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Liberty, equality, fraternity

Published: 
Sunday, November 12, 2017

Icons sustain an image of the minority who by dint of their special potential scale the towers of accomplishment.

Confirming a natural rank of ability, they represent a rationalisation for the mundane feats of the rest of us. However, when the existence of these innately talented beings is dissected it turns out that they are as mythical as mermaids.

It has proved impossible to find a residue of anything resembling ‘innate talent’ independent of—effort and experience. Attempts to specify and measure characteristics of talent that permit early identification and successful prediction of performance have failed.

What is found is that such individuals have invariably been through periods of intense effort to learn, involving high levels of commitment and self-sacrifice.

Parents have given up almost everything to ensure that abilities are developed in their children.

Despite this, the image of the bright and the dull pervade schools. Inherent potential, partly common to and distinguishing all children is a relic.

It sustains the motto that education helps all children to attain their full potential or different potentials so conjuring up the image of pre-determined abilities mysteriously waiting unfolding.

Schooling becomes a kind of Darwinian natural selection process in which those with the ‘weak’ potential are sorted out from those with the ‘strong’ potential by a neutral curriculum in institutions that are equipped and staffed equally.

Clearly, if doing well in school and afterwards is the ineluctable expression of inherent potential we would expect it to ‘show’ continuously.

However, studies on performances that are taken as a signal of potential are at best only weak predictors at almost all levels of education and work. In fact, there is a tenuous relationship between—academic potential and workplace performance.

Alternatively, we may consider that all children have equal prospects for school success. Those who possess the cultural capital of higher-class habitus are aided by education credentials that help to reproduce social inequalities, as they are seen to merit their place in society.

Equity of outcomes requires that schools be funded according to their real needs to cope with the inequalities and unfreedoms that all fear from behind the veil of ignorance. Market segmentation data, not social stratification best points to where need is located along a continuum from opulence to frugality.

Oran-Constantine primary serves the residents of Fort Nieulay, in Calais, France. 89 per cent of the students are below the poverty line.

Youth unemployment in Calais is about 45 per cent, twice the national average in France. In Fort Nieulay it touches 67 per cent. Jean-Michel Blanquer, former director of Essec has reduced class sizes to 12 pupils for five and six year olds.

This allows for personalised learning and a new regime of reading with rigour. The more able learners use voice recognition software on tablets freeing teachers to tutor the struggling. After one year reluctant learners in the 11 schools in Calais had halved. At the other end of the ladder is ‘42’.

42 is a Paris coding school across the Seine from the University of Paris-Descartes. It is free, has no classes, no fixed terms, or time tables, and does not issue formal diplomas.

All learning is through tasks on screen at the pace of the learner. There are no lectures, and the building is open round the clock. The school is hyper selective and has a drop out rate of five per cent.

They are not in the business of—transmission of knowledge. They are co-inventing computer science. ‘Graduates’ are snapped up by employers before they complete. Oran-Constantine and ‘42’ point out ways to overcome the tyranny of a single solution for all—to break free of standardisation and to individualise teaching without losing excellence.

The 19th century ‘instituteur’ or school-teacher trained in the écoles normales was a missionary figure, a guarantor of republican equality and norms.

Today, parents in France understand that variety autonomy and experimentation are not threats to equality but a means to return to an education system that has lost sight of the prize—Liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity).

Dr Fazal Ali