Many moons ago we used to discuss aspects of education which went on unseen and unnoticed. The emphasis on testing and so-called knowledge-based education has pushed this focus away. I happen to think it's still as relevant as it always was. That's to say, out of sight and out of mind, many hidden messages reach children in schools about what kind of learners they are and what kind of people they are. Here are some of them.
1. We shouldn't pretend it's not going on: there is in-class setting in many schools from Yr 1 to Yr 6. To be clear, I'm not having a go at classroom teachers for this. In almost cases, they don't have a say in the matter. It's decided by a combination of Ofsted and school management. Some questions: is there an evidence that this is a successful way for children to learn?
Quite apart from what children are learning in terms of the curriculum, what messages might we suppose the children in setted classes learn?
a) there are systems in life over which you have no control. They are created by people bigger and better than you.
b) these systems are beyond questioning. They just 'are'. They represent 'reality' or 'how life is'. In this particular case, the 'reality' is that we are 'naturally' or 'really' grouped in these so-called ability groups.
2. Because of the massive emphasis on testing, there are in effect in schools, two kinds of activity: the kind that is tested and testable, the kind that is not. We can't pretend otherwise: the tests matter. I don't mean by that that they should matter. I mean that no matter what soothing messages we give to children, the children can see that they matter to staff and parents so they end up mattering to the children. Inevitably this means that all the other things they do in school - and perhaps outside - are of lower status. We can list them: the arts, PE, play, philosophy, holidays, games, clubs and more. Again, schools can and do try to give some of these activities high status but what messages do children pick up about them in the present context? How about: 'Yes, adults keep saying they're important but when it really comes to it, it's the testing stuff that really counts, isn't it?'
But that list of activities (they're not all ones that I necessarily put at the centre of my priorities) comprises a massively important part of our lives. How come we have an education system that puts them on the margins in terms of importance and value. Aside from how socially or mentally 'valuable' they are, some of them are also professionally valuable. They are just as useful ways of getting a career as maths or English. Further - some of them are ways in which some children can get a handle on why there's any point in doing this education thing, or - more specifically - ways in which some children can get a handle on specific things like literacy. (Just think of the effect of, say, doing drama - a school play or some such - on literacy!)
Teachers know all this. It's just that in the present set up, it's become increasingly hard for them to do these things. It's all become squeezed or pushed to the margins. In itself this squeezing to the edges is another way in which children can read it all as 'less important' or 'not mattering very much', or 'not mattering as much as the real stuff' (that is, the stuff you have to do for the tests).
3. Any activity within the traditional, tested subjects which is not immediately apparent as having a learning objective or learning outcome attached to it, must, by definition appear to children as less important, less valuable. The one that I hear most about in my own field is 'silent reading'. With 'reading' having several high stakes tests attached to it (SPaG, SATs) and all the rehearsal and mock versions of the tests that go with the actual ones, then the priority in school becomes these versions of reading. But let's say that one of the really important things we need to help children acquire is a sense of pleasure attached to the reading process. Otherwise, the moment the compulsion that comes with testing is removed, why bother? So, where does this pleasure come from? Purely from doing well in the tests? (Not necessarily, I would argue.) And then what about all those who don't do really well in the tests but who could still get pleasure from reading? Where will their desire to read come from?
I've focussed here on reading silently but there must be countless examples in other parts of the curriculum where valuable activities and processes are being squeezed out by virtue of them not being tested or testable. From my own observation, my hunch is that these include such things as experiments and open-ended observations in science; creating environments in which children start their learning on a topic by coming up with questions of their own, bringing their own out-of-school experiences into the classroom. I'm sure other people can think of their own.
4. Picking up on this last point - the out-of-school experiences: a distinct move was made some ten years ago against what was seen as the lower value of children's own lives, experiences and language(s). This is all part of the drive towards 'core' knowledge and the knowledge-based curriculum. The curriculum as it is now laid out in the documents hardly acknowledges this area of knowledge. Nor does it acknowledge that no matter what kind of learning goes on, it can only ever start from where children are at. If it starts somewhere else, then the child in question won't get it. However, even for me to say that, lays me open to the accusation of 'dumbing down', 'having low expectations' and the like. But what if we put the problem the other way round: if the message we put over to children is that their own lives and experience have no place or a very unimportant place in education, what hidden messages do we give them about them and their families as people? And if this is a sense of themselves as somehow less worthy than people who run schools, or who do really well at education, how does that help such children learn? Or can we say that this simply reinforces a perception of themselves as less valuable, less important?
5. It's nothing new in education but perhaps it's become more intense: individualising of learning. If you raise the status of tests and exams, inevitably this has a knock-on effect in terms of defining the shape and kind of knowledge you acquire. One aspect of this says to the child: learning is something that only matters if it's yours as an individual. And yet, society and civilisation itself has always relied and depended on collaboration and co-operation in acquiring and using knowledge. In almost every sphere of life, people have to share and co-operate with at least one other person in order to make progress or 'to get things done'. Knowing how to do this is a desperately needed ability. People who find it difficult or seemingly against doing it, often find themselves in difficulty, or frozen out by whatever's going on. But where do schools find the time or opportunity to do important, high prestige co-operative activity? Schools do, but it's difficult and not usually given the learning objective-learning outcome badge of success.
6. Finally, discipline and behaviour. The basic principle that has always hovered over this is that whatever system a school uses, it is invented, owned and controlled by adults. In fact, this is so much part of our collective psyche it's extremely difficult to think of any other way of doing things. Does this matter? Some would say not. It's just the way it's got to be. I would argue that whether we think it's inevitable or whether (as I do) think there are other ways it could operate, we teach children that the ordering of children into 'good' and 'bad' or into 'well behaved' and 'badly behaved' is something beyond their control. Again, rather like the testing procedures, it's beyond questioning. In other words, as individuals - at least when we are young - we have no right to be part of decisions about how we are divided up into 'good' and 'bad'. In fact, the way we are divided up like that is a kind of secret or arcane knowledge. Behind the system there are books on 'discipline' and as a child being acted on by this system are not really privy to why it's set up. So, for example, we don't discuss with children what a detention is for, what is the meaning of a detention, who invented them, is there any evidence that they do what they claim to do - which is...er...make children better? Improve them?
If we put all this together - and I'm sure other people will be able to think of other invisible parts of schooling into this mix - what do we get? For the high-flyers, I suspect that a good deal of this reinforces their right to be high-flyers. It's all a kind of self-fulfilling system: 'This system works well because I've come out at the top of it.' (This is not to blame or despise them for thinking that.)
But what of the rest?
Might it not be possible that they are encouraged by this system to go on and on and on thinking of themselves as 'not good enough'? And that they have little or no leverage on the system to be able to question its right to tell them to. 'It says I'm not good enough, and it must be right to say I am not good enough'. The word for this is 'self-blame'.
My own feeling is that self-blame is one of the most destructive emotions of our time. I think that this is how we 'learn' to accept the system, even if we are irritated, annoyed or depressed by it. We think, 'It might not be good, or it makes me fed up, but what can I do about it? Nothing!'
In addition, the test and exam system reinforces this too. All teachers I know try to encourage children to do well in tests and exams by telling them that they can do better or can do well, if they work hard or harder. Yet we all know that when the test is marked, everyone is graded. In other words it's not true that everyone can do well. So, don't I, as a child getting my not-good-enough results think that the only reason for them not-being-good-enough is me? It's my fault. There can't be any other reason. The system was always unquestioned and unquestionable. There is no subject in school called 'The Curriculum' or 'Education' or 'Schooling'.
Irony of ironies: in the midst of the knowledge-based curriculum enthusiasm, very few people seem to be asking questions about what happens to the children who don't 'get' that curriculum, the children who 'fail'. If the knowledge-based curriculum is supposedly liberating, is it liberating for all? Or for some? And what happens to those who don't get it? Is it the opposite? that's to say does such a curriculum tell the 'failures' that they are not liberated, not worthy of being liberated, not able to be liberated and indeed responsible for their own inability to be liberated by this curriculum?
In the end a lot of this is about hierarchies and segregation. Well, more than this: it's about how we come to accept such hierarchies. Our political system loves us accepting hierarchies and self-blame. Doesn't our political system rely on the fact that millions of people who do not thrive under the present set-up accept that it's the only system that is possible and that if they themselves don't thrive it must be their own fault or their own lot?
I suspect so.