Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Change schools or change children?

One of my favourite books of last year was Yuval Noah Harari’s magnificent Sapiens. It looks like his new tome, Homo Deus, is going to be just as fascinating if the rest of it lives up to the first couple of chapters. The book charts some of humanity’s possible futures but also an attempt to force readers to rethink their thoughts of the future by exploring and understanding our history.

One of the most compelling ideas to surface so far concerns education. Harari pints out what anyone on edu-Twitter knows well:

Whether in ancient China or Victorian Britain, everybody has his or her pet method, and vehemently opposed all alternatives. Yet hitherto everybody still agreed on thing: in order to change education we need to change the schools. (p. 40)

He then goes on to suggest an alternative means of improving education. Maybe it would be “more efficient to change the pupils’ biochemistry.” Startling, isn’t it?

He cites for instance the way Ritalin has taken hold in education. Apparently 3.5 million school children were taking medication to combat ADHD in 2011. In the UK the numbers have risen from 92,000 in 1997 to 786,000 in 2012. Let’s put to one side the contented question of whether ADHD actually insists and think instead about why children have been prescribed the drug. In almost all cases it is to alter children’s biochemistry to compensate for something they lack and thus better fit them to the demands of school.

Now, according to a study from Ragan, Bard & Singh, there’s troubling evidence that between 5 – 10% of American college students use illegal cognitive enhancers along the lines of Ritalin to improve their performance. These are students who have nothing wrong with them but, in order to obtain an advantage over their peers resort to changing their biochemistry.

We meet feel appalled by this and see it as akin to taking performance enhancing drugs to unfairly win an Olympic medal. We may be minded to decry the pressures of a school system which would force students into such desperate acts. Indeed, as Harari says, many people would argue that such stresses are evidence of a mental health crisis and that we should “blame outdated teaching methods, overcrowded classrooms, and un unnaturally fast temp of life.” If this is the case then of course we should reform education to better accommodate the needs of young people.

Except that’s been tried, hasn’t it? And where did that gotten us? We’re still arguing about whether more selection at the age of 11 is a good thing despite it being roundly agreed decades ago that it wasn’t.

For the record, I’m not saying we should prescribe all children cognitive enhancing drugs. But Harari suggests that altering our limitations through biochemistry or non-technology may well be inevitable. If you don’t like the sound of that, his advice is to study our past so we can liberate ourselves from fixed patterns of thinking that have grown out of the conditions and necessities of time gone by. If we’re not aware of the meta beliefs which govern our thinking we’re powerless to put ourselves onto another, possibly better course.

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