The Road to Damascus —Why we need more level heads

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Saul was a “zealous” Pharisee who had spent his life persecuting early Christians. According to the New Testament, on the road to Damascus, Saul saw a flash of light that came down from heaven. He then heard the voice of Jesus, who asked him why he was persecuting Him and His followers. Saul was filled with the Holy Spirit and from that moment on became Paul the Apostle. Paul’s divine revelation caused him to see clearly “between righteousness based on the law,” which he had sought in his former life, and “righteousness based on the death of Christ”.

I was recently part of a panel discussing whether schools ought to invest in technology or textbooks (I was there arguing that they should do both). Colin Hughes, a fellow panellist representing Collins Learning, described how, when ebooks were first introduced he was bowled over by their potential. He was convinced that the future was digital and that he was witnessing the death throes of print as a medium. As a result, Collins invested heavily in digital only to not see a return on that investment because, of course, what actually happened was that ebooks carved themselves a niche in the market but sales of printed books remained strong. This was Hugues’s Damascene moment, when the revelation came to him that schools were wasting their time on digital resources. He had seen the light and from that moment on he would proselytise the superiority of print.

Recent years have seen the development of a new traditionalism in education that espouses the return to the more effective practices that were prevalent before a more progressive philosophy of education became widespread across schools structures and curricula, resulting in huge damage wreaked on the life chances of poor children in particular. If you disagree with the assertions in this one-sentence summary, new traditionalists would not hesitate to class you as a progressive.

In my experience, new traditionalists tend to be bright, eloquent, passionate individuals who — as any teacher would — want the best education possible for children. They believe that this is achieved by teaching a rich, knowledge based curriculum, enforcing strict discipline and promoting a back to basics approach to classroom instruction that dismisses alternative approaches as nothing more than gimmicks and clutter.

New traditionalists are, of course, right about many things, in particular about the importance of a knowledge rich curriculum and about the need for a drive to improve the quality of instruction. But, in the course of our conversations, I noticed how new traditionalists would often speak about how wrong they used to be about group work, 21st century skills, discovery learning or what have you, and how they changed their minds once, in a Damascene moment, the truth was revealed unto them.

Now, I’m not against changing one’s mind or admitting one is wrong. That would be silly. Everyone does that all the time, quite rightly. As John Maynard Keynes famously quipped “when the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” And I’m not against Damascene conversions either. Who knows, perhaps there is one in store for me yet. But one thing is to change your mind about what strategy you are going to use in a lesson and quite another is to be persuaded to perform a hard reset of your values and principles.

Would Collins’s strategy for ebooks have been more successful if they had taken a more level-headed approach to digital publishing? Would their fortunes had turned out different if, instead of falling head over heels for the twentyfirstcenturyness of ebooks, they had seen a more likely truth: that ebooks would simply coexist with traditional print, not take over? Similarly, would our values and principles as teachers be more enduring if we’d been more critical and sceptical when they were being shaped? Would we then be less likely to swing from extreme to extreme?

I don’t know. Perhaps not. There is clearly a tension between the different approaches that may lead to a great education for children, and the ensuing debate can be very healthy, but I think it would be healthier if it were more moderate and balanced. At the minute, it seems as if the tenor of the debate and the policy agenda are being set by those who believe the most and shout the loudest, and I’m not sure that is good for anyone.

 

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  1. For me the question here is “what is a book” I think we so often get mixed up between form and function. I would (and indeed have!) argued there are four sorts of book (and possibly more) and each of these have different forms, functions and affordances.

    The p-book (or print book) has great portability, survivability (beaches and baths!), sustainability and wonderful, wonderful ‘battery life’.

    The dp-book (or digital print) has even better portability (can be sent electronically), has little mass, can be searched, tagged and some added functionality (such as dictionary, thesaurus etc..).

    The m-book (or multi-media book) has the option for video, audio, graphics and a range of other functionality (Widgets) which adds to the offer and builds a richer experience both for the novel and the information/learning book and finally;

    The i-Book (or interactive book) has the ability for data-in (or up-to-date datasets, data-out (for data analytics), multi-authorship, never finished.

    So, the answer (for the book) is not a technology divide (after all the book was a technological revolution once) but the form and function question. If you are interested in more about this please do contact me at p.hopkins@hull.ac.uk

    1. Hi Paul,

      Thanks for your contribution. As you have said, folks confuse form with function when it comes to reading “on screens”. As I learnt recently, this includes publishing houses, who are still reeling from making that mistake

  2. Interesting post Jose. I wondering if the problem with the ‘Damascene moment’ is the dangers of coming up from the deep too quick is that you get the bends. Surely, a slower method, involving discussion, is a better approach? No idea stays the same forever, nor does it stretch and bend too much.

  3. You are being somewhat unfair on the issue of ‘hard reset’. Concerning the edu Damascean conversions- It is not about wiping a slate clean. It is more like upgrading. With every upgrade, new features replace old. Later on you wonder how you ever managed before….what were you thinking? Should have done this ages ago! Hard reset implies going back to specifications when new, untouched, uncontaminated with humanness. That ‘hard reset’ you speak of could not be further from that and it certainly isn’t what reigns in most primary schools where a progressive ethos that is sometimes rightly questioned balks under the strain. Twitter is its own world of course. It may seem as if traditionalists have the loudest voices but perhaps I can get all biblical with it:

    The disciples left the safety of their locked room after being ‘filled’ with the Holy Spirit. They had been afraid of repercussions and a manhunt after Jesus was tried and crucified but when they emerged from the room it was as if their hearts were full of evangelical spirits. They roamed the crowds speaking in many tongues and spreading the message of the resurrection. If you are going to get biblical then I suppose that in this case these disciples were not level headed or rational. They acted out of sheer belief and joy…..yes joy. They believed the most and shouted the loudest without fear of ridicule or their own inevitable martyrdoms.

  4. Hi,

    Thanks for your comment. Perhaps I did use a poor analogy. Or maybe not.

    Interesting parting shot. Do you think a metaphorical martyrdom is in store?

  5. I’m with you, Jose. Have been around long enough to see that life (and certainly education) is about varying shades of grey – there is little black and white.

What do you think?