The Deceptive Allure of Clarity

You could be forgiven for thinking that a statement such as ‘The deceptive allure of clarity’ must have come straight from the mouth of Iain McGilchrist, author of ‘The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World’. McGilchrist would align this statement with the way in which the left hemisphere attends to the world. In his book he explains that we are living in a left hemisphere dominated world. For the left hemisphere, the parts are more important than the whole. The left hemisphere values the known, familiar, certain, distinct, fragmentary, isolated and unchanging. It abstracts ideas from body and context, seeing things as inanimate and representational. In the left hemisphere’s view of the world, quality is replaced by quantity, and unique cases are replaced with categories.

But this statement, ‘The Deceptive Allure of Clarity’, did not come from McGilchrist, but from a Lancaster University online Department of Education Research Seminar that I attended this week, which was presented by Jan McArthur and Joanne Wood. The full title of their talk was ‘Towards Wicked Marking Criteria: the deceptive allure of clarity’, which is what drew me, and many others, in (the session was very well attended). This was how the session was advertised.

In this seminar we consider the dissonance between two major themes in the scholarship of teaching, learning and assessment in higher education: the engagement with complex and structured forms of knowledge and the development of increasingly precise marking criteria for assessment.  We question what is lost when we aim to make assessment a more and more precise practice?  We argue that academic knowledge cannot always be broken into manageable “bits” but often should be evaluated holistically.  Finally we propose that students who perform “badly” in assessments have often not done this by accident or neglect but rather through diligent and conscientious following of implicit messages we send out as teachers, often in the name of clarity.

They started the session by asking the question: ‘What if the pursuit of clarity is part of the problem?’ By this they were making reference to what they called ‘The Monster Rubric’, which is so detailed and atomised that it loses all sense of what it is trying to achieve.

What follows is my reaction to this seminar and should not be attributed to either of the speakers.

It is easy to find examples of these rubrics online, through a simple search for rubric images. For example here is one with an excessive level of granularity. I can’t imagine how much time it must have taken to develop this rubric – time that perhaps could have been better spent in the service of students?

Most institutions use rubrics for marking students work. Why? Well, principally for quality assurance reasons. The institution/tutor has to demonstrate that the marking is fair and equitable. But in reality, my experience is that for experienced tutors/markers, the rubric is not helpful and so they make the rubric fit their marking rather than the other way round. The rubric does not inform the marking. An experienced marker knows that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. An experienced marker knows that complex knowledge can’t be broken down into bits. An experienced marker knows that there are qualities in assignments, which contribute to the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, that simply can’t be measured, but nevertheless contribute to the mark.  An experienced marker can pick up an assignment, flip through it and know straight away roughly what mark it will receive. The marker then reads the assignment carefully to check this initial assessment and give critical feedback. Only finally does the marker make sure (for quality assurance purposes) that the rubric fits the given mark.

We do students a disservice by misleading them into thinking that their achievements can be broken into bits and that each bit is worth a certain percentage. Complex knowledge cannot be defined in these terms. A rubric cannot cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s. The rubric should not be so atomised that there is no room for students to move in.  As Iain McGilchrist says:

‘… the gaps in the structure are where the light gets in. If you tighten everything up, then you get total darkness’. (https://youtu.be/0Zld-MX11lA).

If we must have rubrics, then they should be guides rather than prescriptive, and students and staff should be encouraged to move beyond them.

Nature in education and education in Nature

The past year has seen a surge of interest in what has been called ‘reconnecting with Nature’. It is a sign of our times that it has taken a pandemic of global proportions to bring about this surge of interest and greater recognition of the importance of Nature to our lives, health and well-being.

The one thing everyone in the UK has been allowed to do during lockdown has been to exercise once a day outdoors, and many people have spoken/written about how this has helped them to reconnect with Nature for the first time in many years. Last week I attended an online event which explored this need for re-connection.

The event was organised by  Invisible Dust  – “What will our view of nature bring to the future?” in which a panel of speakers explored the following questions:

  • What changes in how we see the natural world could lead to a brighter future?
  • Rather than seeing ourselves as separate from nature, might we see ourselves as a part of it – changing how we see non-human animals and our relationship to the natural world?
  • Can we move forward positively from the COVID-19 pandemic and act to reduce future risks?
  • What can we learn from the indigenous communities that have lived in harmony with nature rather than tried to conquer it?

The panel was made up of a diverse and very interesting group of people, who were all deeply committed to exploring these questions:

Danielle Celermajer, author of Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future

Milka Chepkorir, advocate for indigenous land rights from the Sengwer community.

Usman Haque, artist-architect and creative director at Umbrellium.

Iain McGilchrist, psychiatrist and author of The Master and his Emissary

Hosted by: Jessica Sweidan, founder of Synchronicity Earth and Patron of Nature for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature

The discussion started from the premise that we are now experiencing an ecological crisis in which our relationship with Nature is broken, and this is the root of some of our greatest problems. We are removed from the consequences of our actions and numb to the loss of our connection with Nature, but the paradox is that we, as human beings, have never been more connected, to each other, to other cultures, and to other ways of living.

Whilst panel members were coming from different perspectives, they all agreed that the heart of the problem is that we now think of Nature as something separate from ourselves, an exotic ‘Other’, something we use, something we are different from and superior to. We fail to recognise and acknowledge that there is no line between human beings and Nature. As McGilchrist said, We are Nature and Nature is us; we come out of Nature and we go back into Nature. Nature is not out there around us, but in us; it is something that is always being born. Milka Chepkorir, coming from the indigenous Sengwer community of Kenya, recognised this as a symbiotic relationship, saying that for her people there is no separation between Nature and people, and that we should know that if we harm Nature, then it will harm us. Indigenous people have not lost their connection with Nature, but are having to fight to maintain it. In a rather sad indictment of our education system, Milka said that in order to get her voice heard about this she had to get a recognised academic qualification for which she had to study what she and her people already knew! At one point she said that indigenous people don’t understand why the rest of the world don’t get it. Why don’t non-indigenous communities understand that Nature is in us and we are in Nature? The question of trust was raised in answer to this. How we can become more accepting of other cultures?

All agreed that we have to change the way we think to address the problem of disconnection from Nature. Usman Haque is just starting to work on The Eden Project in London, which aims to ‘rewild’ London; this would also involve ‘rewilding’ people! What an amazing idea! By this he meant that they would try and transform people’s relationships to each other and to non-human systems, and find ways to enable people to make a visible first step, such as growing things to eat, or bee keeping. These small individual steps would hopefully then grow into larger more collective actions.

There was a lot more in this discussion than I have mentioned here, and it is well worth watching the video of the whole event, not least because it is so enjoyable and uplifting to watch.

Of course, changing the ways people think is no easy matter, as Usman Haque mentioned, and it was recognised that education would play a key role in this.

It’s interesting that a brief look at the UK National Curriculum for schools doesn’t mention Nature in the science curriculum, but rather the environment. For example, in Year 1 Pupils should use the local environment throughout the year to explore and answer questions about plants growing in their habitat. McGilchrist does not like the word environment, which he believes reinforces the idea that we humans are somehow separate from the world, and the statement above does seem to emphasise the use of Nature. Pupils throughout school do of course study ecosystems and the interdependence of organisms, but I wonder if there is enough emphasis on our place as humans within Nature rather than separate from it, and I wonder whether a simple change of language, i.e. exchanging the word environment, for the word Nature might kick-start a change in awareness. The language we use is so powerful in influencing the way we attend to the world.

There are of course many projects which are being developed in the hope of helping people to reconnect with Nature. In my local area, there is the Morecambe Bay Curriculum (part of the Eden Project North), which aims to work with local schools to develop a unique educational tool to help unite and inspire the next generation in terms of our natural history and the immense environmental challenges we face as a society. But projects such as these will need to go beyond thinking of Nature as something ‘Other’ if we are to overcome the current ecological crisis. Studying Morecambe Bay or any other aspect of Nature from a distance, or from within a walled classroom, will not foster an understanding of Nature being in us and we being in Nature. Hopefully the Morecambe Bay Curriculum project, and others like it, will involve a lot of hands-on time in Nature. One of the richest educational experiences I have ever had was a week long field trip to Seahouses (North-East England) for my ‘A’ level Biology course.

Source of photo: https://www.trekearth.com/gallery/Europe/United_Kingdom/England/Northumberland/Seahouses/photo199218.htm

This involved days of peering into rock pools, and studying every imaginable aspect of the seashore. It was magical. This experience was more than 50 years ago, but it greatly influenced my relationship with Nature, and I still have the book in which I pressed the seaweeds I collected for identification purposes at that time.

The Invisible Dust event panel members were optimistic that people haven’t lost the ability to love and feel connected with Nature. Let’s hope so.

The Crisis in Education: Hannah Arendt

Between Past and Future: The Crisis in Education

The focus of this essay/thinking exercise, Chapter 5 in Hannah Arendt’s book, Between Past and Future, is the crisis of education in America. This she says has become an important factor in politics (incomparably more important than in other countries), because of the difficulty of ‘melting together’ diverse ethnic groups, which can only be accomplished through schooling, so that English, and what it means to be an American, can be learned by all groups. In America education is seen as a political activity to make a better world, but Arendt thinks this is dangerous and that education should be kept separate from politics.

“Education can play no part in politics, because in politics we always have to deal with those who are already educated. Whoever wants to educate adults really wants to act as their guardian and prevent them from political activity [i.e. wants to brainwash them – see Chapter 3, What is Authority?]. Since one cannot educate adults, the word “education” has an evil sound in politics; there is a pretence of education, when the real purpose is coercion without the use of force.”(p.173/4)

Arendt starts this chapter by writing:

“… no great imagination is required to detect the dangers of a constantly progressing decline of elementary standards throughout the entire school system.” (p.170)

She connects the crisis of education to the crisis of authority, which she has written about in Chapter 3 under the title ‘What is Authority?’ and also to the loss of tradition, which she writes about in Chapter 1, ‘Tradition and the Modern Age’.

“The problem of education in the modern world lies in the fact that by its very nature it cannot forgo either authority or tradition, and yet must proceed in a world that is neither structured by authority nor held together by tradition.” (p.191)

“That means, however, that not just teachers and educators, but all of us, in so far as we live in one world together with our children and with young people, must take toward them an attitude radically different from the one we take toward one another. We must decisively divorce the realm of education from the others, most of all from the realm of public, political life, in order to apply to it alone a concept of authority and an attitude toward the past which are appropriate to it but have no general validity and must not claim a general validity in the world of grown-ups.” (p.191/2)

In addition to authority and tradition, Arendt also thinks equality is an important issue in American education. She points out that the UK system of education as meritocracy leads to an oligarchy. This she says contradicts the principle of equality, but, she writes, equality can only be achieved at the cost of teachers’ authority and the progress of gifted students (p.177).

According to Arendt there have been three basic assumptions, all connected to the loss of authority, that have led to the crisis.

  1. That there exists a child’s world in which children are autonomous. Arendt says that children cannot be autonomous, either from the adult world, or from their own group.
  2. Teaching is emancipated from the material to be taught. “A teacher, so it was thought, is a man who can simply teach anything; his training is in teaching, not in the mastery of any particular subject.” (p.179).
  3. You can know and understand only what you have done yourself, and as such, doing is substituted for learning, and the inculcation of skills is considered more important than the normal prerequisites of a standard curriculum.

All of this raises two questions for Arendt.

  • What is the essence of education?
  • What is the true reason for the abandonment of common sense in education? i.e. that we know what we are teaching.

Arendt writes that education is about the world and education is about life.

“Thus the child, the subject of education, has for the educator a double aspect: he is new in the world that is strange to him and he is in the process of becoming, he is a new human being and he is a becoming human being. This double aspect is by no means self-evident and it does not apply to the animal forms of life; it corresponds to a double relationship, the relationship to the world on the one hand and to life on the other.” (p.182)

Educators cannot be non-authoritarian. They must protect the life of the child and protect the humanly built world. Their qualification is to know the world and to take responsibility for it, such that they allow young people to grow into the world and renew and change it, but also such that they protect the world. Education should in some sense be conservative (in the sense of conservation); it should cherish and protect “the child against the world, and the world against the child, the new against the old, and the old against the new.” (p.188)

The essence of education is natality, the fact that human beings are born into the world (p.171). Each new generation grows into an old world, that already exists, and it is the role of teachers to prepare children for the world of the adult, when they will be responsible for changing the world. But children are not just undersized adults. The focus should be on teaching about the world as it is,  in all its plurality, rather than what we want it to be. Children should not be indoctrinated. Education should be both conservative (conserving the world as it is) and revolutionary (allowing for change and the new).

“Education is the point at which we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young would be inevitable.

And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.” (p.193)

References

To write this post I have drawn heavily on the following sources. The freely accessible video presentations and discussions produced by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, have been very helpful, thanks to Roger Berkowitz .

  • Arendt, H. (1961). Between Past and Future. Penguin Classics

Source of image: http://souciant.com/2018/02/hannah-arendt-was-here/

Paulo Freire’s questions for educators.

Paulo Freire’ questions for educators.

In my last post in which I shared the notes I made on my reading of Freire’s book Pedagogy of Hope. Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I mentioned that at the end of Chapter 4, on p.124, Freire listed the problems and questions that educators and education must always continue to seriously consider, discuss and address. Here is the quote in full.


Source of image: https://al.se.leg.br/iran-destaca-atividades-em-comemoracao-aos-99-anos-de-paulo-freire/

“What seems to me to be unconscionable, however, today as yesterday, would be to conceive—or even worse, to practice—a popular education in which a constant, serious approach were not maintained, antecedently and concomitantly, to problems like: what content to teach, in behalf of what this content is to be taught, in behalf of whom, against what, and against whom.

  • Who selects the content, and how is it taught?
  • What is teaching?
  • What is learning?
  • What manner of relationship obtains between teaching and learning?
  • What is popular knowledge, or knowledge gotten from living experience?
  • Can we discard it as imprecise and confused?
  • How may it be gotten beyond, transcended?
  • What is a teacher?
  • What is the role of a teacher?
  • And what is a student?
  • What is a student’s role?
  • If being a teacher means being superior to the student in some way, does this mean that the teacher must be authoritarian?
  • Is it possible to be democratic and dialogical without ceasing to be a teacher, which is different from being a student?
  • Does dialogue mean irrelevant chitchat whose ideal atmosphere would be to “leave it as it is to see if it’ll work”?
  • Can there be a serious attempt at the reading and writing of the word without a reading of the world?
  • Does the inescapable criticism of a “banking” education mean the educator has nothing to teach and ought not to teach?
  • Is a teacher who does not teach a self-contradiction?
  • What is codification, and what is its role in the framework of a theory of knowledge?
  • How is the “relation between practice and theory” to be understood—and especially, experienced—without the expression becoming trite, empty wordage?
  • How is the “basistic,” voluntaristic temptation to be resisted—and how is the intellectualistic, verbalistic temptation to engage in sheer empty chatter to be overcome?
  • How is one to “work on” the relationship between language and citizenship?”

It is almost 30 years since Freire wrote these words, and more than 50 years since Pedagogy of the Oppressed was first published. Despite this, Freire’s questions remain relevant and still have the power to challenge the current Brazilian government – see Why is the Brazilian Right Afraid of Paulo Freire?

The Beautiful Risk of Education

The second meeting of the Philosophy Of Education Reading Network discussed Gert Biesta’s book – The Beautiful Risk of Education.

A small group attended, probably about 15 or 16. At least 6 were not using their videos, so I can’t be sure. It’s a very pleasant group, many of whom are PhD students, with some drawing on Biesta’s work for their research. There’s no pressure in the group to speak (or be seen), although all contributions are welcomed.

I didn’t find Biesta’s book an easy read. I think I have heard Biesta say somewhere that if we don’t expect subjects like neuroscience to be easy, why should education be any different (or words to that effect). I suspect that there may have been some others in the group who didn’t find the book easy either, since whilst the discussion was good, it was sometimes difficult to follow and difficult to find satisfactory answers for the questions that were raised.

But I agree with a comment made by Eddie Playfair (one of the participants) on Twitter this morning –

Reading Biesta’s ‘Beautiful Risk…’ provides a good opportunity to question many of our assumptions about education and a wonderful antidote for many of the disorders of our time. I’m sure we’ll be returning to its themes often.

The Beautiful risk of Education is the third book in a trilogy, dating from 2006.

  • Beyond Learning. Democratic Education for a Human Future (2006)
  • Good Education in an Age of Measurement (2010)
  • The Beautiful Risk of Education (2013)

Biesta believes that these three books lead to a theory of learning which he outlines in the Appendix of The Beautiful Risk of Education.

Biesta starts by saying that there needs to be more focus on the purpose of education and its aims (I agree) and that there are three overlapping domains in which educational purposes and practices can be articulated:

  • Qualification (the acquisition of knowledge, skills, values and dispositions)
  • Socialization (ways of doing and being)
  • Subjectification (the subjectness of learners – emancipation, freedom and responsibility)

Each of these involves risk. Currently education is risk averse, but education always involves risk, because it is impossible to make education into a perfectly operating machine; education practices do not work in a machine-like way. There is no perfect match between input and output. This is the ‘weakness’ of education. It is easy to recognise the push for making education into a safe, risk-free space, but complexity reduction comes at the price of unjustifiable and un-educational suppression, where suppression becomes oppression. Education should establish a dialogue with what or who is ‘Other’, which means that the outcome will always be unpredictable.

The book explores the weakness of educational processes and practices in creativity, communication, teaching, learning, emancipation, democracy and virtuosity. In each chapter, Biesta takes inspiration from other thinkers, authors and philosophers to develop, clarify and substantiate his thinking. These include John Caputo, Emmanuel Levinas, John Dewey, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Ranciere, Hannah Arendt, William James and others. This engagement with other writers and thinkers nicely mirrors his belief that all education operates through communication and dialogue, rather than through transmission. Education is something that educators and students do together. Communication should be radically open, generative and creative, but it is not possible to determine what communication is – hence the risk.

For me, having had a career in teaching, the most interesting and stimulating chapter was the one on Teaching. Biesta’s ideas on teaching were not new to me. I have been familiar with them for some time, but it was good to be encouraged by the reading network to revisit them and consider them more closely and carefully.

In an age where there is so much informal learning and a belief in constructivism, the focus has shifted from teaching to learning, and teachers have been encouraged to think of themselves as facilitators whose job it is to create learning environments in which learners can learn from each other (what Biesta calls learnification). Biesta believes that constructivism is a theory of learning, not of teaching, and if we make teachers no more than facilitators of learning, we give up on the very idea of education. He says, ‘to learn from someone is a radically different experience from the experience of being taught be someone’ (p.53). This is something that I have always felt, but have not been able to articulate with the clarity that he does, i.e. that there is more to teaching than facilitation, or being a fellow learner, and that teaching is a necessary component of all education.

But teaching is not about authoritarianism. The power to teach is not in the power of the teacher. Teachers cannot understand the impact of their teaching on their students. But this does not mean that a teacher doesn’t teach. Teaching presents students with something that transcends what they know. We should think of teaching as transcendence (experience that goes past normal limits, or the ability to achieve this), as a gift that cannot be given, but is received. The experience of being taught, of receiving the gift of teaching cannot be produced by the teacher. What the teacher teaches lies beyond the control and power of the teacher. Teaching carries with it the idea of possibility and revelation, not just bringing out what is already there. Teachers should work on the distinction between what is desired and what is desirable.

All these points made by Biesta resonate with my experience and what I implicitly came to believe over my teaching career, but wasn’t able to articulate, the main principle being that teaching cannot be controlled by the teacher, it always involves risk.

As one of the reviewers of The Beautiful Risk of Education has written:

‘It aims to explore the weakness of education understood as the fact that education cannot be reduced to a machine-like process. As always, Biesta expressed this fundamental aspect and argument elegantly and with great insight demonstrates that this weakness is not a problem that needs to be overcome, but rather the very basis of the life of education and what makes it humanly important.’

There is, of course, a lot more to learn from this book and about Biesta and his work, not least that his name is pronounced ‘Beaster’ rather than ‘Be-esta’. Too much to write about here, so I’m glad to have the book on my bookshelf and the possibility of re-visiting it in the future, and I’m grateful that the Philosophy of Education Reading Network is an open network which welcomes all comers.

There will be another meeting of the Philosophy of Education Reading Network next month on October 20th, when we will discuss Mary Midgley’s book What is Philosophy For? I’m looking forward to reading this. It has been on my list for quite a while, so it’s good to be prompted to get on and read it.

Reference

Biesta, G.J.J. (2013). The Beautiful Risk of Education. Paradigm Publishers: Boulder, London

Challenges of 21st century education: Past and present reforms

The last two weeks of Exeter University’s FutureLearn open course: Testing Times in the Classroom: Challenges of 21st Century Education were devoted to key changes that have taken place in the field of education over the last 20 or so years. These changes were discussed mostly in the context of the UK and Europe, but participants were encouraged to add their knowledge and perspectives from their own cultures and countries.

The 20th century in the UK saw the creation of universal education, through the growth of state funded education and the raising of the school leaving age from 12 to 16. Following the Education Act in 1944 state-funded secondary education was organised into three type of schools; grammar, technical and secondary modern. Allocation to these schools depended on children’s performance in the 11+ exam. Between 1944 and 1965 this tripartite system came to be increasingly criticised for being divisive and leading to educational inequalities. In response to these concerns in 1965 the Labour Government introduced comprehensive schools for secondary aged children, with the aim of providing an entitlement curriculum for all, without selection through financial considerations or attainment. I was at University at this time and remember having long discussions with people of my parents’ generation who were appalled that good grammar schools were being replaced by comprehensive schools. I myself, in my youth, was ‘fired up’ by the thought that comprehensive schools would ensure that any and every child would have an equal opportunity for a good education. Ultimately comprehensive schools were also discredited with comparisons being made between comprehensive and independent schools.

In the FutureLearn course this was illustrated through two YouTube videos – one of Radley College – an independent boys school, and the other of Faraday High School, a state comprehensive.

Radley College

Faraday High School

Personally, I did not think this was a fair comparison to make. My first teaching experience was in an inner city comprehensive and it was nothing like Faraday High School. Faraday High School would be a ‘bad’ school in any circumstances. Evidence from the video suggests that it had incompetent teachers and poor leadership. Nevertheless comprehensives like Faraday High School did exist such that the system failed and led to increasing concern with educational inequalities related to social class and ethnicity, which still exists today, together with additional equality and diversity concerns, such as gender and disability.

Over the past 20 to 30 years, much educational reform in the UK has focussed on a response to these equality and diversity concerns, raising research questions such as:

  • Do schools favour girls?
  • Do schools make the rich richer?
  • Does social class still matter?
  • Is the school system failing black children?

Whilst there are many research articles that deal with these questions separately, there is now increasing recognition of the importance of intersectionality, i.e. that the wide range of different inequalities intersect. For example, a student’s educational experience will not be affected by gender alone, but also by social class, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and so on.

Another question that was asked in these last two weeks of the course was:

    • Is the purpose of school reform to improve international economic competitiveness?

Surprisingly, to me, when course participants were asked this question 54% answered ‘Yes’. I myself had no hesitation in answering ‘No’. For me the first concern of education should always be the learners/students. We should ask ‘how can the system support each individual in realising his/her full potential?’ If this could be achieved then perhaps international economic competitiveness would follow or, better still, lead to educated thinking adults who would question whether international economic competitiveness should be the purpose of education. Some in the course considered my view unrealistic and utopian, since they argued that education is simply a means to an end.

So it seems that my view is not the majority view and certainly the UK’s approach to educational reform in recent years has been based on a belief in the importance of education for international economic competitiveness. Thus some recent key reforms, which are easy to recognise, have focussed on:

  • Accountability and performance management. This has led to increased testing and school inspections, performance based pay and funding, and increasing focus on management. This system rewards success and punishes failure.
  • Competition and markets – league tables, choice for parents, and the marginalisation of collaboration and collective effort. This approach to reform can already be seen to be leading to hierarchies and differences between socially advantaged and disadvantaged students. For example, some middle class parents are prepared to move house to ensure that they are in the catchment area for schools high in the league tables.
  • Increased control over schools and universities – inspections, audits, reviews and evaluations to measure educational performance, all supported by increased capacity to collect and store data. This necessarily neglects aspects of education that cannot be measured.

Most of these educational reforms are being adopted worldwide, and led to Pasi Salhlberg coining the term Global Education Reform Movement (GERM). Of this acronym-as-analogy, Fuller and Stevenson (2018) write that it:

worked perfectly to describe a phenomenon that Sahlberg identified as both spreading and destructive, behaving “like an epidemic that spreads and infects education systems through a virus” (Sahlberg, 2012, no page).

and that:

Sahlberg has identified the principal features of the GERM as increased standardisation, a narrowing of the curriculum to focus on core subjects/knowledge, the growth of high stakes accountability and the use of corporate management practices as the key features of the new orthodoxy.

In writing about how Finland views educational reform differently, Pasi Sahlberg questions whether this global education reform movement (GERM) is counter-productive.

In the UK, 30 years of these reforms has led to layer upon layer of change and a degree of complexity that could conceivably take at least another 30 years to unravel, even assuming that the ‘powers that be’ think this necessary. We now have a UK education system which has shifted to decentralisation with over 70 different types of schools, whilst at the same time increasing centralisation through the introduction of the national curriculum and increased testing. Derek Gillard (2018) in the conclusion to his report writes:

This history has focused on the long struggle to create for England’s children an education system which values them all. It has, in many ways, been a sad story.

But he ends on a more optimistic note, writing:

Meanwhile, across the country, tens of thousands of teachers still care deeply about the well-being and prospects of their pupils, and go to work every morning determined, despite the often unhelpful interventions of politicians, to provide them with the best and most humane education they can.

References

Cohen, M. (2004) Knowledge and the gendered curriculum: the problematisation of girls’ achievement – http://www.historyandpolicy.org/policy-papers/papers/knowledge-and-the-gendered-curriculum-the-problematisation-of-girls-achieve

Courtney S. (2015) Mapping school types in England. Oxford Review of Education. 41(6):799-818. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/03054985.2015.1121141?needAccess=true

Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), corp creator. (2009) Gender and education : mythbusters : addressing gender and achievement : myths and realities https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/9095/

Equality and Human Rights Commission – https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en Is Britain Fairer? (2018) https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/publication-download/britain-fairer-2018

Fuller, K. and Stevenson, H. (2019) Global education reform: understanding the movement, Educational Review, 71:1, 1-4, DOI: 10.1080/00131911.2019.1532718 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00131911.2019.1532718

Gillard, D. (2018) Education in England: the history of our schools http://www.educationengland.org.uk/history/

Gillborn, D. and Mirza, H. S. (2000) Educational inequality: mapping race, class and gender – A synthesis of research evidence. Office for Standards in Education. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/319490152_EDUCATIONAL_INEQUALITY_MAPPING_RACE_CLASS_AND_GENDER_-_A_synthesis_of_research_evidence

Hall D. Grimaldi E, Gunter, H, Moller, J, Serpieri, R and Skedsmo G. (2016) Educational Reform and Modernisation in Europe: The Role of National Contexts in Mediating the New Public Management. European Educational Research Journal. 14(16):487-507. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1474904115615357

Hall D. and Gunter H. (2016) England. The Liberal State: Permanent Instability in the European Educational NPM Laboratory. In: Gunter H, Grimaldi, E, Hall D, and Serpieri, R, editors. (2016) New Public Management and the Reform of Education: European Lessons for Policy and Practice. London:Routledge. https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/ces/postgrads/teachfirst/1/november21/hall_and_gunter_-_the_liberal_state.pdf

Sahlberg, P. (2012). How GERM is infecting schools around the world? Retrieved from https://pasisahlberg.com/text-test/

Schleicher, A. (2018) Equity in Education. Breaking down barriers to social mobility http://www.oecd.org/education/equity-in-education-9789264073234-en.htm Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) website

The Fawcett Society https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/centenary-resources

The Gender and Education Association – http://www.genderandeducation.com/resources-2/

Ward, H. (2018) More male role models are needed in early years, say heads. TES https://www.tes.com/news/more-male-role-models-are-needed-early-years-say-heads

Weale, S. (2017) Sexual harassment ‘rife’ in schools but largely unreported, study says. The Guardian – https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/dec/12/sexual-harassment-rife-in-schools-but-largely-unreported-study-says

Women in STEM: how gender inequality could damage Scotland’s economy – https://theconversation.com/women-in-stem-how-gender-inequality-could-damage-scotlands-economy-107627

Testing Times in the Classroom: What is Education For?

If there is one thing that has come out of this second week in Exeter University’s FutureLearn MOOC –Testing Times in the Classroom: Challenges of 21st Century Education –  it is that it is not easy to determine the purpose of education. Everyone has a view on this and these views appear to be culturally, contextually and experientially dependent. It has been interesting to read the perspectives of participants from different parts of the world.

Views on the purpose of education can also be time dependent. Just a quick look at what some notable philosophers, activists, artists, writers and scientists from the past and present have said confirms this, although some succeeded in making timeless statements which are as valid today as when they were said. For example, Albert Einstein’s  (1879-1955) comment that ‘Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think’, resonated with a lot of participants.

Then we have the question of what the word ‘Education’ means and how is it different from ‘Schooling’. It’s interesting to try and clarify the similarities and differences between education and schooling.

Schools can come in for a bit of stick. For example in this video – I Sued the School System

Personally I think it’s too easy to lay the blame of a failing education system at the door of schools and teachers, whose hands are often tied by government policies. According to another video we have been shown this week, the problem is that we ‘simply have the wrong curriculum’.

I don’t think this video’s got it completely right either, although I’m not sure what completely right would be. Perhaps that’s what’s wrong with the video – the suggestion that they have the answer. I don’t think it’s as simple as finding one solution. But this led to an interesting discussion around some of the major philosophies of education, which were listed as:

To support this discussion we were led to a quiz on an external site which aimed to identify which philosophies we lean towards. I don’t know how reliable the quiz scores are, but I was surprised that social reconstructivism came out on top in my quiz score, whereas I would have expected it to be existentialism. What is abundantly clear is that here in the UK the national curriculum is an example of essentialism, so perhaps the problem is that we ‘simply have the wrong curriculum’, but I don’t believe there’s anything simple about it.

The question that we haven’t yet discussed is if so many of us recognise what is wrong with our education systems, why are they so difficult to change? What do we need for a paradigm shift?

Testing Times in the Classroom: Personal Educational Experiences and Influences

The first task for Week 2 of Exeter University’s Future Learn course: Testing Times in the Classroom: Challenges of 21st Century Education is to reflect on our own personal educational experiences and to consider the impact of these experiences on our understanding of education. We have been asked to consider our earliest memories and what was effective, what wasn’t, and what could be changed.

I have a terrible memory and an especially poor early memory. I put this down to the trauma of having to leave India, where I was born, at the age of eight and return to a boarding school in the UK. I remember very little of my education or even life before the age of 11, when I was taken out of the boarding school and returned to live at home with my parents. Others in the course have mentioned how trauma can negatively impact on education.

But I do have memories of my schooling from after the age of eleven, and like others in the course I can remember specific teachers whose teaching had a life-long effect, notably my secondary school literature, geography and biology teachers. But if I reflect on my educational experiences there was one event that established my career trajectory, and three people who have been hugely influential in determining my educational philosophy.

The event

I went to University in the 60s, where, in the first year I studied zoology, chemistry and physiology. I don’t know how common my undergraduate experience was, but mine was not good. Most notably, not a single lecturer knew my name, or me, for my entire three years. With one exception, the event which shaped my life and career, my university education consisted of sitting in large lecture theatres, staring at the back of the lecturer who was writing on a blackboard and frantically trying to copy down everything he wrote ( I don’t remember having any female lecturers) – or – of sitting in solitary silence in the library writing essays. The exception was that in my first year the physiology lecturer ran group seminars in which we were required to research, prepare and give a presentation on a chosen topic to the rest of the group. My chosen topic was ‘pain’. This was a significant event for me because it was when I realised not only that I could teach, but also that I loved it. The rest, as they say, is history.

The people

At the time when I started my teaching career, behaviourism (think Skinner) and teaching machines were the thing. I got a high mark for a project in my teaching diploma year (following graduation) for writing a mini textbook on ecology in the form of a teaching machine, i.e. programmed learning with in-built feedback. It was a while before I began to be influenced by constructivism and social constructivism and theorists such as Dewey, Bruner, Piaget and Vygotsky. Whilst these theorists of course influenced my thinking and practice, they didn’t have such a huge effect on my thinking, my practice and educational philosophy as the following three people, all of whom I have met and in some capacity have worked with or alongside. I will try and explain why they had the impact they did.

  1. Etienne Wenger. I am an introvert and my natural tendency would be to work alone. Etienne’s work introduced me to social learning theory, the power of communities of practice and working collaboratively with others. He has also written extensively on learning and identity. It was Etienne who really brought home to me how learning is about learning who I am.
  2. Stephen Downes. Being an introvert, I am not a natural networker. Early in my career I was told I needed to improve my networking skills. Stephen’s work on the theory of connectivism was hugely influential in helping me to see that everything is connected, and that knowledge is in the network; learning is the ability to make connections and traverse the network.

Connectivism depends on certain principles which now form the basis of my philosophical and pedagogical approach to education.

Images from: https://prezi.com/owiih87ovrhc/the-ideals-and-reality-of-participating-in-a-mooc/

I have also been influenced by Stephen’s thinking that – To teach is to model and demonstrate. To learn is to practise and reflect.

  1. Iain McGilchrist. Iain has been the most recent influence on my thinking about education. By listening to Iain and following his work I have reconsidered educational issues such as depth and breadth, ways of knowing, embodied learning and truth. Perhaps one of his most significant ideas for education is that everything is in flow, always changing and that therefore we have to be able to live with uncertainty and ambiguity. Another is that knowledge comes through a relationship. Iain discusses this in terms of ‘betweenness’. To understand this we need to think about “a world of ‘togetherness’ and intersubjectivity, rather than one of competition and bias; a world where we transcend the apparent duality of subjective and objective, of realism and idealism (p.144, The Master and his Emissary). This is a world which focusses on the relations between things, reciprocity and empathy.” This approach to education would promote ‘both/and’ thinking.

Iain’s work has made me realise how important it is to learn how to think, and I have wondered why philosophy is not a stand-alone subject in the national curriculum for all ages.

I haven’t explicitly written about what was effective, what  wasn’t and what could be changed. I am hoping that this is self-explanatory in this post. This was a useful and enjoyable task to complete.

Challenges of 21st Century Education

 

This post above from Stephen Downes came into my inbox today, just as I have completed the first week of a FutureLearn course – Testing Times in the Classroom: Challenges of 21st Century Education. The three meta aspects of future learning that Stephen mentions – equity, student-centered learning and real-world learning have, to some extent, also been discussed in the first week of this course.

The course, which will run for 4 weeks and is open and free on the FutureLearn platform, is being offered by Exeter University, UK. I have enjoyed the first week, which is helping me revisit some of the long-term issues that have bedevilled education, and to consider the issues that prominent educators and educational organisations are currently discussing.

The title of the course ‘Testing Times in the Classroom’ refers, of course, both to the over-reliance on ‘testing’ in current education systems, but also to the challenges current education systems face. In this first introductory week questions that have been asked are:

  • Why does education need to change?
  • Is it really the case that education needs a complete overhaul?
  • What are the key issues facing education today?
  • What should we do with what we know? What next?
  • What key recommendations would we make to policy makers?
  • What ‘what if?’ questions should we ask?

There are about 20 people on the course, although now that it is the weekend more people are joining in and beginning to post comments, and who’s to say how many are observing. Only about half a dozen participants are visibly very active, so it’s difficult to draw any conclusions from Week 1, but I think it would be fair to say that the majority of this small number of participants share similar concerns about the future of education. In a nutshell these seem to cover issues such as:

Change in education systems has not kept up with the pace of change in the world at large. Education has been slow to adapt.

Education needs to be re-imagined. There are many changes we can make to the existing system, but we need a paradigm shift. We need a learning approach for our times.

The current state of education is, for the most part, viewed negatively and equated with an over-emphasis on testing, concerns about children/students’ health and well-being, concerns about the dominance of technology, insufficient funding, too much government bureaucracy and the lack of creativity and innovation in the curriculum.

The only positive advancements mentioned were open education, online education and the potential of AI to support certain aspects of education (this last point needs further discussion).

Near the end of this week’s activities we were asked to ‘Think of some (three) “What if …?” questions that could open up the possibilities for education to be radically different in the future.’ I found it surprisingly difficult to think of three questions that might lead to a paradigm shift. I ended up making the following post, but didn’t feel very satisfied with my response.

1. What if children designed their own curriculum? This is not so far-fetched as it might sound. The HighScope programme from way back in the 1970s required early years children to plan their own school day.
2. What if children/students self-assessed against given criteria? What might be the benefits and drawbacks of doing this?
3. What if success in learning was a measure of how a student/child thinks rather than what s/he knows?

Throughout this week I have felt that somehow the discussion has not got to the nitty gritty of the problem. Earlier this year I wrote a post ‘Tinkering with the system won’t help reinvent the purpose of education’ My thinking hasn’t changed. To get beyond superficial (by superficial I mean ‘on the surface’) changes to the existing system, we will have to rethink education at a deeper level.

For example, it struck me this week that there were quite a few comments about preparing children/students for the world of work. Is this the purpose of education? Next week the course will focus on the purpose of education. Hopefully this will shed some light on what a paradigm shift in education might require.

_____________________________________________________________

For future reference I have collated some of the resources that have been shared this week below.

Jo Earp (2017) Global Education: 21st Century Skills. Teacher

Rebecca Vukovic (2019) How will schooling change over the next 10 years. Teacher (Interview with Neil Selwyn)

Top 100 Education Blogs in 2019 for Educators and Teachers

The Education World Forum

Global Education Conversation 2019 from Education World Forum on Vimeo.

Gavin Dykes from Education World Forum on Vimeo.

Artificial intelligence & the future of education systems. Bernhard Schindlholzer

Kate Hodal (2018) Hundreds of millions of children in school but not learning. The Guardian

Global Survey Reveals Major Shift in Education Toward Do-It-Yourself Learning (2019) Pearson

Truth in Education

To help us prepare for the Rebel Wisdom Summit on May 12th , in London, participants have been sent links to a number of videos which feature the keynote speakers, Iain McGilchrist, Bret Weinstein, Heather Heying and Jordan Greenhall (see my last blog post for links to the videos). I have been particularly interested in the videos in which Heather Heying appears. Heying is an evolutionary biologist who, having been forced, in 2017, to leave her tenured position at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, together with her husband Bret Weinstein, now describes herself as a Professor in Exile.

Although I was not aware of Heather Heying’s story before watching the Rebel Wisdom videos, the idea that free speech is being curtailed in the name of political correctness and social justice, is not new to me. Mariana Funes and I discussed this in relation to the work of Jonathan Haidt in our 2018 paper When Inclusion Excludes: a counter narrative of open online education.  I have some personal experience of the negative consequences of ‘going against the grain’, so I was interested in what Heather Heying had to say in the video in which she and Bret Weinstein discuss ‘Having a Real Conversation” with David Fuller, a founder of Rebel Wisdom. According to some news reports, Bret Weinstein asked students for a ‘dialectic‘, a ‘real conversation’, rather than a ‘debate’ about the issues that led to his leaving Evergreen State College with his wife Heather Heying, but this did not transpire.

A lot of what Heying and Weinstein say in the ‘real conversation’ video is not new to me. My experience is that good teachers know that they have to ‘set the stage’ when starting a new course or a new term with school children, and that it is worth spending some time at the beginning of the course or term mutually agreeing how the class will work. Good teachers also respect their students and know that they must ensure that everyone has a voice and that alternative perspectives are respected. I am not an evolutionary biologist, so I cannot say whether the potential for conflict in evolutionary biology classes and similar subjects is greater than in, say, something like physics or mathematics, but I suspect that it may be, especially in America where there are schools teaching creationism.

At about six minutes into the video, Heather talks about freeing students from the yoke of authority and learning to think for themselves. At this point she also says, If we’re trying to figure out what is true, science is the best tool we have,  and If we find that we can’t do science on what you’ve said, what can we do to what you’ve said to make it falsifiable. The longer we can’t falsify it, the more likely it is that it is true. So she takes a scientific approach to truth.

I specifically noticed this because I have just finished reading Julian Baggini’s book, A short History of Truth. Consolations for a Post-Truth World. On the back cover of this book is written:

How did we find ourselves in a  “post-truth” world of “alternative facts”? And can we get out of it? A Short History of Truth sets out to answer these questions by looking at the complex history of truth. Renowned and respected philosopher Julian Baggini has identified ten types of supposed truth, and explains how easily each can become the midwife of falsehood’.

Baggini discusses empirical, authoritative and reasoned truths, the idea that truth should be grounded in evidence, that truths can be known and that reason can lead to truth. All these seem to be the kinds of truths that Heather Heying focuses on as the basis for real conversations with her students.

But there are also, according the Baggini, eternal truths, esoteric truths, creative truths, relative truths, powerful truths,  moral truths and holistic truth. These seem to emphasise different aspects to how we recognise truth than the empirical truth focussed on by Heying. This made me wonder whether the idea that there can be many types of truth was discussed by her students and how this idea might influence the outcome of a ‘real conversation’.

According to Iain McGilchrist we cannot go to science for truth. As I wrote in a previous blog post he believes that

Science cannot fulfil the role of purveyor of truth. Good science is always aware of its limitations, but science cannot discover the purpose of life nor tell us about God’s nature or existence and science promotes the use of models. There is always a model whether we are aware of it or not, but the model we choose determines what we find.

Science places a high value on precision, but what about things we cannot be precise about, where apparent opposites come together? Science passes over entities that cannot be measured; it takes things out of context and decontextualizes the problem. We put our faith in science because it is seen to be objective, but science is not value free. A lot of scientific research is not adequately designed; we know that the Hawthorne effect can influence scientific results and positive findings are more likely to be published than negative ones. We can’t ask science to do what it can’t do. A hypothesis cannot be proved nor disproved. Each comes with many assumptions. Proof used to mean a trial run (as in a printed proof).

Science cannot provide us with dependable ultimate truths. It’s not pointless, but it does not provide us with reliable truth. Philosophy equally has problems with notions of intuition, uncertainty, rationality, reason and the complexity of truth.

Given that both Heather Heying and Iain McGilchrist will be speaking at the Rebel Wisdom Summit, I will be very interested to see whether the question of truth comes up, and if it does the extent to which they agree or differ on the meaning of truth.

And I wonder what they would both think of Baggini’s simple rubric to help us nurture truth. This is how Baggini ends his book in a discussion of future truths. (p.107)

  • Spiritual ‘truths’ should not compete with secular ones but should be seen as belonging to a different species.
  • We should think for ourselves, not by ourselves.
  • We should be sceptical not cynical.
  • Reason demands modesty not certainty.
  • To become smarter, we must understand the ways we are dumb.
  • Truths need to be created as well as found.
  • Alternative perspectives should be sought not as alternative truths but as enrichers of truth.
  • Power doesn’t speak the truth; truth must speak to power.
  • For a better morality we need better knowledge.
  • Truth needs to be understood holistically.

References

Baggini, J. (2017). A Short History of Truth. Consolations for a Post-Truth World. Quercus.

Funes, M. & Mackness, J. (2018): When inclusion excludes: a counter narrative of open online education, Learning, Media and Technology, DOI: 10.1080/17439884.2018.1444638 When Inclusion Excludes MF:JM 280218

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, “Having a Real Conversation”: https://youtu.be/ZBkF-xJh6tU