Guy Claxton’s Hare Brain, Turtle Mind revolutionised the way I saw the world. I was a primary school teacher when I read it and everything he wrote in that book made sense. Certainly it made much more sense than the rubbish I was bombarded with from successive education ministers. Claxton’s essential message is this: that the mind is more absorbent, more elastic when it is not stressed, tested, questioned, or rebuked. We don’t know what we know. That by being relaxed and not uptight we can access knowledge denied to us when agitated.
Since the book was published education policy has moved in completely the opposite direction than Claxton advocates. Testing children has become the most important weapon in the English and Welsh education armoury. And if a subject cannot be easily tested, then it is considered, almost by definition, peripheral. Meanwhile those children who are good at tests continue to do well, those that have strengths that are maybe not so easily testable, fail.
When the tests are reported to parents, used as a means to assess schools and teachers, then the pressure exerted makes it almost impossible for pupils to learn in the manner Caxton advocates.
And those children who are good at tests go on to become the bureaucrats of the future and uphold the regime in which they have succeeded. Often these very same people are the least able to consider any other means of running an education system.
Claxton’s book led me to other writers who have explored a similar theme. There are many of them whose books are read by teachers and parents and whose message brings hope. There’s Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary, Gerd Gigerenzer’s Gut Feelings , David Eagleman’s Incognito, Leonard Mlodinow’s Subliminal and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. These are all significant people whose books are a summary of a life’s work. But do minister’s take notice? Nope.
Despite the growing evidence to suggest that education policy is utterly misguided, the same philosophy of education predominates. As I write the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is embarking on introducing tests in Scottish primary schools. Even in Scotland, a country the ONS describes as the best educated in Europe, the government is concerned over international comparisons. In Wales, the former education minister, Leighton Andrews, staked his reputation on reforms (largely based on a dreary an unimaginative diet of testing and comparisons) but then resigned on a trumped up unrelated matter ‘of principle’ before he could be held to account when those same reforms failed to work.
International comparisons (for example the PISA tests) put pressure on administrations. Ministers don’t want to be seen to fail. They want to maintain their lucrative positions and their power. They panic. The panic is contagious. Schools are inundated with new policies, new curricula, new tests. Heads panic. Teachers get stressed and panic. Pupils get stressed and panic. And this, according to Claxton is the perfect recipe for failure.
The system itself is failing. There are those students for whom the testing system works. But for many, and these are often the creative thinkers, the dreamers, the innovators, it is not just failing them, it is actively undermining them. Claxton’s book, and the message it carries, should be read by everyone with a stake in the future.