THE PERILS OF THE QUICK FIX CULTURE
Recent articles on the perspectives of Steve Munby and Russell Hobby on this very subject resonates closely to the experiences I had on stepping back into teaching in 2009, and my mind being suddenly opened to the myriad changes taking place in our educational landscape. I had just left the ‘character factory’ of the British military and, on stepping back into the world of formal schooling, what I discovered was nothing less than a ‘sausage factory’, a world in which, by increments, our schools had been transformed into a mechanized industry, taking in children full of potential and promise, and through early exam entry, multiple exam entry and easier non-examined vocational equivalents, were spewing out grades and qualifications that were often meaningless and detrimental to that child’s future prospects. The idea that we live in a quick fix culture is not a new one – and, indeed, Joseph Malins was parodying the idea as far back as the 19th century.
In 1895, Malins – a temperance activist who emigrated from Worcester in England’s West Midlands to the United States, where he worked on the railways – wrote a poem that perfectly captures the idea of the quick fix culture. In A Fence or an Ambulance, the walk to a beautiful sightseeing spot is made perilous by a sheer cliff face, down which many good men have plummeted. When asked what should be done about the danger, the citizens who live in the area have two different schools of thought: the first suggest a fence should be built around the edge of the cliff; the second shrug their shoulders and say “put an ambulance down in the valley.” In his scathing verse, Malins was perfectly caricaturing the types of decisions with which we are so often faced. Do we opt for the course of action that provides the greatest long-term benefit, but demands the most effort – or do we opt for the path of least resistance, something to patch over the problem without stretching ourselves? Do we build fences to prevent accidents, or do we simply wait for the accidents to happen and clean up afterwards?
Undoubtedly the roots of the quick fix culture go back much further. There was a time in mankind’s history when quick fixes were needed. Imagine prehistoric man running from predators on the ancient African savannah. Could he stop and debate the cost/benefit ratio of erecting a fence to keep those predators at bay – or did he just need to keep on running? Back then, reaching for the quick fix provided a bona-fide evolutionary advantage – and perhaps, as a result, our brains are hard-wired to reach for the easiest, most immediately effective solution to a problem, instead of automatically considering the long term. But look around you and you can see the quick fix culture proliferating in the many and varied corners of life.
The financial crisis of 2008 is possibly the biggest and most striking example of how rapidly a quick fix culture can become unstuck. Think this is just in the financial sector? Well, think again. The University students paying an online service to write essays for them so that they can avoid the long hours of study and writing the essay might take? That’s the quick fix culture at work. The other students turning to online encyclopedias instead of investigating primary sources or reading further afield? The overweight man from down the road who, rather than putting in long hours at the gym, turns to gastric bands and other weight loss surgery instead? The patients who would rather take cholesterol-controlling drugs than make the necessary adjustments to their diets?
These are all examples of the way society, and we as individuals, reach for the easiest option available. After all, biologically speaking, we are still that same prehistoric man, fleeing predators across the Savannah. Ask any geneticist and they will tell you that, on a basic level, we are still the same animals we were five million years ago – we are stone-age humans living in a tablet-aged, information rich world, and, as is our nature, we take every ‘energy saving’ opportunity we can, simply because this is what our species has learnt to do across millions of years of scarcity: to preserve energy by taking the shortest route.
For every quick fix action there has to be an equal and opposite reaction – and what we might think of as the traditional values of hard work and endurance have transformed, in an age of abundance, to a kind of ‘I want one now’ culture. Prosperity has given us much that’s good, but what it has also given us is a need, a demand, for more prosperity. It has been like a sugar rush, its chief result being a need to consume more. Children raised in an age of abundance, naturally, have no context for that abundance; for them, abundance is the norm – and, as a species, we seem to be programmed to want more than we have. That’s a survival tactic inherited from our earliest ancestors. The delineation between the things that we need and the things that we want has been eroded, the results of which means that we are all living in a world in which we are constantly incentivised to go for the immediate solution, rather than one that takes more effort but, in that effort, might enrich our lives. Yet, my daughters’ generation will now have to navigate their way through a world defined by the instant transmission of information and consumerism and they, like all of their generation and those following, will need to be able to differentiate between what is reality and what is not. But at what cost will this have to their character?
In a world of high stakes accountability, where the actions of one individual invariably effect the lives of countless others, the quick fix culture presents a catastrophic lack of foresight, a willingness for us to bury our heads in the sand and delay disaster. Nor have schools and their leaders been immune from this drive toward swift or instant results. The incredibly high stakes Ofsted system and the resulting gaming of the school league tables (R.I.P ECDL!) has transformed school leaders, and their teachers, from being student-focused to being results-at-any-cost focused, and how that then encouraged school leaders to focus only on the surface of the problem rather than its dark, broken root. Schools are not just at risk of becoming tangled in a football league table like culture, head teachers have become no different to football managers and are recognised, rewarded, and even honoured, by the speed of movement up the league table. Those who produce the quickest results get the biggest bonuses, those who fail are sacked instantly. This mirrors the findings from a 2016 review of 160 schools in England, published in the Harvard Business Review. If ever there was to be a study to show the negative impact of the quick fix culture through short-termist ‘surgeon’ head teachers, as opposed to the benefits brought by the ‘architect’ head teachers who took the longer term approach by re-building a school from the bottom up, it was this.
If the practicalities of the system are not going to change – if schools must go on being inspected to uphold and (quite rightly) continually improve standards, if teachers must go on being held accountable for the results their students achieve – is there any way of recasting school life, recalibrating school culture, to avoid the need for teachers and head-teachers to trick the system? Might there be a way of returning to the core values that once underpinned teaching, and yet still survive in a modern world of Ofsted, league tables and trial-by-exam-results? What could a paradigm shift in the way we run our schools and classrooms look like and how could it be achieved?
As Stephen Covey says, “To do well, you must be good. And to do good, you must first be good”. What if we collectively turned our backs on short-termism, on tip of the problem thinking, and took more time to build our young people’s self-worth through a firm foundation of principle-driven values? What if we then took the time to nurture them for the long term, confronting both what we do and why we do it? If there was a valid Education 2.0 out there, it would have to be one that somehow went against the grain of modern living, one that put value in the solid and long term instead of the fleeting and momentary; and one that, in eschewing the rush for instant gratification and putting the desires of the present ahead of the needs of the future, laid long-lasting foundations.
My book The Power of Character: Lessons from the Frontline goes much deeper into the themes of this post, but more importantly looks at the solutions. The Power of Character offers the tools by which we can buck the trends of this old, outdated ‘quick fix’ system, introducing new ideas to the classroom and new structures to the schooling system that can revolutionise the way we prepare our children for their future: a mandate for Education 2.0. This paradigm shift relies on mission driven school leaders, remarkable teachers, dedicated parents who are willing to take a leap of faith into the unknown – and a common and shared purpose by all of these stakeholders. In particular, it requires a long term commitment on the part of schools. If we want a fairer, more just, more productive society, we now need to focus more on what Doctor Martin Luther King called the ‘content of our character’.
Thanks for reading.