The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution. 

Igor Stravinsky

In yesterday’s Times, David Aaronovitch wrote an opinion piece headlined, Pupils aren’t just another brick in the wall. His argument was that schools “force” children into cohorts depending on their age and abilities and that this is a “straightjacket”. Many aspects of schooling are, he claims, based on the flawed assumption that children develop at the same time and in the same way. Clearly, they don’t. We are, of course, unique, just like snowflakes, but this rather obvious observation causes us to over-estimate the importance of our differences.  Aaronovitch’s suggestion is that technology will allow the kind of personalisation children need to develop at their own pace and in their preferred direction and that schools of the future will only exist to serve some sort of socialising function.

In support of this argument he assembles Messrs Robinson and Mitra. Sir Ken, he points out, reckons that the assumptions of school – essentially that our similarities are more important than our differences – “contradict the way people actually learn”. This certainly sounds truthy, but is it actually true? Well, according to the best that cognitive science is able to tell us, no, it isn’t. The recent Deans for Impact report The Science of Learning, neatly summarises the best of what we know about how people learn. It turns out we know a fair bit about how we understand new ideas, how we learn and retain these ideas, how we solve problems, how we transfer learning to new contexts and how we are motivated to learn. None of these findings are at odds with the structures of schools, none of them require learning to be ‘personalised’ and all of them require us to pay attention to children’s similarities over and above their differences. If we’re looking for populist ideas which do in fact “contradict the way people actually learn” we need search no further than the superficially plausible but thoroughly debunked theorising of Sugata Mitra. Never has the Emperor felt a more biting chill in his nether regions than when garbed in Mitra’s tawdry effervescence.

To Aaronovitch’s credit he acknowledges the weaknesses of his piece:

His views are instead based on his observations:

And of course, that’s fair enough. Or it would be if these opinions weren’t dressed with the trappings of respectability and objectivity offered by Ken and the Gang. If Aaronovitch, or anyone else for that matter, wants to moan about the inequalities of the school system they’re certainly entitled to do so. Schools are a very long way from perfect and there are various systemic reforms which might benefit everyone. But suggesting that there is any objective truth behind trendy moves to ‘unschool’ generations of the future are disingenuous at best and negligently malicious at worst. Far from being a straightjacket, school is the best chance for most children to achieve anything like the autonomy and freedom enjoyed by those who write for The Times.