David Cameron on education

British Prime Minister David Cameron’s Life Chances speech which we highlighted in our last post includes recommendations on education. Cameron, once again, lays out an approach outside the mainstream at least here in Michigan and the U.S. He calls for a broad, rigorous liberal arts education for all children, not just the children of the affluent. And for what he describes as character education citing the work of Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck. No mention of vocational training, STEM or the skilled trades.

Cameron writes:

Over the coming weeks, I will set out in more detail our second term education reform agenda. But let me explain some of the thinking that will underpin it and how, in particular, we want to help the most disadvantaged children.

We now understand far more than we used to about how we take in information and learn, what it takes to be a great reader and even be creative. Much of the answer is knowledge; we understand new information in the context of what we already hold. As Kahneman, Daniel Willingham and others have described, the more information is stored in our long term memory the better our processing power – our working memory – can be employed.

It is by knowing the past that we can invent the future. That’s why it is so absurd to call a knowledge–based curriculum ‘traditional’. It is utterly cutting edge – because it takes real notice of the great advances in our understanding of the last few decades.

Dismissing knowledge is frankly dismissing the life chances of our children and that is exactly what people like the General Secretary of the NUT are doing when they say, as she did last weekend, that children don’t need to learn their times tables because they can use their phone instead. That is utterly the wrong thinking.

All the things knowledge helps infuse – innovation, creativity, problem solving – are the qualities our employers want. That is why the Ebacc – which puts the core subjects of English, maths, science, history and geography at the centre of what students learn is such a massive move for social justice. It will give every the vast majority of children – not just the wealthy – the education that gives them the opportunity for great jobs.

We also understand something else. Character – persistence – is core to success. As Carol Dweck has shown in her work at Stanford, no matter how clever you are if you do not believe in continued hard work and concentration, and if you do not believe that you can return from failure you will not fulfil your potential.

It is what the Tiger Mother’s battle hymn is all about: work, try hard, believe you can succeed, get up and try again. It is if you like, the precise opposite of an ‘all must have prizes’ culture that permeated our schools under the last government. Put simply: children thrive on high expectations: it is how they grow in school and beyond.

Now for too long this has been the preserve of the most elite schools. I want to spread this to everyone. So as we reform education further, we’ll develop new character modules so that all heads are exposed to what the very best schools do.

Wow! New York columnist David Brooks in an op ed about this speech pines for a Republic presidential candidate running on Cameron’s approach to poverty. When it come to education it would be great if we had a candidate for office in either party or for that matter a business leader that was articulating Cameron’s education vision. It is exactly what all Michigan kids need if they are to be successful in an economy being constantly transformed by globalization and technology.

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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

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