Just Another Hole in the Wall

ImageFans of Professor Sugata Mitra (professor of educational technology at Newcastle University (UK) – see his unmissable talk on the hole-in-the-wall experiments if the name is unknown to you) will doubtless object to the allusion to the Pink Floyd song, hinting at a parallel between holes and bricks, and casting a negative light on the former, but I want to argue that there is a certain continuity between the Floydian bricks and Sugata Mitra’s holes.

At first sight Sugata Mitra might seem like a bit of a revolutionary, arguing for a break with the dark night of the present in the name of some glowing new educational dawn. The appearance is deceptive. If we step back a bit and recall the character of our economic context, we might see how his approach services the new economy in a way that bears a striking parallel to the way the older schools churned out the bricks in the walls of the previous economic order.

What are these two economic orders? Let’s call the older one Fordist (named after Henry Ford) and the newer one post-Fordist.

A Fordist economy is all about mass production, aiming to produce the same thing for everyone in the mass market as efficiently as possible. Standardisation was the key – a feature highlighted by the phrase attributed by Henry Ford in relation to his Model T automobile: “You can have any colour you want as long as it’s black.” Fordism belongs to an age that wanted to see society as a whole become rationalised (either through the self-correcting mechanisms of markets dominated by the likes of Henry Ford, or by the sort of central planning seen on the other side of the Iron Curtain.) It was a time that still thought of itself as the Age of Reason.

The shift to post-Fordism occurs when it ceases to be viable (for one reason or another) to view society as a single mass market that can be serviced by massive centralised modes of production. Instead, companies begin creating a plethora of smaller niche markets, servicing them from smaller centres of production, with a lot of the work being contracted out to other firms as and when it is needed. Standardisation and predictability are replaced by the values of specialisation and flexibility. An important factor making this possible is the emergence of computing. Another factor is the space available publicly for advertising. Niche markets are created through advertising, and that occurs primarily through the media. Every new product needs an elaborately constructed and intensively promoted image, and the culture of the image becomes more of a force in society than the old ideas about rationalisation (even though behind the scenes the same old forms of rationalisation are being put to use).

The Fordist and post-Fordist epochs require different kinds of workers, and so they also require different kinds of schools. The old schools that Pink Floyd were singing about were perfect educational factories producing workers ready to take their place on the huge assembly lines in a world that was expected to provide stability and security.

Post-Fordism requires schools that stop emphasising the value of standardisation – the idea that one-size fits all – encouraging instead an acceptance of fragmentation and change, and an appreciation of plurality. Rather than make students sit in uniform lines (creating the impression of a potentially infinite mass), students need to be encouraged to think of themselves as individuals willing and able to join any number of small groups that will form and disintegrate according to changing circumstances. Because the post-Fordist office is digital, the new classrooms need to be equally digital. Because the post-Fordist economy relies on a burgeoning of ideas for new products, new services and new ways of promoting them, schools need to emphasise creativity and initiative, rather than the regurgitation of old knowledge. Furthermore, because the post-Fordist world is one in which business is primary, school must avoid anything that might politicise young people. The post-Fordist epoch is marked by the end of ideology and the corresponding school is one that avoids championing any ideals beyond those of business, while promoting tolerance in such a way that students grow up acknowledging hundreds of different perspectives but believing that nothing can really be said to be True beyond the realm of science.

Although Sugata Mitra, in his hole in the wall talks, has not (as far as I know) spun out a whole theory about how education and schooling can be reorganised, it seems clear that the initial steps he has highlighted would lead in practice very nicely towards fitting children faultlessly into a post-Fordist economy. Sugata Mitra emphasises allowing children to learn what they want to learn. Of course, in practice schools would have to do what they can to sustain some of this child-centredness while introducing the kind of systemic constraints that young people are going to have to cope with in later life. The systematisation will doubtless be kept to a minimum, and I am suggesting that the resulting form of schooling might be very similar to the post-Fordist model described above.

So what’s wrong if there happens to be a nice fit between hole-in-the-wall schooling and the new economy? There’s only something wrong if you feel that schooling should be about more than either preparing children for economic life or just letting them do what they want to do. What might that “more” be?

To answer that question I want to suggest that we don’t reject Sugata Mitra’s starting point, but that we take it far more seriously than he does himself. Sugata prefers to talk in terms of allowing children to do what they want, but the popularity of his approach is surely a function of how it gels with our concern for the freedom of the individual and our interest (in education especially) in seeing people develop their individuality. Let me suggest that if we take this concern with the individual seriously we will see the need to go beyond the terms of the debate as Sugata Mitra frames them into areas currently seen as taboo.

As far as education is concerned, taking the freedom of the individual seriously involves trying to think through how people gradually realise their freedom (“realise” in the sense of actualise – make real) – how people develop the full breadth of their individuality.  When following that line of thought it can become clear that school is not a necessary evil but a vital arena in which young people can start to express themselves as free individuals. From there we start to imagine how the school could embody the ideals of a free society so that it cultivates those ideals and prepares young people to take a full and active role in a free society. For instance, if we think that a fuller notion of freedom and individuality requires the development of a critical intellect, we might then see the need to maintain a culture in schools where ideas are taken seriously and debated, rather than being neutralised. The free individual needs the community in which debate can take place and in which the results of the debate matter. We might even begin to see the importance of creating opportunities for political participation, enabling students to participate in the decision-making processes of the school, accompanying that with opportunities to learn about the history, the theory and the practice of a lively democracy, helping to shape the life of the school in the process. We might even come to think that it is worth promoting the idea that such participation is at least as important as doing business, or at least raising that as an issue to be debated so that an informed consensus can emerge.

None of this requires abandoning the concerns of Sugata Mitra. Students can be given ample opportunities to explore the latest technology, and work on their chosen projects. But if we are serious about the freedom of the individual, surely we see the need for much more than Professor Mitra leaves us with. Surely we want something more than just another hole in the wall.


For further discussion of Sugata Mitra, see the post below on our other blog (where our discussions of edtech fluffiness have been moved):

Sugata Mitra and the doctrine of outdoctrination in education

Sugata Mitra and the Trojan Horse of education

The blog now devoted to a critique of the edtech, pseudo-revolutionary hype is: digitalcounterrevolution.co.uk

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1 Comment

  1. Shawna

     /  May 10, 2013

    Insightful post. I was especially struck by the next to the last paragraph where you imagined a school that would begin to embody the ideals of a free society. There are a variety of free schools that do that very thing. I am a founder and staff member at The Clearwater School (clearwaterschool.com) near Seattle, which is inspired by Sudbury Valley School (in operation for 45 years) near Boston. At the 30+ self-identified Sudbury schools around the world, students and staff together democratically govern and oversee every function and aspect of the school, from policies and rules to spending and staff hiring or firing. Students are individually responsible for their lives and their learning, and collectively responsible for maintaining and sustaining a school culture of safety and respect. These are not just words or ideals, this is real and vital everyday practice.


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