Weeks ago I thought the climate emergency might be the spark, but now, especially as UK schools and universities are closing, I think Covid-19 is more likely.
I had an email from a senior academic colleague in Wuhan who recently studied at the Institute. Among other things, she wrote about how all schools and universities had been closed, with students having to learn via online resources. She herself has spent her six weeks of lockdown co-writing a long paper welcoming the disruption of traditional patterns of higher education by the digital university.
This has reinforced my own misgivings about traditional approaches to teaching in schools and HE. As I said, climate change has been a spur. School students have been taking action – by school strikes and demands for change in the way schools operate. New web-based organisations have been created. Teach the Future, for example, describes itself as “a youth-led campaign to urgently repurpose the entire education system around the climate emergency and ecological crisis”.
Although this last proposal may be over the top, there is no doubt that schools could do more, at least in England. The treatment of the topic is sparse and uncoordinated. Climate change is only mentioned briefly in the National Curriculum science programme and climate more generally in geography. One reason for this is that the issues involved in the climate crisis are interdisciplinary – an overlapping combination of scientific, economic, social, political and ethical considerations. Schools – and indeed universities, as Jonathan Wolff has recently pointed out – have traditionally been locked in a régime of teaching separate subjects.
Subject-mindedness is only one of the traditional features of the teaching profession at both levels. Teachers have seen themselves as experts in transmitting specialised knowledge and skills. They have passed these on in face-to-face situations at set times in classrooms and tutorial offices. Their work has depended, especially in schools, on top-down rather than participative communication. Class teaching has meant personalised learning is difficult.
Many of these features of traditional teaching are found, with variations, across other professions like the law, medicine, print journalism, architecture. Richard and Daniel Susskind argue in their The Future of the Professions (2015) that conventional patterns are already eroding and likely to become far more obsolete in decades to come.
This is because not all their work is by any means as arcane and irreplaceable as it seems – a claim on which their often high status in society depends. Much of it, even lawyers’ work, will be able to be done by machines. Much can be delegated, from doctors to nurses, for instance, or from teachers to teaching assistants. Above all, the internet means that lay people can find out for themselves – whenever convenient to them and in ways personalised to their current interests – knowledge previously hidden behind classroom or office doors. Face-to-face contact will no longer be always necessary. Commenting on web items and interactions on social media will make the transmission of professionals’ knowledge more participative. In the education sphere, interdisciplinary understanding will be within everyone’s reach.
For some time before the climate emergency and Covid-19 we began to see the attrition of these long-established features of the teaching profession. As well as MOOCs in higher education, at school level there are now things like TED talks and the free on-line courses in a large range of subjects provided by Khan Academy, with its enticing videos and other programmes. Students’ demands for urgent action in schools on climate change, shared via the web and social media, may well be spurring on the erosion.
But far more of it may result from school and university closures across the world due to Covid-19. Both of these are now happening in the UK. Several months of shutdown might mean, as in Wuhan, relying on digital learning. Students as well as more forward-looking teachers would then see at first hand its many benefits. Once the Covid-19 crisis is over, we can also expect further shifts from traditional ways of working. Basic arithmetic is already at risk from developments occurring in the tech world; and we can reliably predict refinements in school- and HE-level web learning, not least in interdisciplinary studies.
Twenty years ago the teaching profession had no knowledge of the existential threats that are now beginning to affect it. Within twenty years from now, institutes of education like our own may also have to radically change direction.