It wasn’t Michelangelo who said that – although it might have been for he was always at pains to select the particular block of stone which would best enable him to draw out of its structure that which he had in his mind’s eye to sculpt – it was the prophet Isaiah (Chapter 51) who drove home his point by saying “(and think) of the quarry from which you were dug.” Just as Michelangelo couldn’t have created his David out of any old piece of granite, so the people of Israel knew as well as today’s industrial chemist that the clay extracted from one quarry might be excellent for the production of fine china, exclusive paper or toothpaste, but would be useless for forming firebricks, floor tiles or as an additive to paint.
While every one of the six billion people on the face of the earth comes from a single species, the culture into which we are born creates a kaleidoscope of tribes and nations that think, and act, in significantly different ways. Since E.O. Wilson’s seminal treatise On Human Nature was published in 1978 scientists have come to accept that our species is as it is partly as a result of deep-seated instinctive behaviours built up over the millennia, transmitted through genes, and then refined in each generation by its immediate nurture. In Isaiah’s terms it all depends from which part of the quarry you were hewn; just as both York and Bath stone were laid down millions of years ago in the Jurassic Sea, micro-processes in that same sequence produced stone tough enough to provide pavements, while stone in another quarry is soft enough to build houses and carve fabulous gargoyles.
David Cameron appeared to impress the party faithful when he said that Gove’s ideas were drawn from Sweden, American and Canada. As someone involved with education all my working life I have travelled widely and found the study of other systems of education fascinating… not in what they had enabled me to bring back in my rucksack as nuggets of perfection but how they have acted as mirrors to help me question, ever more sharply, what we do in England. In 1969 I had the opportunity to sit in the back of a secondary classroom in New Hampshire. I was most impressed by the pupils’ enthusiasm, but was confused, from my grammar school background, by the total informality of the discipline. “You must understand”, the Professor of Education who was showing me around said, “there is a subtle difference between what we Americans think is our job in education, and what I picked up when studying at Oxford about what you English think education is about. It seems to me that you have a preconceived idea of the perfect youngster and do all in your power to shape kids appropriately. We Americans are uncertain about the future. We are still a frontier people – we think it is our job to help every youngster to so ‘sharpen his axe’ that he or she will be able to cut their way through whatever concrete jungle they may face. Our job is to build up rugged individuals, while you seem determined to cut children down to size.”
As a young teacher that impressed me greatly. But it seems as if Gove and Gibb have been searching for another kind of answer. They start with questions of governance, not with questions about how children learn. Never was this clearer than with the publication last week of the massive Cambridge Primary Review. While Labour simply dismissed the Review as being out of date, Nick Gibb used its criticism of an over-centralised curriculum to make a political attack on Labour, and then dismissed out of hand any suggestion that formal schooling should not start until six because that offended Conservative doctrinaire thinking.
So, in 2009, instead of acknowledging that the reason Finland and the other Scandinavian countries are at the top of the OECD achievement tables is a result of their pedagogic insights, David Cameron attributes it to free-market principles that have led the Swedes (with their very materialistic view of life) to open up schools to be run for profit. Cameron then sited Canada, by that he must mean the Province of Alberta as Canada has no uniform system of education that is so rich from its oil revenues that it has abolished income tax as an example of free enterprise. Shopping around for other examples of changed governance, he turned to the United States. This is very strange for America rejoices in its local federal responsibilities (the kinds of local autonomy which both Labour and Conservative have done their best to destroy in England) and which shamefully partners England at the bottom of the UNICEF Well-being of Children Report of two and a half years ago, and urges the English to adopt the Charter School Movement.
No, the English don’t have to go overseas to find magic bullets. They have to take the time to understand their own system better, and be humble enough to realise that international studies in neurology, evolution and cognitive science can help even the English to unpack the relationship of what we are born with, and how our historic culture has shaped the grain of our brains.
Is that really too much for politicians to think about?
See Parts 9 and 10 of the Briefing Paper