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Higher Education

A presentation at Ideas and Issues in Higher Education – Centre for the Study of Higher Education, The University of Melbourne

Abstract:
This presentation is based on a comparative study of corridors and transitional spaces in two campuses in Australia and New Zealand and the impact on the university ethos of “what is on the walls for students”. It critically examines the role of corridors and informal spaces in campus on students’ sense of belonging and their engagement. Questioning the presumption that learning happens only in a classroom where the expert delivers knowledge and transitional spaces have the sole role to organise walking, this research also explores if institutional arrangements stay focused on discipline, hierarchies and control rather than on students’ engagement in learning.

Click here for video

©popenici2014

The prediction was that MOOCs will completely change the game in higher education. Enthusiasm was general – and groupthink so tempting – that many universities across the world adopted them as a panacea for “21st century learning” (and all other problems) without hesitation or critical reflection. Those reluctant to adopt MOOCs discovered that a “philosophical difference of opinion” with the governing boards on MOOCs involves a serious personal and professional cost.

MOOCs were described in the last years in strong metaphors, suitable to express the amplitude of the change that they bring to higher education. Since 2012 we find Massive Open Online Courses often associated with natural disasters: from “tsunami” to “an avalanche” or an earthquake,  MOOCs promised to completely reshape the landscape. MOOCs are – commentators said – a tsunami of change that “is coming, you like it or not“.

The year of 2012 was marked by the firm prediction of a “historic transformation through the MOOC”, promoted with evangelical passion as the solution for all problems faced by higher education. Poor of the world will enrol in Harvard and MIT courses, students of all nations will freely access higher education and gates of knowledge will finally stay unguarded for the first time in history. The New York Times published at the end of 2012 an article creatively titled The Year of the MOOC, David Brooks and Thomas Friedman wrote enthusiastic op-eds about the MOOC “revolution”, the “tsunami” that will undoubtedly transform higher education. The Economist – along with other financial publications that discovered overnight their in-depth expertise in pedagogy and higher education – followed the same line with an article titled Free education. Learning new lessons, which offers a perfect sample of the type of thinking fuelling that general excitement:

“MOOCs are more than good university lectures available online. The real innovation comes from integrating academics talking with interactive coursework, such as automated tests, quizzes and even games. Real-life lectures have no pause, rewind (or fast-forward) buttons […] MOOCs enrich education for rich-world students, especially the cash-strapped, and those dissatisfied with what their own colleges are offering. But for others, especially in poor countries, online education opens the door to yearned-for opportunities.”

The solution to deliver good quality higher learning to all enlightened the imagination of many. The narrative was fantastic: the door to what Time called “High-End Learning on the Cheap” was discovered and new startups and venture capitalists were there to fight to open it for the benefit of the poor around the world. Thomas Friedman argued in 2012 that “nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty” than Silicon Valley solutions and MOOCs will “unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems“.

There is no doubt that rising inequality is a huge problem for the world. This is why is important to remember here that Silicon Valley makes San Francisco one of the most unequal cities in the US. The fact is that the Silicon Valley solution is not working at home, and American politicians make public calls to find answers. A set of important questions should be raised about any set of solutions coming from the same place where education for all or homelessness stay unaddressed and are on the rise (The Guardian reports that in Palo Alto, in California’s Silicon Valley “92% of homeless people lack shelter of any kind“).

Another luring promise of that time was that “The Internet Revolution” comes with a silver bullet for budgets in higher education. Universities were happy to see a new solution for their financial pressures. In Changing the Economics of Education The Wall Street Journal presented MOOCs as a possible solution for universities to make “numbers add up”. Another financial journal states with the unabated confidence that “Free online courses will change universities” and this is why “top universities worldwide rush to put free courses online, setting up so-called massive open online courses or MOOCs”. From Silicon Valley the perspective was – not surprisingly – very similar: “Massive Open Online Courses Revolutionizing Higher Education. MOOCs Provide Something for Everyone“.

The call for evidence was rare at that time, which is quite unusual in an industry obsessed with evidence-based everything. The good news is that recent research starts to fill the gap. The first problem is that evidence debunk most those great promises. With a bit of a hangover after all the hype and inebriating enthusiasm, universities have to draw the line and look at the evidence, accept reality, evaluate benefits and risks and redesign their solutions.

MOOCs undoubtedly bring important benefits. The power to use technology to link academic life with the public debate or the possibility to offer the chance to access great courses is undoubtedly of great benefit to many. The important part that was left unexplored is relevant for the future of universities: what is the cost of this and what are the main risks. The empty enthusiasm and blind adoption may cost more than many imagined and it is important to consider two possible risks that seem to be overlooked by many administrators of colleges and universities.

Naive assumptions about the target audience and the importance of MOOCs for marketing

There is already excellent research on MOOCs. A recent example is coming from The University of Pennsylvania, where a survey on over 400,000 active students in courses offered by the university through Coursera — the most significant MOOC provider — recorded 35,000 responses. Results are not far from other research in this field and reveal that a stunning 83 percent of MOOC students already have a two- or four-year diploma or degree. The chance to have them enrolled in new degrees is called into question even more, as results show that 69 percent of them are already employed. This set of data support those who say that spending important resources (pay for course design, research time, teaching time, course administration and IT infrastructure) for free courses with the hope of having new students is just a naive and costly mistake. 

As a tool for marketing, the investment into a MOOC may be a disproportionate effort when we look at real numbers of students enrolling into a course (or university) just because of a MOOC. Moreover, smaller universities already know that only most prestigious and renowned players attract big crowds to MOOCs. This is how many institutions see that their investments failed so far to show any quantifiable benefit.

This set of new research and data is causing now a shift in attitudes within higher education regarding MOOCs. Another recent study, which polled chief academic officers at 2,831 colleges and universities about online education, reported that 39 percent say they do not believe that MOOCs are sustainable models for their schools — from 26 percent in 2012.

This draws attention to another widespread confusion between MOOCs and online education. While online education represent an important pedagogical solution embraced by most universities for decades for their enrolled students, MOOCs are a specific platform designed to offer “open” courses for prospective students. There are many other differences, but the most important aspect here is that many administrators in higher education start to realise that “charity starts at home”: quality of online education for your own students is a hard enough task to deal with. Spending money and time for those who are already educated, employed and rarely interested to pay fees for new courses is just an unaffordable luxury.

From clicks to bricks

Another widespread prediction was that in the “avalanche that is coming”  those Doric columns on the campuses are good to be sold to real estate investors. Technology – was said – is making the university campus obsolete. “The end of university campus life” is just another article where this was predicted with certainty. The author is saying: “MOOCs merely confirm what we’ve known for years—that the most basic currency of universities, information, is now more or less valueless, so universities might as well give it away [….] Universities are no longer the only, or even the best, aggregators of information anymore. That role was usurped by the internet years ago”.  

“Information” is not learning and data is not knowledge, but this is a different discussion. The problem is that thinking that the campus is useless was undoubtedly a massive mistake that will surely bring unpleasant surprises for those embracing the fad. In fact, those who were used as an example to support the advice to forget the campus are now building their own brick and mortar campuses. The irony was soon evident this time…

In “Online students can’t help being sociable”, an article recently published by the BBC News, we read:

Instead of demolishing the dusty old classrooms, the online university revolution is responsible for opening some new ones. Coursera, a major California-based provider of online courses, is creating an international network of “learning hubs”, where students can follow these virtual courses in real-life, bricks and mortar settings.”

It is undoubtedly sad and surprising to see that many experts and managers in higher education missed that “it seems there is an irresistible social side to learning“. This detail – relevant for the specific type of endeavours involved in higher education – was now discovered by investors in Silicon Valley. This may change the attitude of those advocating the end of the campus  – or not!

In any case, it becomes clear that new technologies enhance the value of the physical campus. Universities have to find new ways to use their spaces to enhance learning and nurture creativity and innovation.

It is also important to explore if MOOCs do not involve a shift of focus and resources from online education and learning management systems managed by universities for their “traditional” courses. In other words, MOOCs may be interesting and exciting for all those interested to use them, but from the point of view of universities – placed under significant financial pressures and funding cuts – it is vital to see if these efforts do not affect funding and investments required to make their online education engaging and aligned to other technological solutions widely used by their students.

Some universities will soon realise that their outdated learning management systems work most probably as a much more efficient marketing tool against them than all possible benefits associated with some of the most popular MOOCs. Training for academic staff in the use of new technologies to facilitate and enhance learning is another important area for investment. Some universities may not have  the capacity to pay for all, but it becomes clear that quality assurance in online education for students at home is the most important investment. This is why the MOOC-hype should be considered with great care. They can bring more damage than good, especially for smaller institutions of higher education.

The poor stay poor and rich… get another freebie

Research conducted at The University of Pennsylvania also dispels the myth that MOOCs open the door for the poor and disadvantaged. It reveals not only that the vast majority is already highly educated, but two-thirds of MOOC students live in OECD countries, the club of leading industrialized nations. It is good to consider here that OECD countries account for just 18 percent of the world population.

In other words, data shows that the belief that MOOCs “lift people out of poverty” is as superficial as it seemed to be. It is interesting however to explore why there is such a superficial understanding of the context and possibilities of people living in poor countries…

The silver bullet

A genuine focus on the quality of teaching and learning, personalised education, and student engagement is what can make a university a sustainable and successful institution. The future of universities cannot be changed by a set of gadgets or technological tools, but by a new vision able to create a new context where new technologies can be used to enhance pedagogical solutions suitable to address needs and challenges of the 21st century.

For the uncertain future ahead institutions of postsecondary education have to consider with great care all resources, enhance and secure them for a very difficult journey. In the knowledge economy, human capital is one of the most important assets for institutions, economies and societies. For universities, values such as trust, collegiality, tolerance, empathy, compassion, civic responsibility, commitment for the unhindered and courageous search of truth stay as pillars of stability for considerable tests and challenges ahead.

Read more in my article on the Insights blog: Human capital, academic values and sustainable governance in higher education.

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Higher education is at a point where many universities need to activate their immune system to fight against “affluenza”. To understand what is “affluenza” we can look at a recent story published by Time about a drunk teenager who got behind the wheel of his car killing four people on a road in Texas and seriously injuring two of his passengers. What makes this story remarkable is that this teenager will not go to prison as he was affected by “affluenza” – the condition of having rich parents and a cultivated sense of entitlement with a withering sense of responsibility. An expert was called by the attorney to explain how difficult is to grow up in a wealthy family (who knew how lucky I was to have the opposite?). The judge sentenced him to 10 years of probation for the fatal accident. His father “has agreed to pay the $450,000 bill for his rehabilitation program“. If criminal acts are judged with outrageous double standards and a convenient price tag is a solution for any crime and tragedy, it may be a time to look seriously at what is “affluenza” and what other parts of our lives and society it may affect.  

When Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for US Presidency, famously said during his election campaign that “corporations are people, my friend!” he just reasserted an idea placed at the core beliefs guiding now most financial and political systems of the world: corporate capitalism and market arrangements are the only system able to bring progress and human benefit. This ideology survives and becomes more aggressive despite a global financial crisis and numerous examples where major corporations are embroiled in public scandals. These stories reveal that fraud, corruption and criminal behaviours so vile that make Nigerian scams look like innocent pranks were taken as common practice. Major banks reached in 2013 multi-million-dollar settlements with victims of their fraudulent acts, but – unlike “people”, who go to prison for inside trading, fraud and corruption – corporations prove that even if their criminal acts are investigated a cut of profits is enough as a penalty. For example, Johnson & Johnson recently reached a settlement of over 2 billion dollars for civil and criminal allegations such as bribing doctors and pharmacies to prescribe some of their drugs to elderly, children and the disabled, despite health risks or no scientific data to prove their benefits. This is not an isolated case, but a “trend” in what media called “the latest in a string of legal actions against drug companies that allegedly put profits ahead of patients“. 

That corporations and people have very different standards of responsibility seems quite clear for an objective observer. A long list of facts and stories published by international media show that corporate capitalism places important market players above the law. (Iceland is so far the only notable exception from the rule of ignoring illegal acts committed by corporate executives – see Iceland jails former Kaupthing bank bosses). Market capitalism turns today into para-religious forms, with a philosophy built on rather simplistic binary opposites, where accumulation of capital and profits promise a heaven that will trickle down on the rest of society and Satan speaks about the common good and social equity. It should be no surprise then that ideas sold by corporate ventures are defended with righteous fundamentalism, as the history shows that any religious-like system is building a proper inquisition, with zealot followers. 

Higher education was ineluctably caught into this logic and adopted what was called “the new public management”. The university turned into a large institution like any other, managed just like a corporation. In a decade since World Trade Organisation formally included education in the list of commodities that can be part of trade negotiations, many universities were left open to the virus of “affluenza”. Greed and lack of social responsibility are too often displayed as achievements in what became “the global marketplace of higher education”: from total disregard for academic freedom, opening branches in countries with a very poor record on human rights, to a proudly displayed move to impoverish academic workforce and constantly increase casualisation. Social engagement, civic responsibility or responsibility for students’ future is in many cases just part of a narrative used to sell a contract, just as any shrewd salesmen is using luring stories to sell the product to any potential victim. Criteria of efficiency, profitability and market dominance became de facto the only priority for many universities. However, getting confused to the point where it seems plausible that this is sustainable for higher education and society is just a side effect of ‘affluenza’. 

Narratives and dangerous imagination

In 2012 Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity, and Accountability, explained in an interview with Chronicle of Higher Education why college costs so much money: “…it costs so much because it can!” The long term effect of this logic is hard to evaluate, but a recent analysis published in December 2013 by The Guardian reveals that “The class of 2012 has the highest student loan burden of any graduating college class in history, continuing a five-year trend of rising debt loads on millennials just coming out of school.” (see Student loan debt hits a new high as millennials take ‘poverty-wage’ jobs ). Even in a time when the goal of higher education is deceivingly reduced to employment, we see that graduate underemployment and unemployment remain at the best just a marginal topic for research and public discussion. Responsibility for students’ future, for what they really learn in higher education is left in the shadow of profits.

“The class of 2012 has the highest student loan burden of any graduating college class in history, continuing a five-year trend of rising debt loads on millennials just coming out of school.”

College Stats presents in ‘Dollars and Sense: A Global Look at Student Debt‘ a sobering picture for a system that seems to be focussed more on immediate profits than into a sustainable model for higher education and society. Data leads to the conclusion that we have a system closer in ideology to Wall Street and neoliberal fantasies than any serious concern for sustainable progress, civic responsibility, democratic citizenship or the long term role of higher learning. The fact is that the system is absolutely comfortable with rising inequality: a new study by Dr. John Jerrim at the Institute of Education at the University of London reveals that access to high-status universities in UK, the United States and Australia is de facto reserved to students from wealthy families. This seems to be another symptom of “affluenza” with effects well beyond the walls of academia, as it is already documented (e.g. OECD published a comprehensive report on inequality and its effects Divided We Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising and the US Center for American Progress just released The Impact of Inequality on Growth – an excellent analysis on this topic). 

The wealth of evidence may seem sufficient to clarify that inequality and widening wealth gap come with serious dangerous for society and economy. However, the narrative built as a confusing bricolage with bits of social Darwinism, Ayn Rand fantasies and trickle-down economic theories still engages minds and imaginations.

A recent example of this ideology was provided recently by Boris Johnson, the conservative Mayor of London, often presented as the possible next prime minister of Britain. In a speech at the conservative Centre for Policy Studies in London – titled What Would Maggie do Today? - the mayor of London revealed among other things that he finds Gordon Gekko, the corrupt fictional character in the 1987 film Wall Street, a great source of inspiration for economic growth and market ethics. He encouraged the ‘Gordon Gekkos of London’ to be greedy – as “greed is a valuable motivator for economic progress – and continued:

“No one can ignore the harshness of [free market] competition, or the inequality that it inevitably accentuates; and I am afraid that violent economic centrifuge is operating on human beings who are already very far from equal in raw ability, if not spiritual worth.

Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130. The harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.

And for one reason or another – boardroom greed or, as I am assured, the natural and god-given talent of boardroom inhabitants – the income gap between the top cornflakes and the bottom cornflakes is getting wider than ever. I stress: I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.”

David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, reacted to this speech on BBC Radio 4:

“It’s extraordinary for a mayor, who should be for all of London, to think it’s all right to glorify greed – a greed that has brought a banking collapse and caused misery and hardship to many Londoners, particularly to young people who can’t get on the housing ladder.”

We should note that it is also absolutely remarkable to find that an influential European politician echoes social solutions dangerously close to what remains in the history of the continent as a colossal tragedy. Of course, education was also part of his speech, as a natural extension of this strange vision about IQs and social stratification. It seems that for those who think alike, the most irritating mistake made by the British politician was to openly admit what other neoliberal politicians around the world talk behind closed doors (i.e. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney 47% comment).

The primacy of market efficiency and immediate profits involve a serious cost on a long term for universities, and many are still comfortable to embrace denial and mediocrity. This can be fatal in a future marked by uncertainties.

A Neoliberal Dystopian Fantasy: The Wal-Mart Model for Higher Education

Evaluating the impact of current arrangements on higher education on the long-term – especially when current paradigms and managerial models stay unchanged thanks to a remarkably common ruthless pressure from decision makers – deserves more serious attention. Higher education systems based on neoliberal policies and models of governance stay now around the world as examples of explosive student debt.

The first reason is that ‘customers’ are disenchanted, youth may be less tempted to get massive debt to pay universities that have profits and exploitation as the most visible values. A recent opinion poll released by Wells Fargo reveals – among other worrying trends for a new generation able to see the effects of new public management in higher education – that “Paying off student loan debt is the top concern of millennials […] About a third of millennials (31%) feel they would have been better off working, instead of going to college and paying tuition“. Arguably, this is already a significant percentage of graduates thinking that their investment was a mistake. We can just hope that they will not spread the word…

Paying off student loan debt is the top concern of millennials […] About a third of millennials (31%) feel they would have been better off working, instead of going to college and paying tuition

In the US we see a staggering 1 trillion dollars in student debt, with ever-increasing numbers of graduates incapable to pay back their debt. In UK, the National Audit Office released last month a report showing that outstanding loan debt is already reaching £46 billion and will rise to £200bn in the next 30 years. It is also estimated that half of graduates will not earn enough to repay all their study loan.

It becomes clear that masters of efficiency, accountability and profits fail to deliver on their promises. However, governing universities as any other institution that can flourish only under an ‘efficient’ corporate management is still the ubiquitous model in place. There are some things that are worrying about current arrangements and their results, but what can go really wrong?

We can start with the impact on the most important capital for universities: academics. Policies on human resources adopted by colleges and universities under neoliberal models of governance already come with devastating effects for higher education. In search of increasing profits and control, entire systems have moved to massive casualisation, the reallocation of academic work from full-time, permanent employees to part-time (or “casual”) employees. Casual employees are cheaper, more “flexible” (translation: they have very limited rights and can be fired fast), are not paid leave entitlements, and are hired on an hour-to-hour, week-to-week, year-to-year basis at low rates. Short term contracts are another measure of “efficiency”. The last decade in higher education has been marked by a meteoric rise of “casualisation”, which today has reached unprecedented levels. In Australia, an open letter signed in 2012 by 68 senior staff at the University of Sydney said that “higher education is already the country’s second-most casualised industry, after catering”. In the US, the American Association of University Professors announced that the tenure system has “all but collapsed” and casuals make a stunning 75% of academic staff. In the UK, the pressure on academic staff created a national “anti-casualisation committee”.

The contingent and precarious academic staff in various positions represent now the absolute majority of academic workforce for many universities. The tragic fate of an adjunct professor of French who was teaching for 25 years in higher education is relevant for the extent of the problem. A local newspaper tells the story:

“…she was living nearly homeless because she could not afford the upkeep on her home, which was literally falling in on itself, and now, she explained, she had received another indignity – a letter from Adult Protective Services telling her that someone had referred her case to them saying that she needed assistance in taking care of herself […] For a proud professional like Margaret Mary, this was the last straw; she was mortified. She begged me to call Adult Protective Services and tell them to leave her alone, that she could take care of herself and did not need their help. I agreed to. Sadly, a couple of hours later, she was found on her front lawn, unconscious from a heart attack. She never regained consciousness.”

Times Higher Education recently reported  that in the US “some academics have had to go ‘bin diving’ because of lack of money”. The ideal model for too many managers in higher education is not any corporation, but a corporation like Wal-Mart (in a remarkably similar and relevant story, a Wal-Mart store in the US was asking customers “To Donate Food To Its Needy Employees“)

As many other sectors, higher education is seduced by the American model and casualisation is the solution followed by many systems and universities. How universities will be able to attract and retain the best and the brightest? Job insecurity and low wages may soon become much more important than the passion for academia, learning teaching and research. How it is possible to lead an organisation to success based on pillars such as insecurity, fear and impoverishment of human capital?

Affluenza and antidotes

An article in Washington Post describes how the verdict was reached in the surreal story about a teenager with “affluenza” and parents rich enough to buy – literally – all they wish:

Prosecutors had asked that the boy be sentenced to 20 years in prison, but Gary Miller, the psychologist who testified in his behalf, recommended counseling. Miller said that the boy had an unhealthy relationship with his wealthy parents, who used him as a tool and a hostage to extract concessions from each other.
Meanwhile, they neglected to teach Miller that dangerous behavior could have serious consequences

It seems that this condition can be treated if the unhealthy relationship with the wealthy parents is questioned and challenged. This may be a very important step for some universities. Denial is very dangerous and leads to tragedies. Counselling may be required for severe cases, with immune systems too weak to fight against it. The most important thing is that it is the time to realise the range of implications and consequences of dangerous behaviour for universities, institutions that are now crucially important to defend human and democratic values. There are still sane examples that can be used as models to save entire systems.

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In the current debate about the future of education a radical position is increasingly popular: teachers and teaching are obsolete, a part of a decrepit model of education. According to this, the teacher organising learning – and any representative of what George Steiner called “the aristocracy of intellect” – is an old model that must be replaced with a revolutionary no-teacher model. It is implied – or directly expressed – that only students have the inherent power to organise learning and teaching better. “Youth” must be left to lead the revolution where learning and teaching are ‘flipped’ to fall in their hands. Technological innovation is always used – along with other valid arguments leading to same wrong conclusions – as a clear body of proof that teachers are not needed anymore and students, from primary school to higher education, need just to be left alone to organise their own learning.

The narrative of this ideological position states that teachers need to have just a decorative  minor role by helping youth with content, resources and facilitate entertainment, following their needs and lead. The first problem is that this is not revolutionary, nor new. The second problem is that there is too often a problematic common point linking the teacher-centered and teacher-less approach to education: an underlying contempt for students. From this perspective there is very little difference between a position designing education where students are obedient and impersonal subjects and that where students are customers, impersonal entities seeking comfort, entertainment and customer satisfaction. These positions invariably fail to accept the student role in education as individuals in search of exploratory journeys where learning experiences are capable to push their limits out of the comfort zones for knowledge, new ideas and discovery.

It is inherently wrong to adopt the position that students need just to be left alone, find comfort and feel empowered in easy and entertaining tasks. One reason is that this approach is causing a decline of standards and expectations through a constant effort to secure ‘positive’ feelings from student-customers (as a superficial form of ‘feedback”). Another equally important reason is that this seems is one of the most hurtful and deceiving forms of contempt for students’ potential and intellectual capacities, for their life and future.

The End of the Teacher

The “end of the teacher” trend – especially popular across Western education – is fuelled by a variety of factors. Commercialisation of education brings to the table the twisted view of students as customers.  A good part of the right oriented political establishment translates into policies (and budget cuts) a general distaste for science and their aggressive anti-intellectual beliefs. Pseudo-experts in education bring a significant contribution to this fad with their very superficial understanding of learning, teaching and pedagogy (manifested otherwise in a proudly exposed distaste for reading, which is seasoned with shock-jock/arrogant remarks about all possible issues in education). Regardless of source and ideological support, these sources build together a dangerous trend for the future of our students. A decline in rigour and quality of education is rarely documented – as this is one of the no-go zones for educational research – and when it is, the unusual passion and energy spent to dismiss it and deny this possibility is a significant indicator.  

The general acceptance of some myths surrounding teaching and learning explain why it is not surprising anymore to find influential and generally respected academics sharing and promoting, with no critical review, articles revolving around this narrative. An example is a recent  piece of writing published by the Huffington Post, ‘It’s Time to Get Rid of Teaching and Learning‘ We can find there a first ideological source of a model stating that education is best when students are guiding alone their own learning. According to this perspective, youth is better at organising learning and teaching is good when is left in students’ hands. Teachers here have a marginal role, as employees in charge with students’ safety, comfort and entertainment. Unsurprisingly, the argumentative structure is childishly simplistic and uninformed. To take just one of the many errors we can look at this argument used as a proof against teaching:

“It could look a lot like something we’re all familiar with – learning to walk. When an infant learns to walk, the fact that its parents (authority figures) are already world-class walkers does not help them.”

In fact, it helps! The author is obviously ignoring entire libraries of research about the importance of social interaction for learning. Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, research and theoretical literature on cognition, motivation, and human development offer the evidence that this is a simply a wrong opinion based on a personal guess.

We have to observe that one of the main problems of this ideological position resides in the evident overlook of the history of education. Here can be found that the “Democratic schooling” movement is over a century old and stay as an ongoing radical experiment in education. There are numerous examples of failings of this current, but some institutions still exist and can teach important lessons about the test of time on this solution. For example, one of the oldest democratic schools is Summerhill, a co-educational boarding school in Suffolk, England, founded in 1921 by the British educator A.S. Neill. This movement had plenty of time to test its ideas and limits. Therefore,  it may be very good to have a look at what we already have before we start testing ideas that are just presented as new and revolutionary.

No Teachers Needed, Students Do This Better

New pedagogies, imaginative teaching and a variety of options for educational pathways are crucial for student engagement and success.

In France, an “innovative school” is proposing now “A Different Way To Learn“, which is detailed in the title of a recent article: “A School With No Teachers, Where Students Teach Themselves“. The title speaks on itself about the solution proposed to solve a crisis of creativity, employment and in general the future of France.  

In Schools of 2030: no grades, no exams, no teachers? the future is also imagined in line with the same utopian narrative where students are breaking the shackles of teachers’ presence, organising learning in engaging and meaningful forms. This article starts with a great idea: “Imagine a school without examinations, age based grades, and a single teacher… “. Unfortunately, it fails to explain the role of that single teacher for an entire school.

Imagining seems to be a constant weak point of our times, and the call for action is truly commendable. The problem here is that imagination is good only when there is good quality fuel to make it work. The fuel of imagination is the information we have. The engine of our imagination is our educated mind, the well built intellect, which is also capable to discern between illusions or dangerous scenarios and positive and plausible solutions. 

There is no doubt that diversity and a variety of options for educational pathways is crucial for student engagement and success. However, this is very different from presenting an old idea as new and revolutionary. In the current end-of-teaching movement there are many who push much further than A.S. Neil and pedagogues aligned with old democratic schools ideas. The role of the teacher – finding solutions in new pedagogies, connectedness and a collaborative mindset – will remain crucial for the quality of educational outcomes. 

The role of the teacher – finding solutions in new pedagogies, connectedness and a collaborative mindset – will remain crucial for the quality of educational outcomes.

When we talk about the demise of the teacher and the need to abolish the influence of any Teacher/Mentor model in education it may be useful to consider also where these positions find an equivalent in the past. Results of past experiments are important when plans for the future are presented so enthusiastically, with little evidence that they actually work.

One massive social experiment was applied in China from 1966 to late ’70s. In a different utopia, Mao Zedong decided that the best way to renew fossilised institutions is to remove all old ideas, old customs, old culture and old teachers for a new prosperous, enlightened and classless society. The Cultural Revolution found that youth is better at organising learning, knowledge and the new society. The reasons and solutions differ, but the idea was surprisingly similar: representations and representatives of teachings of the past had to leave the scene. In Mao’s thinking youth was not yet corrupted and all scholars, teachers, writers, poets and intellectuals were announced as propagandists for the corrupt past. After 10 miserable and long years with millions of victims, The Cultural Revolution reached a predictable end.

The disastrous consequences of this utopia were vast and reached every aspect of Chinese society. Among these terrible effects was that China had to rebuild with a generation that was left for a decade with no education, as all teachers were killed or sent in “re-education camps”, the cynical title used for killing fields or forced labour. Youth was not better without teachers and society paid an enormous price for what seemed to be at that time a reachable solution. One possible lesson is that Utopia is a very dangerous space for education and solutions must be carefully considered, no matter how seductive they are at a certain point in our evolution. 

On the history of the future of learning and teaching

A Cultural revolution 2.0. is possible if we take utopian narratives and luring ideas as realistic and informed solutions for our future. There is no doubt that a symbolic elimination of the teacher is superior to Mao’s solution (or other similar examples throughout the history), but effects can be still devastating. Millions of new victims can leave schools poorly educated in a time when machines eliminate workers with basic skills at an accelerated pace. We can just imagine what can happen when millions of graduates with very little knowledge and skills, but high expectations built in years of comfortable play mislabeled as education, will find that there are no jobs for them. We have the responsibility to shape the future of our students and this cannot be taken lightly, as a field of careless experimentation of various fantasies or fanciful solutions. 

We can just imagine what can happen if millions of graduates with very little knowledge and skills, but high expectations built in years of comfortable play mislabeled as education, will find that there are no jobs for them.

This is why the past and the long history of education needs to be seriously considered when we think about disrupting the pedagogical model that came with the industrial revolution and stifled our imagination. The past is not offering only a source of lessons about the impact of some ideas that look new, but are already tried. It is a fertile ground for new ideas for our future. Myths and studies in cultural archetypes were an invaluable source for George Lucas when he created the story of Star Wars. There are numerous similar examples and new pedagogies can learn from these industries and seek some new solutions on these old narratives. Myths and cultural archetypes are able to describe what is embedded in the human nature when we engage in learning in formal and informal contexts.  

To take just one example from one of the few immortal stories for humanity we can see Homer’s Odyssey. In this epic poem we find the highly symbolic character of Mentor, a friend of Ulysses (Odysseus). When Ulysses is leaving for the Trojan War, in a journey that took him 20 years, his son Telemachus is placed under Mentor’s guidance and protection. The story of Mentor is not about what we currently understand as education, but about enlightened guidance towards knowledge and shaping character. Mentor was not simply a self-appointed controller of knowledge and learning, but a wise figure who was there to help Telemachus to think courageously and independently, encouraging him to ask questions and challenge assumptions. It is a complex story about education based on trust, for wisdom and responsibility. This narrative – based on the complex educational ideal of paideia – was not the source of a Cultural revolution, but a flourishing and seminal culture that was able to give the world the ideal of democracy. 

The future may see a rise of the Teacher, in a new paradigm – and education today and tomorrow cannot be based on schooling models imagined in line with the industrial revolution, in 1920’s and 1950’s

This may be a source for imagining education of the future, where technological advance not only replace many jobs, but make critical for individual’s success to leave schools a strong set of new skills. There is nothing new in the call to nurture in our students the capacity to imagine, critically explore new ideas and solutions, operate in line with ethical values in a responsible manner. However, the teacher is forced to teach to the test, to be an accountant of results rather than a helper in a journey to discovery and experience. The change in the future may be a rise of the Teacher rather than a demise. If it will become clear that we all need good education, with rigour and respect, for the teacher and student.

There are many uncomfortable realities of education that are generally avoided today; among them is that good education takes time and effort, personalised guidance, trust and work. An educated mind is built with imagination and work, and comfort is rarely associated with significant results. In this complex endeavour, technology will help the student to explore knowledge and ideas in collaboration with peers and guidance from a wise teacher.

For those who love literature is clear that the Great Gatsby was wrong: you cannot repeat the past. We also know that in this beautiful novel Gatsby’s story shows that the future depends on how you imagine it. We are at the right time to think with courage and clarity about some lessons from the past and imagine a sustainable and positive future.

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