Shift Happened: So What?

Posted on December 15, 2013

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Okay. Let’s start this blogpost with a mea culpa. I showed ‘Shift Happens’ on an INSET day. I know, I know…

In mitigation everyone (and I mean EVERYONE!!) was showing it, and most people not showing it were enjoying it. It captured the zeitgeist of the nascent Google, Facebook and Twitter generation perfectly and it seemed to resonate beautifully with our concerns as educators.

We got the message that “we are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist”, because we’d seen at least one dotcom bubble inflate and burst before our very eyes. We got the message that “we live in exponential times” because we were only just realising that the WAP-enabled phones we were using were already being surpassed by their 3G cousins. And we got the message “by 2013 a supercomputer will be built that exceeds the computational capabilities of the human brain” because 2013 seemed so very far away and because we work with still-forming human brains every day of our working lives.

The repetitive refrain of “did you know?”, accompanying the repetitive strains of Fatboy Slim’s ‘Right Here, Right Now’, added an urgency to our sense of educational purpose, and the closing rhetorical question “so what does it all mean?” gave rise to a plethora of skills-focused initiatives (from individual, to school, to system) to help meet the needs of the ‘lifelong learner’ generation who were pretty much guaranteed to never need academic knowledge given the exponential nature of googlable information.

And now here we are, half a decade on, and shift has happened. So what? What did it mean for you? Have your students exponentially improved because of all the exabytes of data they’ve absorbed in the intervening period? I mean, come on, what have you been up to? Those Y11s that you’re still ploughing into intervention were fledgling Y6s when their teachers (and YOU) watched that video. Why on earth haven’t you got every single last one of them to A*s in every subject? What’s wrong with you? Get with the programme, buddy.

Are you hiding behind the excuse that a half of all technical information is out of date within two years and so that everything you taught them up to Y9 is now useless to them?

Is it excusable because there are five times the number of words in the English language that Shakespeare had to contend with (probably more given the addition of such wonderful vocabulary as ‘selfie’ and ‘reem’ in the intervening period)?

Or is it your defence that you were rooting for Team Myspace, the fifth biggest country (if it were a country) according to the original ‘Shift Happens’ and somehow Team Tumblr (probably the naughtiest country in the world, whatever its size) snuck in around the back?

Whatever your excuses, take some heart from the fact that only one in four of your students will be with their current employer for more than a year (according to ‘Shift Happens’) and so they’ll only think bad of you for an exponentially brief period of time.

Or maybe, just maybe, we’ve all been guilty, in the words of Frank Furedi, of “the fetishisation of change” and that things are neither exponentially better nor worse than they were five years ago.

And here’s where I come to the purpose of my post, a kind of review of Furedi’s ‘Wasted’: a sociological perspective on education that I just had to download and read having seen him at the ResearchED conference (I blogged about his contribution in this post at the time). I say a ‘kind of’ review because this post is also about the arguments of Andreas Schleicher in ASCL’s Leader magazine of November this year and of the views of the CBI’s John Cridland (amongst others) in the SSAT’s fourth ‘Redesigning Schooling’ pamphlet, “Working with Stakeholders”. Amongst all of this, the post is about how a shift has happened in my perspective since ‘Shift Happens’.

But let’s start with Furedi. In ‘Wasted’ he begins with the premise that “the principal achievement of education is an educated people and society”, but bemoans the fact that we have replaced the concept of education with that of ‘lifelong learning’ to the extent that the “relative weight accorded to formal education of the young diminishes”. Against a backdrop of a political class ever more interested in what our schools do and how they do it, he suggests that we have arrived at a point of paradox in education where “the more we expect of education, the less we expect of children”.

But how does all of this relate to the relatively harmless ‘Shift Happens’ video? I’m glad you asked.

Furedi talks about the fetishism that surrounds change in education: the exaggeration of present day novelty, its representation as something unique to now, the “historical amnesia” that accompanies this, and the dogmatic nature of its adherents.

Fundamentally, though, he asserts that this fetishisation has as its core purpose the establishment of a premise for educational reform, and that this has been the case for over a hundred years now. Drawing from publications ranging from the now defunct Department for Children Schools and Families (Furedi notes the lack of reference to education in their nominalised remit) to those of John Dewey, he concludes that a perennial “rhetoric of unprecedented change is just that: rhetoric”. Nonetheless, this rhetoric has done its job and successfully underpinned reforms that have left our education system in a bit of a mess.

Schleicher’s article for ASCL’s Leader, handily (for the focus of this post) entitled ’21st Century Revolution’ doesn’t do much to prove Furedi wrong about this fetishisation. In it he writes that “what matters is our capacity…to re-position ourselves every day anew in this fast-changing world”. Very ‘Shift Happens’, very rhetorical (does anyone really re-position themselves every day anew) and very much the premise for yet more educational reform, given that his prescription to cure his diagnosis “requires a very different approach to education”.

Similarly, the SSAT ‘thinkpiece’ on ‘Working with Stakeholders’ (anyone else conjuring up Van Helsing at the mere mention of this word) quotes a McKinsey report that say “educational institutions are not keeping in touch with corporate recruiters and the needs of business”, such is the fast pace of their world. In doing so they give us a hint at who is really driving this fast-paced charabanc of an education system; corporate interests.

Indeed the whole pamphlet, despite supposedly being about school stakeholders, is in fact about little more than the needs of employers and businesses as represented by the CBI. Granted, this organisation is a different beast under John Cridland than it ever was (or ever could be) under Digby Jones, but it is still an organisation representing the needs of industry, not the needs of children or of society. Cridland himself is quoted as saying that “our nation’s key asset for a future of sustained growth is education”, which assumed rather a lot about education and about the desirability of a pursuit of economic growth.

These are points picked up by Furedi, who argues that “education is rarely upheld for its own sake” but is instead undermined by “pragmatic interests and concerns”. The reason why politicians and employers conspire in their rhetoric of unstoppable and incessant change is because there is a “need to functionalise education for a world in which the futures are held to be increasingly unpredictable”.

This is a point made manifest by Schleicher when he writes “when we can access the world’s knowledge on the internet…success becomes increasingly about ways of thinking”, presumably so that we can make education better equipped to “smooth the transition to work”.

I’m not arguing here that the workplace has no place in education, and that we shouldn’t equip students to be successful employees, but suggesting that perhaps the whole ‘Shift Happens’ mindset that we adopted readily at the time was, in fact, a shift too far in the direction of employer satisfaction. Perhaps we as school teachers and leaders need to be a little more concerned with helping students to sail their ships through choppy waters and a little less concerned with drilling them in how to man the lifeboats at the first sign of a swell.

The problem with the rhetoric of newly incessant change and the policy paranoia in education that it leads to is , for Furedi, that it leads to a “flight from the past” and a crisis of adult authority. Because what is known is seemingly irrelevant in an exponentially growing world “the content of education has become negotiable” and there is a self-conscious questioning of the “status of subject-based knowledge”. Consequently, the role of teachers has been questioned since “formal education is equated with didacticism”, and our title has been rebranded as less authoritative euphemisms such as ‘lead learner’ or ‘facilitator’.

The Federation of Small Businesses, quoted in the SSAT pamphlet, would presumably agree, arguing as they do that “a narrow focus on academic skills can fail to give young people the employability skills they need”. Schleicher too argues that “if we spend our whole life in a silo of a single discipline we will not gain the imaginative skills to connect the dots that enable the next invention or breakthrough to emerge”.

Now is it just me, or does this sound ridiculous? Since when have academic skills been narrow? And since when has an academic education been an enemy of employability? While we are at it, since when have students in schools been asked to spend their whole life in a silo, other than perhaps in the newly minted Studio Schools and UTCs of which the business community is such an ardent supporter? And surely true invention has, throughout history, been largely borne out of highly academic thinkers who have learned to master their discipline?

Or perhaps this is not the employability they are looking for? Perhaps instead, this ‘Shift Happens’ agenda is about preparing children for a world of perpetual change; of working for one employer after another without ever gaining a foothold in a career of any meaning. Perhaps this is what teachers and school leaders are being asked to produce to feed the corporate machine of globalisation.

Furedi thinks so. He suggests that we have adopted a servicing role, using management fads to create a “throwaway pedagogy” where there is an “imperative of motivation” for motivation’s sake which has led to an “infantilisation of education”. It is a sobering charge for all of us who teach and/or lead schools and one that should give us pause for thought, particularly as “the most pernicious impact [is] on those who come from economically or culturally deprived backgrounds”.

As a one-time child from an economically deprived background (about as deprived as you could get, though thankfully not culturally), Furedi has made me think deeply about this. I disagree with Schleicher when he says that “the premium in education needs to shift from qualifications-focused education upfront to skills-oriented learning throughout life” because I know from personal experience that my successful career has absolutely been founded upon qualifications. Plenty of my peers, and plenty of children that I have taught down the years, have been fobbed off with a “learning throughout life” alternative to qualifications, and it’s not what I’d have wanted for any of them.

The SSAT pamphlet on ‘Working with Stakeholders’ points that since 2008 (coincidentally the year of the first version of ‘Shift Happens’) the difference in earning between the ‘low educated’ and the ‘high educated’ has grown from 75% to 90%. I can’t help but wonder how many of the ‘high educated’ have amassed qualifications in the ‘narrowly focused’ academic disciplines and how many of the ‘low educated’ are contenting themselves with ‘lifelong learning’ in ’employability skills’ having missed out on an academic curriculum because of what Furedi perceives as a “loss of belief in children’s capacity to engage with challenging experiences”.

And finally, I can’t help but wonder if we have, as a profession, become a part of the problem rather than a part of the solution: whether the swirling graphics, eye-popping statistics and uplifting music of ‘Shift Happens’ suckered us into a messianic worldview where it became incumbent upon us to help our students meet this uncertain world confidently. And I wonder whether, in doing so, we forgot the purpose of our profession so eloquently summarised by Furedi in this quote:

“Education works when it is perceived as important in its own right and when children are taught to value learning for its own sake.”

So instead of rocking out to Fatboy Slim’s gloriously present tense oriented ‘Right Here, Right Now’ alongside a presentation about the uncertainties of the future, let’s hear it whilst watching the original video, which does what teachers should be doing in their classrooms, transmitting “the legacy of human knowledge and cultural achievements” (Furedi). Enjoy.

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