As the novelist LP Hartley taught us, ‘The past is another country: they do things differently there’.
Whether looking at a fading photograph of unfamiliar people in dark unsummery clothes on English beaches, or stumbling across pictures of ourselves or our families taken a few years back, we are often surprised at just how unfamiliar history – our history – can seem.
And as we get older, the present seems to turn into the past more quickly than it ever did. I sometimes catch my students giving me indulgent glances when I point out that there was a time when we used telephones simply to phone people and watches merely to tell the time. It was the technological era before what is now called ‘multifunctionality’, the period before everything did everything.
So while I might occasionally use my smartphone to speak to someone, more often I’ll use it to send a text, order a book, check the weather, plot a journey, and try to keep on top of far too many messages or news stories.
There’s even a new word, I’m told – ‘smombie’.
It’s a blend of ‘smartphone’ and ‘zombie’ and describes the tendency we so often see of people locked in an absorbed gaze with the screen in their hand, not noticing the people, the trees, the world around them. We are smombies who have been smombified.
Welcome to modern life as we hurtle ever faster into an uncertain future.
It’s why in education we need to remember that we are preparing young people for a world of employment and leisure that is likely to be quite different from the one we stepped into.
As change experts such as Charles Handy have been predicting for years, the days of a single career are fading. We see it already, as students take gap years before or after university, embark on one job knowing that a few years, or possibly months, down the line they will change direction. The twenty-first century citizen is likely to have several careers over a lifetime.
Because of this fast-paced change, schools need to do two things. First, they need to change and second they need to not change. Here’s what I mean.
Schools themselves need to stay abreast of change, adapting to the needs of modern society, and teaching young people how to prepare. But we also need to resist changing for the mere sake of changing. Schools of all places need to give young people some sense of stability, of tradition, of roots. These inner certainties help us navigate our way through unpredictability.
At our school we are planning to welcome our first generation of Year 7 and 8 students in 40 years. These are the 11- and 12-year-olds who will benefit from stepping up to secondary school to be taught by precisely the same teachers who are preparing older students for exams and university.
We watch as new buildings and refurbishment take place. We see newly appointed prefects taking on new leadership responsibilities. We develop a curriculum that will challenge, prepare, stimulate and entertain – providing a foundation of learning that’s not just about exams and assessment.
We are preparing the citizens of the future.
In this, there is much to learn from Finland and Shanghai, two of the top performing jurisdictions in the world. A broad and balanced curriculum with an academic core, attention to the basics of Maths and English, a commitment to the creative disciplines of the arts, modern foreign languages, the analytical skills of science and humanities, practical opportunities for hands-on making, and the centrality of sport and exercise – all of these are what young people need now, and will need for the future.
So, yes: the past is another country. But the future is too.
The skills and knowledge our young people need, taught by great teachers with a passion for learning – these ingredients don’t alter. Let’s help our students to embrace the future.
-- Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds