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False Nostalgia About ‘How Things Used to be’ Won’t Help the Future of Education

In uncertain times, it’s natural to yearn for the comfort of a misremembered past, says Richard Gerver – but for the future of education, that isn’t good enough...

  • False Nostalgia About ‘How Things Used to be’ Won’t Help the Future of Education

Its natural, right? We feel like we’re losing control, we have a lack of clarity, of certainty and even a sense of a loss of value and place. People are unsettled, anxious and angry.

So, what do we do? We hanker after the past; to a time when we felt safer, securer, happier. It’s like feeling poorly and craving a sofa, a duvet, an old movie and some of your gran’s chicken soup.

So much of the policy and politics we are living through today, is based on trying to make us feel better by taking us backwards. We can be safe again, happy again, even great again, if we invoke nostalgia in order to seize back control and rediscover the warmth of simpler, happier times.

It is clear that as the world turns, our children will face at least three great challenges, which are defining the present and will ultimately decide tomorrow. Issues around the environment, the economy and socio-ethnic integration are major catalysts in and around world events.

Education holds the key to how the next chapter plays out – and I am concerned, very concerned. As a civilised society, it is our responsibility to use education for, amongst other things, preparing our pupils for the challenges of their future. We must ensure that the system is designed to reflect the knowledge, skills and experiences our young people will need to live long, fulfilling, healthy and purposeful lives.

New challenges

Over the last 40 or 50 years, I fear that we have spent far too much time focusing our time, energy and passion on making education more efficient, not making it more relevant.

I recently interviewed two people whose views somewhat support that belief. Former US President, Barack Obama told me that, “We have to understand that the education system, designed to take people from farms to factories and then in to offices, is no longer fit for purpose.”

Meanwhile, Barry Barrish, the 2017 Nobel Prize winning scientist, explained to me that, “Qualifications were simply not enough”.

When he recruited his 150 strong team for the groundbreaking work into gravitational waves, which saw him awarded his Nobel Prize, he was clear that he would only appoint people who could ask, “stupid questions,” and who, if possible, had arts in their backgrounds as well as sciences.

In January 2018, at the Davos World Education Forum, it was suggested that a ‘skills revolution’ could actually open up a raft of new opportunities; but if we take this on board, we have to consider the challenges that come with it, too.

For example, at the same event, the McKinsey Global Institute stated that its research suggested robots could replace 800 million jobs by 2030.

“Anything that is routine or repetitive will be automated,” said Minouche Shafik, Director of the London School of Economics, in a session on Saving Economic Globalization from Itself.

She also spoke of the importance of “the soft skills, creative skills. Research skills, the ability to find information, synthesise it, make something of it,” going on to argue that overhauling our education system will be essential to fixing the fractures in our societies and avoiding a tilt towards populism.

Same difference

We have spent too long in education, working out how we deliver the existing system more efficiently; the same outcomes and qualifications, just to a higher level of success. We have even tried to return to a more ‘traditional curriculum’.

Yes we have tried to innovate the structure of our system in who runs, funds and controls our schools – but that is not where the innovation will really make a difference.

We need to have a braver, more constructive and innovative vision for the future of our world, and that begins with education. The pursuit of nostalgia may make us feel warm and safe for a while but will only exacerbate the real issues we face.

Education has never been about efficiency; at its best, it has always been about preparing the next generation to lead us forward. The world is changing, it is changing exponentially and chicken soup, therefore, is sadly, not the answer.


Richard Gerver is a former headteacher who has spent the last decade working with high performing organisations and elite sports teams exploring leadership, innovation and performance. His latest book is Education; A Manifesto for Change (Bloomsbury Education). Find him on his website at richardgerver.com and follow him on Twitter at @richardgerver.

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