The "only one way" philosophy has pervaded the rhetoric of education recently. It is expressed in several forms, like "There is no point in re-inventing the wheel" (yes there is, otherwise we would never have had ships, hovercraft and sledges).
The view is regularly peddled in official documents and purveyed by bodies such as the Teacher Training Agency and the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted). The words of Ofsted's Chris Woodhead, written in a newspaper article in April last year, illustrate this stance: "It is ridiculous for 25,000 schools to seek their individual solutions to common problems."
As someone who works in a university, I find this limited and limiting view of human ingenuity abhorrent. In the 19th century, when the term "normal school" was applied to teacher-training institutions, there was firm belief in the single model. All teachers were trained to fit the "norm" of the day, and a fat lot of good it did us. Small wonder that Dickens described Mr M'Choakumchild as being turned like 140 other pianoforte legs, at the same time in the same factory, on the same principles.
If there is only one answer to common problems, then what is the single solution to poverty? What is the single solution to crime, or pollution, or cancer, or heart disease? What single inspiration will successfully eliminate suffering, create worldwide financial and political stability, abolish conflict? Perhaps that is why people turn to drink. Eventually, insensitive to the harsh realities, they think their problems must have been resolved and that alcohol was the solution.
Both my daughters have been county discus champions. One preferred to practise complete throws, the other to work specifically on her foot movements, her turn, the final release. That is because one was a "whole" learner, the other a "part" learner. Yet they were born only 18 months apart and lived in the same family under the same roof. In reality, it is highly unlikely that one miracle cure will be found to raise all of people's achievements to the maximum of their potential in the identical manner.
There are significant individual and group differences in learning styles and preferences. Some learners like systematically working through a variety of tasks, others prefer to concentrate on one. Some rely on visual cues, others remember better what they have heard. One student may like lectures, another prefer discussion and practical groups.
Even the successful exhibit different tastes. There are students at university who systematically tick off completed essays, assignments, aspects of the syllabus they have revised, in contrast with undergraduates who prefer to freewheel through the syllabus.
Information technology is a good example of variety among humans. Zealots have to be dragged away from the keyboard and screen, otherwise they would spend the whole night in front of them. Traditionalists, however, cannot be persuaded even to switch on the machine.
Those who fail particularly need a variety of approaches. I saw some excellent work in New York with hardcore school refuseniks. Several initiatives involved taking education out on to the streets, while others were more conventional programmes that attracted absentees back into school. None of the mini-programmes worked for everyone, but each one helped chip away at a portion of the problem.
One of the attractions of teaching is the challenge to select, from all the possible strategies, the ones that might have the best chance of success. It is this exercise of professional judgement that can be so rewarding, especially when it pays off against the odds. So there are often hundreds of approaches to education that have a sporting chance of success, albeit sometimes on a modest scale and with different individuals or groups, as the following story neatly illustrates.
Two people are walking along a seashore on which thousands of starfish lie beached and dying. As the pair negotiate their way through these, one of them continually picks up a stranded starfish and lobs it back into the sea.
"What are you doing that for?" his companion asks, "There are thousands of them, so throwing back a few is pretty pointless." "A fair point," the man replies, tossing another couple into the waves, "but it's not pointless for those two."
The writer is professor of education at the University of Exeter