MONTHLY BLOG 4, ON THE SUBTLE POWER OF GRADUALISM

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2011)

Currently, fashionable chatter on the new political Right refers approvingly to the case for ‘chaos’. That view is voiced by Nick Boles, Conservative MP for Grantham and Stamford, author of Which Way’s Up? The Future for Coalition Britain (2010). Out of institutional turmoil, financial cuts, and the end of central planning there will – supposedly – emerge a benign new localised order, freed from the shackles of the contemporary state. The premise is that things should not be as they are. So the uncertainty of chaos is needed to encourage change. But history provides no guarantees that the outcome will be the one desired.

Rather more traditionally, the hard political Left also hopes for ‘revolution’. It’s not the same as ‘chaos’, though it contains the same hope. Out of upheaval will emerge the desired socio-political transformation. In fact, it has proved difficult to achieve such sweeping changes. It takes a total crisis to offer a revolutionary opportunity (as in Russia in 1917). But, even after that, it remains hard to keep a revolutionary regime in power against internal and external enemies, without compromising the original ideals that animated the revolution in the first place. Soviet Russia offers a sad example.

So why the apparent enthusiasm for chaos or revolution? Such attitudes mark an impatience with the strong forces of tradition and vested interests (see my October Discussion-point). And, in certain circumstances, there may be no alternative to drastic action.

But what about the case for the subtle power of gradual change? Perhaps slow transformation seems simply too tardy for today’s politicians. After all, they are constantly beset by demands for instant headlines and instant results. Belief in gradual change has also been tainted by its past association an infallible and unstoppable ‘Progress’. The horrendous experiences of the twentieth century – in terms of world wars, genocides, mass famines, and killer epidemics – have discouraged any easy belief that things are slowly getting better across the board.

On the other hand, there are still some things to be said in favour of gradualism. It marks gentle ‘progression’ rather than inevitable ‘Progress’.

As a political method, it works by trying to convince people. They are to be wooed, not bludgeoned. ‘Slow but sure’ runs the adage. Festina lente – ‘make haste slowly’. ‘More haste, less speed’. Follow the example of the Roman consul Fabius Maximus. Avoid battle or direct confrontation, especially when likely to lose. Play for the long term. But don’t give up either. Fabianism is no excuse for inertia but an invitation to join the ‘long march’.

Historically, there are many examples of how patient advocacy over time can change social attitudes. Once majority opinion in many cultures held that human slavery was permissible and acceptable – even necessary and justifiable – in certain circumstances. The first few campaigners against the practice were condemned for their utter unrealism. Now, however, world-wide opinion holds that slavery is a social evil, even though various forms of personal unfreedom still – shamingly – exist in practice. Official beliefs have changed, collectively and gradually. Even those who covertly disagree find that they have to endorse the new line publicly. And there are reasons to hope that, eventually, the practices of covert slavery will also be stopped, in line with the reversal of world opinion from pro- to anti-slavery.

In fact, cultural attitudes, languages, and ideas are characteristically aspects of human life where transformations occur slowly and gradually. Individuals may often find that they have changed their views imperceptibly over some particular issue – without remembering particularly when and how the change happened. One common, though not invariable, pattern is a shift from youthful radicalism to an older hostility to innovation. Or it could be a move from earlier pacifism to later bellicosity. Of course, sudden and explicit conversions are also known. But gradual adaptations are very characteristic.

Slow evolution, after all, is a regular part of the physical world, of which humans form part. In biology, micro-change is the characteristic form of species adaptation through natural selection over time. That pattern was convincingly demonstrated in the mid-nineteenth century by Alfred Russel Wallace and, most famously, by Charles Darwin. His field observations substantiated the classic dictum: Natura non facit saltumNature does not proceed by sudden leaps and bounds.

The precise mechanisms of change remain debated; and the possibility of natural catastrophes are also canvassed. Nonetheless, the biological centrality of gradual change remains undoubted. And individuals, who find themselves imperceptibly ageing, know the process at first hand. It happened to Charles Darwin (1809-82), as shown in these likenesses of him aged 31 in 1840 (Left); aged 45 in 1854 (Right); and aged 60 in 1869 (Bottom Left).
charlesdickensLastly, for historians, it is also not surprising to find that gradual change is a powerful force in human history. There are many long-term trends that are slow and relatively imperceptible at the time. One example is the world-wide spread of literacy since circa 1700. Certainly there have been oscillations in the trend; but it is unlikely to be reversed, short of global catastrophe.

Another long-term development post-1700 is the process of global urbanisation, with a continuing growth in the proportion of the world’s population living and working in towns. In addition, the numbers living in great cities of 1,000,000+ has also expanded dramatically. Again, this trend has not been linear. But it is highly unlikely to be reversed – again short of catastrophe.

And finally, what about the contemporary state? It has not arrived out of the blue, as an imposition upon its citizens. Instead, it has emerged slowly, along complex routes – from its origins in monarchical society to its officially democratised version today. Sure, there is much more to do by way of making popular participation in politics more systematic and more effective. Sure, too, there are continuing areas for debate as to how much the state can do and should do. But, again, the emergence of orderly government and a collective sustaining of the rule of law is a trend that has long emerged – is still emerging in some lawless parts of the world – and ought to be encouraged.

With collective urbanisation has come the need for effective governance. With the spread of literacy has come the pressures to democratise – with further steps yet required. And with global population growth has come the collective need to manage the planet for the survival of humans and our fellow species.

‘Chaos’ in the full sense means destruction, not salvation. It means running against the grain of historical trends. So let politicians have a sense of modesty about their own roles and aims. Gradual change is more natural, more sustainable, and socially more pleasant. Progress may have been an ideal too far. But steady progression marks how things actually work – and ought to work.

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MONTHLY BLOG 3, WHY DO HUMANS STILL LEARN CHIEFLY VIA FACE-TO-FACE COMMUNICATION?

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Having written last month about the power of Continuity, my next discussion-point reverts to an issue within Education that is much influenced by Continuity. And that is the question of why face-to-face group teaching is not only surviving, in this time of technological alternatives, but remains essential. So why do humans still learn chiefly from face-to-face live communication?

Of course, it’s fine to agree that there is ample scope for learning via the wonders of advanced technology. The chances of television in its early days taking over from face-to-face teaching were never very great. That outcome is contrary to the predictions of some behaviourist psychologists such as B.F. Skinner (1904-90). He argued in the 1960s that the box would provide individualised tuition for students to proceed at their own individualised pace. There is much to be said for his concern for not pushing ahead until the student has understood. And much to be said for his opposition to teaching by flogging.

Yet, crucially, he was wrong about the quick switch to technology. Early television lacked interactivity. It was fine for conveying news in small bites or drama in big bites. The hard graft of day-in-day-out learning, however, proved to be very boring to pupils when seated alone in front of an inanimate box, which competed against the distractions of everyday life. Distance learning works at its best for the very highly motivated. And even then educational packages via TV have had to be gracefully standardised for mass delivery.

Today, the small screen and the web together have much greater educational potential. They allow scope not only for individual views to be debated interactively by peers and by tutors but also for students to pursue their own enquiries and research leads. The whole experience can be much more exciting. A cornucopia of information (and misinformation) awaits – with the potential for bewilderment but also endless stimulation.

So what remains so important about face-to-face education? Why does it survive, indeed predominate, all round the world?

An obvious answer is that it stems from our need, as part of a gregarious species, to be with other humans. Children reared in isolation from normal human contact are severely damaged. And this gregariousness applies to humans across the board – not just in education. But the question can be pushed further: why do we still rely on face-to-face communication when we humans have also invented distance communication systems – and worked hard to make those distance communication systems user-friendly for human requirements?

There are three big reasons: firstly, face-to-face teaching allows for improvisation and adaptation on the part of the teacher, with a speaker’s normal range of hesitations, repetitions, emphasis, perhaps humour, and personal style. That fluctuating flow of information and advice encourages listeners to concentrate and to co-think alongside. At the same time, the teachers’ presentations are subtly but definitely influenced by the response or lack of response of the students. As a result, teaching is a performance art, which is always in process of adaptation. It doesn’t always work perfectly, needless to say. But face-to-face allows for responsiveness. [One implication of this comment is that teaching at all levels should preferably be conveyed with a free flow of words, rather than via reading from a prepared text.]

A second important reason, closely related to the first, is that humans also interact via an even older form of communication. In the course of human evolution, a primordial reliance upon facial expressions, gestures, body language, and sounds of all kinds long preceded speech. And, while the power of words has become hugely important, notably aided by its collateral influence when translated into written words, the old ways have not disappeared. Instead, they co-exist.

So students are also learning, not just from the teachers’ flow of words but also from their entire bearing, as well as from their facial expressions and gestures, which accompany speech in rich counter-point. Of course, expressions and gestures can also be seen via some modes of electronic communication: but stylistic conventions have to be learned to suit different media. No wild gesturing (or even minor gesturing) on TV, for example. Look how the news-anchors rely upon facial expressions but firmly control their hands. [Again, another implication of this comment is teachers need social respect to do their jobs well. Otherwise, they may appear socially undermined in front of their students and their students’ families. Education is supposed to convey the confident message Knowledge is Power! But brow-beaten teachers convey the opposite impression. Thus politicians who loosely criticise ‘bad’ teachers tend to exacerbate the pedagogic problems which they claim to be trying to cure.]

And there is one third important point about the face-to-face encounter which applies particularly to education. The need for regular meetings of tutors and students means regular timetabling, at meetings where students learn from each other. Regular timetabling and unfolding programmes of study together help to prevent learning becoming bitty and fragmented. The regular timetabling of learning fits into a weekly rhythm, which fits into an annual cycle, which fits into an evolving lifetime.

Face-to-face teaching on a regular basis achieves its impact, not just for individuals but for social groups. We gesture; we talk; we observe one another doing the same; and together we gain access to the accumulating and ever-expanding stock of knowledge that has been created over the generations. More specifically, we began with gesture; then proceeded to talk; then to write; and now to invent and use machines. But it’s ultra-human to add the new ways without discarding the old. Indeed, far from discarding, the new communication systems enhance and still depend upon the old ones.

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MONTHLY BLOG 2, WHY IS THE FORMIDABLE POWER OF CONTINUITY SO OFTEN OVERLOOKED?

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My discussion-points aim to alternate between big themes relating to Education and big themes relating to Interpreting History. So, since the October debate highlighted the current mania for wrongly prizing Skills over Knowledge (instead the two go integrally together), this November discussion-point takes a different tack, in order to ask Why is the Formidable Power of Continuity so often Overlooked?

One central point of definition needs to be made immediately. ‘Continuity’ is not the same as ‘Conservatism’ as a political philosophy. It is true that the latter ideology does gain much support by appealing to many people’s desire for the former. But it is equally clear that Conservatives in power may also have their own highly interventionist programmes.

To take a current example, the UK’s Conservative-Liberal Coalition has launched radical cuts in welfare spending as well as drastic institutional reorganisations, in order to ‘roll back the state’. But government is not an ‘intruder’ from an alien world. Its mechanisms have been developed (or, to its critics, overdeveloped) over many years by many governments. So the state and society are closely meshed – not only via institutions, laws and tax systems but also via people’s daily expectations, customary routines and a range of differing vested interests.

As a result – interestingly – one of many factors ranged against the current government’s plans will be the force of Continuity, also known as tradition or, unkindly, ‘inertia’. Its power may appear in many guises, from outright resistance to more-or-less concealed foot-dragging.

Furthermore, Continuity also works unexpectedly by twisting apparent innovations back into ‘more of the same’. An awareness of such slipperiness prompted a famous snappy dictum from a French journalist, named Alphonse Karr (see below). He viewed the string of abortive revolutions across Europe in 1848 and concluded pensively that ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’. [Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose].
Alphonse_KarrOf course, Karr was not completely right. Changes undoubtedly do happen, both gradually and dramatically. But they are always tempered by the power of Continuity. In fact, innovations may fail or prove to be counterproductive – either because opponents consciously strive to circumvent change – or because the innovations are imperfectly planned and/or implemented – or because the innovations have anyway little intrinsic chance of success.

An example was the policy of Prohibition in the USA in 1920, when the 18th Amendment to prevent the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol eventually failed. (Prohibition was repealed in 1933). On the other hand, controls or even bans on disputed drugs can work when public opinion is broadly supportive. The gradual demise of cigarette smoking in many Western countries is a counter-example to the case of alcohol.

Where do the forces of Continuity come from? Some are embedded within from time-invariant features of the universe, like the laws of physics, which are constants. These features hold the world together stably from moment to moment. Even within the turbulence of quantum physics, there is one tiny invariant facture, known as Plank’s Constant, which operates as a marker, against which other changes can be measured. But other elements of Continuity come from human societies, in the form of traditions, customs, and habitual expectations. These also can and do change. But much persists, as it would be too exhausting and confusing if everyone altered everything in their lives from moment to moment.

So, lastly, why are the forces of Continuity so strangely overlooked? The answer is that Continuity acts as the universe’s ‘default system’, which is simply taken for granted. It is so constant and so ubiquitous that it becomes invisible. Next time that you do something automatically, without thinking about it, you are enacting Continuity. It’s not the only force in the world – and it’s by no means all-powerful. But it’s more important than is often realised – and it operates not only throughout the wider world but also within you.

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MONTHLY BLOG 1, WHAT SHOULD A NEW GOVERNMENT DO ABOUT THE SKILLS AGENDA IN EDUCATION POLICY?

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Clearly, an educated and skilled population is a ‘good thing’, socially, culturally, democratically, and economically. Why then is it a mistake to define education as a process justified by – and organised around – the inculcation of skills? The answer is that people cannot learn fully from skills taught in a vacuum. At best they have a half-knowledge of what to do – and at worst, they are have forgotten – which means that later they have to learn the same skills all over again.

This state of affairs leads employers to snort: ‘I can’t think what students are taught in schools/Colleges/Universities’ and ministers to promise ever more skills-training. But it is not working, because, from the best of intentions, the teaching processes have been deformed and are not delivering properly.

Labour meanwhile tinkers with the governmental command structure. In June 2007, out went the Science/innovation office within the Department of Trade & Industry. And out went the Further and Higher Education section, within the Department of Education & Skills. In came a merged new Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS). But in June 2009, lo! all-change again. Suddenly, the DIUS and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) were subsumed into a mega-Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Depressingly, the term ‘Skills’ persists throughout the upheavals, while terms such as Education or even Science sink below the froth.

Vocational education faces similar upheavals. In 2008, the current Commission for Employment & Skills (UKCES) merged the old Sector Skills Development Agency (SSDA) and the National Employer Panel. Again ‘Skills’ are trumpeted from on high. But if no heed is paid to the need to learn and develop these attributes within a framework of knowledge on the job, then the mantra, however often repeated, can’t work successfully.

What is to be done? My answer is: ask the educators who actually do the job. And then free them to teach not lists of abstracted Skills, which are forgotten, but a range of developmental capacities in the content and context of a deeper Knowledge, which works.

EDUCATION CONSULTANCY AVAILABLE: on all issues relating to Higher Education, including how to finish a PhD thesis, how to teach Skills effectively, and how to boost research achievement.

In this context, please see also CorfieldPdf/16.

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