, could say of the book, “It is profoundly scholarly, and eminently accessible,” Mr. Shaw seems to know so little about the findings in these disciplines that he seeks to turn a lengthy discussion  about cognitive apprenticeship into dismissive comments about herding goats into Birmingham City Centre.  Posing as an historian he even surmises that all that is said about the skills associated with craftsmanship in pre-industrial Britain is mere “mourning” for a world long gone.  That is simply not the case; what the book is actually urging is for society to recognise how such cultural changes clash with our inherited predispositions to think and act in particular ways.

The book quotes an eminent biologist explaining that what most influences individual behaviour day-to-day, more even than our biologically evolved predispositions, is the value system of our society.  So confused is Mr Shaw about the relationship of nurture to our biological natures that he suggests that I am recommending pushing the values of western society “backwards”, with a touch of the ethos of the Ten Commandments which he seems to confuse with church attendance.  Far from drawing upon youngsters’ minute-by-minute awareness of the relationship of scores of subjective impressions and conclusions based on multiple intelligences, Mr Shaw asks whether the ability to differentiate between kinds of vegetation helps a child to survive in a the playground.  He makes such thinking seem simply silly and assumes that his readers will smile benignly with him.  But it is not the different vegetation, Mr  Shaw, that is important – it is the way our brains have evolved to develop processes that enable individuals to see, and process critical differences of any kind.  It is like being able to differentiate between a smile of comfort, and another you had best avoid, or noting the distinctions between political aspirations and reality.

As for not offering a clear way forward for schools… well, without being able to appreciate the link between neurobiology, cognitive apprenticeship and pedagogy Michael Shaw could never understand why “formal schooling therefore has to start a dynamic process through which students are progressively weaned from their dependence on teachers and institutions, and given the confidence to manage their own learning, collaborating with colleagues as appropriate, and using a range of resources and learning situations.”

Shaw states that these are noble aspirations… most likely outside the scope of today’s politicians.  Another recent Review cited Henry Morris of Cambridgeshire who said in 1920 “We should organise education so that good education is not the outcome of good government, but good government is the product of good education.”  So, Mr Shaw, please don’t twist that argument: education is essentially a moral concern, not to be confused either with church attendance or the Ten Commandments.

See TES Book Review