Rethinking Education: Launch of Podcast Season 2, by James Mannion

[A link to the audio version of this article is found at the end.]

If you follow the mainstream education debate as avidly as I do, and really here I’m talking about the debate as it plays out largely on the internet – social media and blogs, predominantly, as well as at conferences and in the tsunami of education books being published currently – you may be forgiven for thinking that all the big questions about education have been settled, and now we just need to decide whether we should do retrieval practice at the beginning or the end of each lesson.

I think this is partly because the majority of the education debate that takes place online consists of teachers talking to other teachers, with the odd education researcher thrown in for good measure.

Let me be clear: this is a wonderful thing. The internet has enabled teachers – for the first time in the history of the profession – to look up and out beyond the confines of their own classrooms and to connect with teachers and researchers all over world, many of whom are wrestling with the same problems that they are. People are sharing resources and ideas and learning from one another on an unprecedented scale, and this is an absolutely wonderful thing. You can see the teaching profession becoming more and more confident and sure-footed, almost in real time.

But there is more to this picture than meets the eye. Education, and schools in particular, are often discussed as though they are an unquestioned good – that schools are an emancipatory mechanism that provide young people with the knowledge and skills they will need to survive and thrive in the big wide world. And that qualifications are like keys that open doors and so on. And that’s all true.

But there’s a shadow side to schooling that is often overlooked. As I learned in my recent conversations with Ellie Costello and Fran Morgan from Square Peg, over a million young people in the UK, astonishingly, are persistent absentees from school. Of those, around 100K are absent for over 50% of the time. And around 30K are absent altogether. And that’s before you count the 100K on top of those who homeschool.

We don’t know a great deal about these absentees. Sometimes, they are described as the ‘canaries in the mine’ – those who recognise that school may not be serving them well, start voting with their feet. If this million persistent absentees really are canaries in the mine, this suggests that many more may be struggling within what can often feel like a toxic environment.

We do know that the increasing incidence of mental ill health among young people is of grave concern. The statistics are startling, and come with a trigger warning.

  • Mental health problems among young people have increased by over 50% in the last 3 years.
  • One in six young people have a mental health problem. That’s 5 in every classroom of 30.
  • And of those, 70% have had ‘no appropriate intervention’.
  • Around 25% of young people self-harmed in the last year.
  • Around 7% of YP attempt suicide by the age of 17.
  • And suicide rates among young people have roughly doubled in the last ten years.

I’m not suggesting that all of these problems are directly caused by schools, although in some cases schools clearly are part of the problem. Mental health is a complex phenomenon with many moving parts.

But the question remains: if our schools were different – if young people had more agency and choice over their learning, for example – or if we took the teaching of emotional self-regulation as seriously as we teach long division – would we see these same startling statistics?

Mental health and the extent to which young people’s suffering may be caused or exacerbated by what does or does not happen in schools is not the only thing we need to rethink.

In recent years, in England certainly, we have witnessed the rise of cognitive science, striding out of the sea like Godzilla to save us from our ignorance of ‘human cognitive architecture’.

Again, this is a good thing. As a consequence of the rise of cogsci, as it is often known, many researchers, educators and young people themselves have learned a great deal about memory and how people learn things, and many have benefited as a result.

Perhaps the most common idea associated with cognitive science is the notion that the mind consists of a working memory and a long-term memory. The working memory can be thought of as the mental space we live in, and it has limited bandwidth – it can easily become overwhelmed, or overloaded. If we want to take information from the external environment – teachers, books, the curriculum – and transfer it into the long-term memories of young people – then we need to pay attention to ideas like cognitive load theory, retrieval practice, self-quizzing, interleaving, dual coding, spaced practice and so on.

But again, there is a lot missing from this picture of how people learn, and there is more to education than information transfer.

  • The role of emotions in learning, for example.
  • The importance of sociality – the role other people play in our learning, and the extent to which young people are able, and enabled and encouraged, to communicate their thoughts, feelings and emerging ideas confidently and effectively with their peers, their families, their teachers and the wider world.
  • The role of agency in learning, and in motivating young people to learn.
  • The child’s background/past experience, and any trauma they may have experienced in the past.
  • Neurodiversity.
  • How young people go about making meaning out of their lives, as well as learning curriculum content.
  • The importance of identity, and the notion that education is not just about learning a curriculum of powerful knowledge – it’s also about developing knowledge of self, about personal development, and about being a process of self-actualisation.
  • Flow is also notably absent from discussions about education. Flow is perhaps the highest state we can attain in learning or mastering something. I’d love to see much more talk of flow in the education debate. Let’s set our sights a little higher.
  • And the rest of the body is also often missing from discussions of cogsci, although not always. It’s as though education is something that only happens from the neck up – and in particular, in the frontal lobes. I know some people have written about the idea of embodied cognition – Guy Claxton’s book Intelligence in the flesh, for example. And a recent book called the extended mind by Annie Murphy Paul, which I haven’t read yet but looks fantastic. I hope to get her on the podcast at some point.

Alongside mental health and cognitive science, there remain questions around the school curriculum – which, while being comprised of what some may consider to be ‘powerful knowledge’, often – in the “view from the student’s desk”, to borrow a phrase from Mary Alice White, can seem incredibly abstract, removed from and irrelevant to the lives of young people. I’m not suggesting we should only teach kids what they want to learn about. But there is an important conversation to be had here, and it needs to be forever contested and negotiated – especially around ideas about decolonising the curriculum, or at least diversifying the curriculum and moving toward a less Eurocentric version of it.

And then there’s the fact that the world kind of seems to be going to hell in a handcart. The ongoing, devastating impact of human activity on the environment and our apparent inability to halt it. The alarming resurgence of far right politics. The manipulation of democratic elections by bad actors sloshing around seemingly endless reserves of dark money. The way in which the best minds of our generation seem to spend their time figuring out ever more insidious ways to get people addicted to their smartphones. The astonishing lack of competence among our political leaders.

I could point to a hundred other things that don’t seem to be going very well, or even to make any kind of sense at all. I certainly don’t claim to have the answers to these deep-rooted problems – many of which are interconnected . But I do firmly believe that together we can imagine ways of rethinking and re-organising education that might just lead to a more harmonious state of world affairs. Ways of re-organising education so as to alleviate some of the stress and anxiety that so many young people seem to be feeling. Ways of re-organising education so as to enable every single one of them – without exception – to leave school feeling like a successful, confident citizen of the world. Or at least not feeling like a failure, having been repeatedly branded one for the last however many years.

These are the questions that we have started to unpick and unpack in this podcast – which, in case you haven’t heard it before, features long-form conversations with a cast of incredible educators and beautiful human beings in a vague but nevertheless heartfelt attempt to bring about a more beautiful, less scary state of world affairs.

The response to this podcast so far, and the campfire conversations that kind of sprang into being alongside it earlier this year, has been absolutely phenomenal, and far beyond what I ever imagined when I posted my first fascinating conversation with Debra Kidd almost a year ago.

There is clearly a powerful appetite out there for conversations like these – and for the actions that follow. Indeed, it feels like the whole planet is rethinking education at the moment. It seems that the pandemic has given lots of people pause for thought, and many have become quite resolute that they don’t want to “go back to normal” because actually, normal wasn’t really working for them in the first place. We can see this in the remarkable increase in people choosing to homeschool, for example, all over the world.

In short – our work here is not yet done. Not by a long chalk.

Having now buried this long lead, it gives me great pleasure to announce that Season 2 of the Rethinking Education podcast will be with us very shortly. And we have some stellar guests lined up in the coming weeks and months.

First up will be Pupil Power. What better way to start a new school year than by speaking with some actual young people?!! This will feature some familiar faces who have appeared in campfire conversations in recent months – to share that “view from the child’s desk” and to ask “why do they have to always sit behind desks anyway?” What if young people were able to take part in making decisions about their education? Do adults always know best?

I am also incredibly excited to be speaking with Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a former schoolteacher and now a neuroscience professor at UCLA who researches the role of emotions and sociality in learning – alongside, and intertwined with, cognition. If you haven’t heard of Mary Helen before, I strongly recommend looking her up. She’s done TED talks and several podcasts before, and her book – Emotions, Learning and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience – is an absolute banger.

I’ll be speaking with Michael Young, a professor of sociology who, at least according to a recent profile in the Guardian, is the counterculture class warrior who turned to Gove through his appreciation for what he describes as ‘powerful knowledge’.

I’ll be speaking with Harry Fletcher-Wood about his brilliant new book ‘Habits of Success’ which seeks to apply the insights of behavioural science to helping students form healthy habits – and perhaps even to drop one or two unhealthy ones along the way.

I’ll be speaking with Donald Clark about AI. Adele Bates about her brilliant new book, ‘Miss I don’t give a shit’. Mark Roberts about educating boys. Geraldine Rowe about teacher-pupil collaboration. I’ll be speaking with the journalist Warwick Mansell about some of the ethically dubious things that have been happening in English school system in recent years. I’ll be speaking with Jay McTighe about Understanding by Design, authentic assessment and his recent book, Leading Modern Learning. I’ll be speaking with Kate Barry and Elaine Long, two inspirational school leaders I’ve been working with on an implementation science programme I developed – there will be some exciting news on the implementation science front in the weeks ahead. I’ll be speaking with Professor Yong Zhao about side effects in education and how ‘what works may hurt’, and about his latest book, Learners Without Borders. And I’ll be talking to Jonny Hunt about his new book ‘Sex Education for adults’.

So. Something for all the family.

One more thing before I leave you. As I mentioned earlier, as an off-shoot of the podcast, I hosted a series of ‘campfire conversations’ before the summer. These were live-streamed conversations that you can still see on YouTube, as well as listening in the podcast feed. This was an attempt to bring more voices in to the conversation – parents and carers, alternative educators, psychologists, academics – and, most importantly, the voices of young people themselves.

The campfire conversations are absolutely incredible – enlightening, amusing and frequently moving – but it’s clear that the desire for all these different people to take part in rethinking education is much greater than the format allows.

For this reason, it gives me enormous pleasure to announce that next year, in 2022, there will be a real live Rethinking Education conference.

We have an amazing venue and a date in mind, but it’s still in the early stages of development so I’ll announce the details in the coming weeks. But it will be an attempt to bring people together from all walks of life – including, but not limited to school teachers – to share stories and perspectives, to listen to one another – and to rethink education, rethink the curriculum, rethink leadership, rethink assessment, rethink professional development, rethink behaviour and attendance, rethink pedagogy, rethink educational philosophy, rethink policy, rethink traditionalism, rethink progressivism…

You get the idea. Whenever I think about it, I find myself grinning from ear to ear. It’s going to be awesome.

And so, I strongly suspect, is this season of the podcast.

Thank you for listening to this. Thank you for joining me on this journey.

Let’s find out together where it goes next…

This is the transcript of James Mannion’s trailer for series 2 of the Rethinking Education Podcast. If you would prefer to listen to the audio, please click here. Hosted by Dr James Mannion, Rethinking Education features in-depth conversations with interesting people about how we might tweak the education system so as to avert catastrophe and transition to a more harmonious, peaceful, sustainable way of life.

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