The *new* three ‘R’s?

Richard Dawkins (science writer and Muslim-baiter) is an old boy of Oundle School in the UK. I taught at Oundle for almost ten years, in two stints, and had the pleasure of meeting Mr Dawkins, even dining with him on one occasion. He was rather stiff company, difficult to draw on any topic of conversation and generally gave the impression that he’d rather be somewhere else, which was probably exactly the impression he wished to convey.
Dawkins is credited with having coined the neologism ‘meme’, and if you spend much time on edu-Twitter, you’ll find a lot of memes. Some popular edu-folk seem to communicate almost entirely in memes. Justin Tarte is a good example, Adrian Scarlett another. Their pithy, single-line posts of truthiness, often emblazoned slogan-like on a 1980s Athena poster-style background, tend to be popular with a certain type of Twitter user: people who engage the retweet button more readily than the brain.
These posts focus on things like how Schools in 2017 look a bit like Schools in 1917, the killer observation that prisons have a ‘uniform’ (and so do Schools) and even that graves are laid out in rows and so are some classrooms. These points are made to suggest that the obvious modernisation of hospitals, industry etc, has not been mirrored in Schools, which still rely on a method of instruction (teacher educating the class) that is so very 20th Century.
The arrow of time is fixed, and as such, technological, industrial and scientific progress develops apace, and this is broadly a good thing. It has also caused global climate change and has developed nuclear weapons, but it is up to society to determine how this is managed. We are a progressive species and it is unnatural to stall progress.
Education is different, however, due to the annoying habit of the human race to refresh itself in complete ignorance. Babies are pretty thick, and need to be educated from scratch, even babies born into 21st Century learning. Technological or medical progress is not necessarily linear, but it doesn’t have a reset button, unlike education. There is always a new Reception class, always a new Year 7 cohort and always a fresh set of young adults moving into Year 11 – the triumphs and disasters of the previous year are rarely relevant to the new class coming through. Advances in technology and wider access to information (which is still what some people think will revolutionise education) do not give us the right to bypass the basics – the Three ‘R’s – that have proved fundamental to the education of human beings since time immemorial. We should be careful not to try and build taller buildings on more shaky foundations.
There is evidence to suggest education in Schools has stalled. Flatlining NAPLAN scores and the first decease in the percentage of top grades at GCSE for about 30 years are just two examples. Despite the fact our children don’t seem to be getting any cleverer, we are still advancing the bleeding edge of technology. How to explain this paradox? Maybe, as Matt Ridley points out, we’ve reached a point where we can build things as a species that no one individual is able to create, and thus we’ve advanced further than our individual abilities due to the power of widespread collaboration? Put simply, everyone knows a bit, and these bits together make quite an impressive whole. Or maybe the people responsible for these advances were educated not by their own random exploration of the internet, but with a focus on core academic disciplines from a young age. It’s conjecture, but I suspect the lack of improvement in education is a direct result of moving away from a more traditional form of education, whereas use the same evidence to justify a move away from just such a model.
Perhaps we’re regressing as a species? Perhaps these days we’re all about memes and selfies and reality TV and no-platforming those we disagree with rather than entering into informed debate. Maybe we just got bored of educating each new generation in the important Three ‘R’s of Reading, w(R)iting and (a)Rithmetic? I agree with Hirsch: if you could measure just one thing upon which to judge the success of Schooling, it would be the reading ability of a School leaver. Reading at a high level allows us to gather knowledge, make connections and communicate better ourselves.
I suggest we re-embrace the Old Three ‘R’s and raise serious questions over the New Three ‘R’s. These New (unofficial) R’s’: Risk-taking, Resilience and (Ken) Robinson might make for better soundbites and memes, but they are more likely to take us back to the dark ages than into a more enlightened, educated future.
Risk-taking? The modern risk-taker sees inanimate statues as a foe worth battling.
Resilience? Modern resilience seeks to diagnose 1/4 of young girls with depression and promotes the removal of tackling from the game of rugby.
Robinson? Dance your way to success in Mathematics.
When Tasmania first broke away from mainland Australia, around 12000 years ago, the population was too small to collaborate successfully and thus advance, and the people therefore actually experienced regression. Surely something similar can’t happen in 2017?
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