The first chapter of the book I finished writing ten years ago was entitled What Kind of Education for What Kind of World; Do we want our children to grow up as battery hens or free-range chickens? It was a subject I had spoken on at very many conferences, and which I was to continue using right through to the present. To ask whether an education system is like a battery hen farm (the Americans call it industrial egg producers) or a free-range farmyard makes some very powerful points. To an accountant the exact measurement of inputs given to battery hens – the amount of food of different kinds, water, heat, lighting etc. – can give the farmer a more apparent real return on his investment than the less precise practice of leaving hens to wander (probably contentedly) around the farmyard. But if, for any reason, the farmer got the shape of the wire cages wrong and the hens had to be released they would, through lack of exercise, hardly stand on their own feet, or flap their wings. Lacking the natural adaptability of a free-range cockerel who can always flap its wings and escape to the nearest beam or branch, the over-bred battery hen becomes a perfect morsel for a predatory fox to gobble up.
Whether a farmer decides to invest in a battery hen plant, or a free-range farmyard, is ultimately a question of the kind of chicken (meat and eggs) he wants to produce, and the market he is seeking to satisfy.
The same is true of education. If you, the reader, or they – the politicians, bureaucrats or media – feel so confident of the future that you think its appropriate to develop a system of education that reduces the individual’s adaptability so as to enhance a set of special skills, you will opt for a battery hen-type schooling. If you are either unsure of the kind of world that you are preparing children for, or are so certain that it won’t be a supped-up version of today’s world, you will favour the free-range approach as that encourages adaptability, and creativity.
To me everything I have learnt over the past 15-20 years about the multiple forms of innate human predispositions to do things in certain preferred ways, has always to be subsumed to what I once heard an eminent neurobiologist say “in terms of our everyday decisions what matters most are the value systems of the society in which we live”. In other words, although it seems that in the long term we have strong internal mechanisms to balance our competitive instincts with collaboration, and our material ambitions with our need for human affection, in the short term if everything around us urges us to be ultra-inquisitive then the most aggressively competitive person will win through. But that is only in the short term; for a surfeit of acquisition, so the systematic study of the evolution of human behaviour shows us, inevitably wrecks a society.
Which takes us to the world we are now living in. Read the papers carefully over the next few days, listen to the radio or watch television and ask yourself, with the contrasting vision of the battery hen farm or the free-range farmyard firmly in your mind, which way do you see politicians trying to lead us? Then put the focus on yourself; which way do you think we should go? And is there a compromise? In terms of education can we bring children up to experience both tightly-prescribed experience, and the open world of exploration and discovery? And, if so, what are the difficulties? If there were easy answers to this I doubt whether we would be in our present predicament.