Can education prevent a future economic crisis?

May 20, 2009 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

As economists search their souls, a view is emerging that human social and psychological factors should have a far more central role than the hard science of economic modelling gives them. If that’s the case, while stimulus packages and regulation are all as we cope with the aftermath of the crisis, in the longer run it may be that we should look to education to save us from ourselves in future.

Incidentally, I say this as one of the select band of people who, in a small way, predicted the financial crisis. And it’s a status I hold in common with a taxi driver who gave Robert Shiller a lift recently.

Shiller was giving a seminar at the RSA this morning (and will be speaking here again on Thursday) about his new book Animal Spirits. He happened to mention that he was in a cab with a taxi driver in New York. As they drove past the big cranes working on a series of new developments, the driver turned to him and said something along the lines of ‘there’s something wrong here - it can’t last’.

For my part, I have had the deposit for a house set aside for several years now, and have been resisting calls from my family and friends to buy a property. I know very little about economics, but I had a completely unscientific idea that the plethora of property obsessed shows on TV were both reflective of and actively selling the idea that prices would go up forever. And that idea, well, it just didn’t feel right. It felt like people’s descriptions of the early 1990′s.  So I held off.

In their zeal for accurate scientific models economists missed the housing bubble coming. Shiller argues this was, at least in part, because they don’t account for human psychology (‘Animal Spirits’ he calls them, and which are the title of his new book) which in fact plays a major role in driving economies. So me and the taxi driver managed, however dimly, to see something coming when they didn’t.

Shiller makes the simple point that people tend to respond to stories, not facts. If people see data that contradicts a dominant narrative they tend to dismiss it, or rationalise it away somehow. So, in a boom we ignore the fact that house prices have gone done as recently as the 90′s.

Today, now the bubble has burst, we have an equally damaging narrative about pessimism for the future, and a lack of trust in financial institutions and political leadership.

If human psychology is central to driving markets, it would seems that some degree of boom and bust is probably inevitable. But we could manage the consequences better if we solved two problems.

1. How do we help people deal critically with the dominant stories around them, and avoid groupthink?

2. Part of dealing with a bad time is to behave responsibly in the good times. But in such times, the pressure on politicians is to deregulate and spend, precisely because we feel good. How can we create the conditions where democratically accountable politicians can resist this popular pressure?

I have two suggestions as to how education could, in the longer run, further the above ends:

1. Realise that history might be the best popular guide to financial future: just as geography as a subject has connected intimately to the challenges of climate change and international development, so history could play an important role in informing our stories about our economic present with our past. History could help develop a shared understanding of good times and bad times, and the painful social realities of inflation and deflation. We should stop boxing financial education in, and let it permeate the curriculum in this sort of way.

2. We should decouple the story about greater wealth from the story about happiness and wellbeing - we can use education to embed the idea that happiness and wellbeing are just as linked to helping others and pursuits with intrinsic worth (learning musical instrument as opposed to earning more).

Is this a line of thought the RSA should pursue?

Children’s education and welfare – no going back

March 12, 2009 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

Directors of Children’s Services have the ‘job from hell’ since the merger of local authorities’ education and children’s services, according to John Dunford of the ASCL. His argument is that a remit that makes one person accountable for the overall welfare and outcomes of all children in the borough will inevitably lead directors to prioritise avoidance of extreme abuse and neglect,  and make it difficult for schools to claim attention. His warning comes in the run up to the publication of Lord Laming’s review into the changes.

No-one should deny that the feedback of heads about the performance of their local authorities is important and needs to be listened to. Indeed, the growing number of vacancies implies that school leaders need more support than ever to meet the growing demands of government.

However, as the problems of implementation arising from this structural change become clear, and the growing demands for schools to take account of young people’s welfare and wider development are felt, it will be used to attempt to force a change in overall direction. 

However, complexity and difficulty in implementation should not blind us to the importance of maintaining this direction of travel, particularly in the face of the coming years of austerity. It has been pointed out before on this blog that even though schools’ money will be relatively protected, a constrained public purse and a weak private sector means we will see the welfare needs grow particularly in disadvantaged communities.

Some will argue that the views of heads mean schools should narrow their aims and stop confusing the job of teaching kids rather than caring about them. Indeed, I have heard head teachers express that view in those terms.

However, if we are to provide an education suitable for the 21st century, one that is truly flexible and responsive education that takes young people’s needs seriously, we can’t go back. Instead we must create the local structures whereby effective networks of local providers, with schools at their heart, can deliver across the wider range of ECM objectives.

Incidentally, in this regard I was recently reminded of NCSL’s work with the Innovation Unit which is worth revisiting.

Richard Layard – What Makes a Good Childhood event at RSA

February 18, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

Just a quick post to point out that Professor Lord Richard Layard will be at the RSA this Thursday at 1pm for an hour to debate the Children Society’s A Good Childhood Report.

And it is a key debate, because the report is both important and problematic.

It is important because it amplifies a voice often unheard – that of young people’s own sense of their well being. To raise this call above the clamour surrounding measures of outcomes defined as important by government is a real achievement.

However, it is problematic for two reasons (which I explore in more depth in the RSA’s online journal). One is that the implications are not thought through well enough in its recommendations. The second is that there was little emphasis on the importance of young people’s active citizenship. This opportunity to explore the relationship between association with others for a common purpose and combating the deleterious effects of individualism seems to have been missed.

Let’s hope the inquiry carries on to ask questions in this area. In the meantime, the RSA will continue to develop its thinking through the Manchester Curriculum pilot, (more of which soon).

P.S. For those who read the blog but don’t know the RSA, this Thursday’s event is part of the RSA’s regular series of free lectures and talks from top class speakers. Anyone can access them for free either by attending at John Adam Street, via download, or through iTunes.

The value of schools in a new austerity

February 12, 2009 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

On Monday, the Liberal Democrats published their plans to invest more in education, and yesterday I argued they missed the chance to set out a vision which was more responsive to the long lasting economic downturn we face.

So, how could they have responded?

Well, there are three responses.

One is essentially ‘more of the same’ like we saw yesterday. Admittedly, Nick Clegg did propose some changes, notably around school accountability and investing in reducing class sizes for 5-7 year olds, which brought the focus on inputs rather than outcomes.  But that hardly amounts to the vision we need.

A second is a reactionary response which amounts to a drive to ‘stop caring about kids and just teach them’. It will likely push for narrow accountability measures to evidence only young people’s subject knowledge, promote a traditional didactic classroom, while a wider local role in partnership or local service provision will be clearly labelled of low priority to the school system.We can see the threads of this in the Conservative position of Michael Gove and Nick Gibb as they emphasise traditional content and subjects, and their aim to greatly increase the numbers of schools independent of local authorities.


We need a new, third, alternative – one which addresses our society’s need for a new generation of citizens who, individually and collectively, are capable of meeting the major social challenges we face, including those thrown up by our economic circumstances, not to mention sustainability, shifting demographics, and so on.

The question becomes, ‘what are the institutions like which can foster a new citizenship in this country?’.

There are no easy answers, but Sir Cyril Taylor made a valuable point when he looked back to the experience of Henry Morris’ Village Colleges, which I think reflect to two things:

1. If we are to equip people to be active citizens, we must take account of their need to be knowledgable, their competence (not least to keep learning throughout life), and their networks and relationships that create the possibility of impact and change.

2. We should explore the idea of schools far better connected and embedded in their local areas. One promising piece of work is the RSA’s Manchester Curriculum - a pilot running this summer of an area based curriculum developed around on Opening Minds.

There will be further news on the RSA site and here about the progress of the Manchester Curriculum soon.

Liberal Democrats education spending plans miss the point

February 11, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

The Liberal Democrats published their spending priorities for education on Monday, but by ignoring the debate about the content and purpose of schooling they missed the chance to make any contribution to the real debate in education.

In pledging to scrap tuition fees, increasing spending on poor kids at school, and grow child care provision, Nick Clegg made great play of counting the cost in our current economic circumstances. So, he also announced a range of cuts, notably tax credits for 2.5 million people and the Child Trust Fund.

But, in the context of ballooning public debt and rising unemployment,  a ‘more of the same’ argument isn’t what we need.

It’s not just that all parties are agreed to protect and even grow slightly their spending in education (hence why the headlines are less about the investment, and more about the cuts). Schools are likely to be relatively protected, but not from pressures that greater hardship will bring.

In coming years, a rise in unemployment seems likely to contribute to a range of social problems affecting communities – for example property crime and hate crimes, none of which will be good for young people’s wider well being. At the same time, money for third sector community services, a notable example being youth work provision and youth centres, seems likely to shrink. Schools are likely to be amongst a lessening number of community institutions and services, and the pressure they are under to account for the welfare and caring role may well grow as a result.

We currently have a push-me-pull-you approach in the education system, where league tables and initiatives like the National Challenge on the face of it push schools to emphasise subject knowledge (though evidence seems continually to grow of various institutions gaming the system). At the same time, a raft of initiatives pull schools to think about the wider well being agenda, most recently flagged up by the A Good Childhood report. SEAL, PLTS, and extended schools are notable examples.

This approach seems likely to creak even further in the coming climate of austerity, and needs rethinking.

The parties need to articulate a vision for schools which show how they will place them at the heart of communities, combatting the growing problems of acquisitive individualism by resourcing local people to live a fulfilling life in greater association. 

It can, and as Sir Cyril Taylor points out in his new book, A Good School for Every Child, has been done.

RSA Academy recognised in Design Week’s Hot 50

February 3, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

A quick post to mention that we were delighted to hear the RSA Academy and Opening Minds being named in Design Week‘s Hot 50. Sadly the story’s not on their site yet, so I’ll give you a quote instead of a link:

‘The Royal Society of Arts has strongly supported design since it emerged as a professional discipline in the early 20th century…It’s efforts are recognised in this year’s listing as it sponsored the RSA Academy… The [Opening Minds] approach to teaching and learning has been adopted by the academy, which shows the RSA’s continuous hard work in introducing innovative ideas on education.’

Thanks, Design Week!

Gifted and Talented kids – victims of teacher ideology?

January 30, 2009 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

The emerging nature of the education debate, notably being driven by the Conservative party among others, was revealed today in the Telegraph’s front-page, which shouted that teachers were failing to promote the brightest kids because they ‘fear promoting elitism’.

The Conservatives have been arguing for some time that schools are riddled with evidence of what they term ‘progressive ideology’.  Cross-curricular themes and classrooms where children sit more often in groups rather than rows are two things they point to. The general thrust has been enthusiastically taken up by some, notably the Campaign for Real Education, also quoted in the Telegraph article.

So, in the quoted responses to an ACL report on the now defunct National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth it is unsurprising to see the initial lack of uptake by schools spun as yet more evidence of institutions stocked with education professionals committed to ideologies which run counter to children’s success.

There are two problems with this reponse. The first is that that DCSF are able to point to greater uptake in recent years, particularly since the new Gifted and Talented scheme was put in place, now run by CfBT. 95% of secondary schools are, it is said, now engaged.

If this is truly a problem of entrenched ideology in schools’ staff, it hasn’t taken long to shift…

However, aren’t there other, perhaps more likely, effects at play? For example, our sytem of school based accountability and targets based on the achievement of 5 A-C GCSEs could easily be said  to skew the picture. If I were running a school, with those targets and league tables in mind where would I put my effort? Would I put Gifted and Talented Students at the top of the list, or those students on course for getting D’s at GCSE who could perhaps be tipped over into the government’s definition of success…

This may be part of the explanation for the findings of a recent DCSF-commissioned piece of research that showed that amongst high-performing education systems, schools-based accountability is relatively rare.  Most seem instead to favour monitoring approaches which enables comparison of performance between regions and internationally, while the performance of schools is understood based on their region and the  profile of their intake. Notably those taking this approach include Sweden, much trumpeted by the Conservatives for its promotion of choice and school freedom.

Rather than looking for a debate about ideology, wouldn’t students be better served by a focus on what evidence means for policy and implementaton?

Screen time is up, and book time is down. Should we worry?

January 20, 2009 by · 10 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

The Guardian and BBC are both reporting on the growth of ‘screen culture’ for young people.

In particular, it is pointed out that the numbers of kids reading for pleasure is down from 84% – 74% in the two years from 2006-2008, while socialising on the internet and playing videogames are apparently big winners.

I must say, it first occured to me to wonder how much of this trend can be attributed to the end of the Harry Potter series. I also wonder if the growth of communications use is actually just about multi-tasking facilitated by access to phones or webtools that let kids have easier access to Facebook etc. That is to say, doing the same things kids were always doing but it is easier to text or have an instant message client running at the same time.

Anyway, what really worries me about our analysis of these numbers is that they are never accompanied by any analysis of the quality or propriety of what is being consumed.

Reading is down, and videogames are up. We assume disaster, because we believe reading is inherently good and videogames and the net are at best a waste of time and at worst morally damaging.

But surely the time has come to acknowledge that reading is crucial and irreplaceable by any other media, reading total rubbish is not. Playing certain videogames probably will be a waste of time, while others will stretch the mind and the imagination.

So, coverage of the amount of time spent on reading for pleasure or playing games or watching TV is important. However, without a more evaluative analysis of what is being actually consumed on the different media, it is always more likely to promote a panic which may or may not be justified…

The numbers that really matter…?

January 15, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

This week, the education headlines will no doubt be dominated by the political row over the headline figure of 470 ‘failing schools’. Is it good progress, poor progress,  or not what we should be measuring in the first place…  

I have decided to be contrary and blog about other numbers that matter. The road less travelled by and all that.

So, turn away from 30 (per cent A-C GCSE’s) and consider 150. Or Dunbar’s number as some know it.

Dunbar’s number refers to the work of Robin Dunbar, an anthoropologist who argued that the brain had evolved to cope with social networks of about 150 people.

My colleague at the RSA, Matt Grist, is author of the excellent Social Brain blog. His most recent post, Social brains, social networks, big ideas and social change, points to fascinating work being done to combine recent insights such as this from evolutionary psychology with policy and practical application.

The theory goes that you find this number popping up all over the place as the limit to the size of social networks people can cope with. Historical and contemporary examples are dispersed through life like a mundane version of the Valenzetti Equation - the numbers of friends and acquaintances you possess, Christmas card lists, church communities. I might add Facebook friends lists.

If our brains are limited in the social complexity they have evolved to cope with, the idea is that when we try and break these limits we might see problems.  People can’t take in the complexity of the social arrangements, and therefore Alliances become hard to form, social norms are harder to reinforce and so on.

To draw a practical implication of my own, it reminded me immediately of Human Scale Schools.

Dunbar’s number is disputed – is it 150 or nearer 300 as others suggest?  Does is it shift depending on your use of modern technologies like bebo or instant messaging? But the weight of opinion tends towards the view that humans have evolved to deal with a certain size of social network. 

Either way, it is interesting to note that Human Scale Schools tend to contain 300 students or less, and possess a emphasis on the relationships within the school.

Equally, perhaps it should reduce our surprise when schools which experiment with large classes of up to 90 students, as some Opening Minds schools do, find it can work very well.

I’m sure I’m not the first to make the link, but it illustrates the far reaching consequences that such new knowledge could (should?) have on the way we organise schooling in future.

The fragile balance of risk and reward in the classroom

January 12, 2009 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

Last week saw Ofsted criticising boring teaching. A common response was that if you want more engaging lessons, you need to allow teachers to take more risks. More creative lessons might be great, but, they argue, a greater number of lessons will fall flat, and we need to be ok with that.

Engaging students with more interesting lessons is one reason to take risks, but there are others…

In the context of major challenges like climate change and a contracting economy, the RSA has been emphasising the importance of action by each of us. These aren’t problems that will be solved just by government, big business, but rather require most people to change their behaviour. Change is less about them and more about us.

When thinking about schools, I would argue, in short, that our concern should be not only that young people are knowledgeable, but that they are able to act.

That’s why when I met a university admissions tutor for a maths department the other day, I asked him what he thought about using projects or practical problems as a vehicle for learning content in a subject like maths. As it is one of the subjects least often integrated into project work in Opening Minds’ schools, I was expecting a fairly firm rejection of the idea.

His response was far more subtle. It was, he said, potentially worth pursuing, but in pursuit of a better outcome, we could lose what’s worthwhile in what we already do. It was, in short, fragile.

In the ensuing discussion, he gave the excellent example of an exercise he had run with students where, rather than ask an individual a straight maths question, he presented a group of students with a problem and asked them to present a reasonable solution.

In this case the problem was ‘ predict how many people could you fit on a football pitch’?

This problem has several possible solutions. One is to take the area of the pitch, assume everyone is shaped like a rectangle of a regular size, and go from there. Another is to refine that approach for a more accurate answer by assuming the space people take up is not rectangular, but hexagonal. Then tessalate the hexagons. You can refine further by assuming different sized hexagons based on, say, the average area taken up by adults and children. You can further refine it by acknowledging that the area taken up is better represented by a circle, and attempting to tessalate those.

To get the most useful answer, the group must realise rectangles aren’t very accurate, that to work with circles involves using maths that hasn’t been invented yet (according to my source). The best solution in practice is therefore going down the hexagon route.

He argued that many students were arriving at university who knew the formulas, but not when or how to use them to solve a problem. Classroom teaching and individual coaching got them so far, but no further.

So, using a practical problem in this way could be better. Students can delve more deeply into the maths and grapple with the formulas, while at the same time having to imagine a solution, manage group discussion and decision processes and so on.

But there is a price…the FA say football pitches can be different sizes. What happens if the students just argue about what size the pitch is? In other words, if the facilitation of the group processes is poor it can lead to dealing with content in a very shallow way.

We might decide change is needed for a number of reasons: engaging students, helping students learn how to use knowledge, and or how to work with others are just a few. However, if we move on from ‘delivering content’ as many schools have begun to, we must realise the risks involved and consider how far we should go, how we can improve the chances of success, and do we have the people that can get results in this way?

In short, we need to remember it’s fragile.

Older Posts »