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.