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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

Schools in an Age Where Everyone is an Expert

Reflecting on the aftermath of the French Revolution, the 18th century political essayist, Friedrich von Gentz, once noted that Paris has become “lulled into the dream of blissful omniscience”. When it comes to Law, Medicine or Metaphysics, he explains, the ordinary person remains modest and respectful of those who are trained in such matters. Yet, in the shadow of the Revolution, when it comes to matters of the State, “everyone is becoming an expert.”

Fast forward one hundred years and Oscar Wilde is reputed to have made a similar remark. An expert, he says, is an ordinary man away from home giving advice.

A photograph of the Arc de Triumph in Paris at sunset
In the shadow of the Revolution, a new kind of public discourse occurred.

Sitting in the long shadow of COVID-19, there can be no doubt that we are living through our own kind of revolution. And the sentiments of both Gentz and Wilde continue to apply, with one small change.

An expert, I suggest, is an ordinary man (or woman) sitting at home giving advice.

In just the same way that the French Revolution opened up a public discourse on matters of the State, there is an unprecedented cacophony of opinions being expressed right now on how schools should respond, reopen and reimagine the future of learning. In some corners of society, the discourse is a free-for-all in which “experts” try to out-shout and out-email one another for attention.

But why is this happening and how should we respond?

Over the past weeks and months, we cannot underestimate the revolution that has occurred right in front of our eyes. The education of our children, hitherto, has taken place in the relatively private domain somewhere behind the school gate. As parents, we imagined what their learning looked like and drew upon our own childhood experiences to fill in the gaps. On special occasions, we were invited in to have conversations with teachers and look around. But the experience was always managed and controlled.

And then, one day, learning literally came home. As parents, we were given unprecedented access to how it all works, to scrutinise and offer opinion on every detail of every day. We even started to question where the value of it all lies.

We became the experts; once ordinary men and women sitting at home giving advice.

From the point of view of being an educator, I believe that this is both a challenge and an opportunity. It is a challenge because we will never succeed in following all of the advice that is coming our way. The voices will grow in the coming months, of this I have no doubt, and it will require of us both conviction and courage. Those of us who try to please everyone will find ourselves spinning in ever-decreasing circles, until we eventually collapse under the weight of our own spin.

At the same time, it is perhaps worth considering that the opening up of a discourse about what learning really looks like and what kind of education our children really need is actually a discussion worth having.

In the end, parents know that they are not experts any more than the citizens of France wanted to run the State in the aftermath of the Revolution.

Both simply wanted to know that they had a voice in whatever comes next.


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