Sunday 3 January 2021

Covid-19, Science and Education

One of the best things I watched on terristrial TV this new year was the Parliament channel's recording of a special meeting to discuss the scientific evidence on the new Covid-19 variant. It's not often we see scientists in almost a "native" mode, expressing the uncertainty around knowledge about a virus, and explaining this uncertainty as best they can to politicians whose job it is to formulate policy. You can watch it here: - Science and Technology Committee

The scientific rigour is impressive (and some of the questioning by the politicians is also very acute - did we inadvertantly cause this mutation? will the vaccine work against it? - no definitive answers to any of this). But it also struck me that this is a group of people who are totally focused on their scientific niche, when the virus presents a systemic problem and there is no coherent way to connect the rigour of virology to the broader social questions - particular those about children, viral transmission and schooling.

About schooling, Dawn Butler asked a pertinent question about whether schools should be closed. This was one of the more disappointing moments from the scientists. They fudged around the issue, saying things like "obviously not going to school damages children... so it's a balance".

Obviously? What do they mean by that exactly? Where is the comparable rigour behind that assumption that they show in their dealings with the virus? Calum Semple from the Sage committee was on the radio the other day even saying that the approach to education was a "whole system approach". Really? I don't know what his understanding of "whole system" is, but it doesn't look like something that systems theorists would understand as "whole system". "Whole system approach" has become a kind of sop to fend off awkward questions: interesting how the establishment appropriates systems thinking, and then does the opposite. 

We can't really have a whole system approach until we have some grasp of the relationship between natural systems and cultural systems. Our problem with education is that we conceive of it being entirely cultural, and that our culturally-defined parameters and metrics which determine the success of education are divorced from natural biological and psychological factors. Covid is screaming at us that these things are not seperable, and that we need better scientific theory in education and learning. 

In the time of Piaget, there was little doubt that learning was connected to nature. The challenge was to find the best way to connect the natural processes with the cultural, institutional organisation of society's education system. Now hardly anyone talks about Piaget in any depth. Constructivism (if anything pedagogical is discussed at all) takes its place, and rather like "whole systems", the word has become divorced from its scientific roots, and splashed around as a badge of honour to mask pedagogical and institutional approaches to learning which are the very opposite of what Piaget was talking about. Constructive alignment anyone?

Today the government let it be known that "online learning was a last resort" for education. A last resort from what exactly? From the cultural system that we call education which wants to maintain its convenient divorce from nature and science. As the world moves into a new era where a combination of working online alongside mass unemployment is going to bring intense stresses on existing social structures, are we really saying that face-to-face mass education which is little changed since 1900 is the way forwards? How does that prepare the kids for the world as its becoming? The answer is, it doesn't: it prepares the kids for their parents' and teachers' world that we are leaving behind. 

This is not to say that the online education we have today is good. It's obviously mostly terrible. But it's terrible because the computer is being used to reproduce the function of the old system. But a proper "whole system approach" would change the system. 

I don't think it's that difficult to imagine how things could be much better.  The effect of technology upholding ancient institutional practices and structures has been an increasing transactionalisation, increasingly mundane technological work for learners and teachers, and a fundamental loss of meaning in the activities of learners and teachers, from primary school onwards. Education risks meaninglessness and irrelevance. 

How do we put the meaning back into our teaching and learning activities? They must be reconceived around the manifest and fundamental uncertainties that face us all. Rather than drilling knowledge that everyone already knows into young minds, education could be a process of renewal where the questions that nobody knows the answer to are addressed by young and old together. And yes, you can teach maths like that! That was pretty much what was going on the Science and Technology Committee. 

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