Never trust someone who promises you a 'revolution' in education
I had some interesting pushback recently on Twitter about how the London Interdisciplinary School (LIS), the new university we are founding, was not that revolutionary. This had me worried for a moment. I don't think I've ever claimed we were revolutionary and I was careful, during my time at UCL, when we were setting up the innovative UCL BASc, to say at Open Days and the like, 'never believe anyone who tells you that something in education is revolutionary'.
It turns out, indeed, that the 'revolutionary' comment regarding LIS is not something we claimed but probably comes from a newspaper headline. And we know that the journalists who write the articles (let alone the people interviewed for them) don't write the headlines.
But why do I say not to trust someone who promises a revolution in education?
Well, education is about people. Fundamentally it is about the relationships between one generation and the next. And people, these complex flesh and blood things, don't change that much from generation to generation. Biological change is slow. The way we learn changes slowly. Take me back 10,000 years to an early agricultural settlement and many of the same things that are required to learn something: spaced practice, interleaving, emotional salience etc. would be the same for me then as now.
Societal or cultural change happens faster than biological change. Sometimes markedly so. I believe we are seeing this happen again today. And to try to reflect this, education must, of course, evolve and experiment with curricula, content, delivery, assessments - and all kinds of expectations of students and staff. But you won't be able to push too far before our biology (or our 'humanness', if you prefer) pushes back.
I actually thought we would have a revolution in education 2010-2012 when MOOCs were first breaking. I wrote about some of this at the time. There are, of course, many exciting innovations and stories out there, from the pioneering Arizona State university, leveraging its excellence in online learning to reach thousands of new learners, to individuals who have done entire elite degrees online by themselves. But it would he hard to claim that a revolution in higher education happened - at least not here in the UK in terms of the impact it has had on university enrolments (numbers are buoyant), curricula (there has been little radical change), delivery of classes (huge lectures with lecturers 'delivering content' synchronously are still ubiquitous), examinations etc.
Some of this inertia is simply a reluctance to change, given the disruption it causes and that many - from incumbent exam boards, to academics, to HR departments of graduate recruiters - are doing fine with the current systems. But those that thought the recent wave of amazing educational content available for free on the internet would cause fundamental shifts overlooked that many of our current systems grew up because people like it that way: large lectures are a chance to bump into friends and hang out afterwards; cramming for an exam or, indeed, painfully making hand-written lecture notes, feel like rituals that 'should' be part of a learning experience, even if they are, in fact, rubbish ways to learn; new curricula are challenging and their outputs not as easy to understand in terms of previous ways of thinking. And so on.
But you can have innovation without 'revolution'. You can offer much-needed new insights and new solutions which many are thirsty for without claiming or even desiring to be revolutionary. And in offering these new solutions you will naturally be moving the conversation forward, taking a step towards normalising, for the next generation, innovative ways of thinking and working which may be long overdue.
Innovation, too, is almost always somewhat relative. What is new in my house may not be new in yours and what seems new in one country is standard in another. However, innovation in the context of UK higher education is what I hope and believe we are doing at LIS. New ways of conceiving of the curriculum. New outputs and types of assessments for students to work on. New valuing of interdisciplinarity and challenging legacy ways of conceiving what 'depth' in learning looks like - not just tied to historical academic disciplines, but based on an understanding of complex real-world problems. A new type of diversity in our student body, with students of radically different academic profiles, backgrounds and interests. A new level of connection with external bodies and organisations relevant to students after they graduate.
I guess we'll leave it to others to decide if we are revolutionary. I'm just happy that we have the opportunity to implement and offer lots of new and exciting things that are long overdue in UK higher education.