Tuesday 10 July 2012

Making education policy: the 'what' and the 'how'

I've said this before and elsewhere, so please excuse me if you're tired of seeing it again.

It's about the 'how' and 'what' in education - which kinda overlaps with the old 'means and ends' argument.

So to specifics: education (along with plenty of other institutions) has a system of governance which is almost entirely top-down, heavily centralised into one small office inhabited by very few people. So, in the most recent months, it's clear that the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove is making decisions and deciding policies virtually all by himself. This might be over something not terribly important - apart from its symbolic value - like the issuing of the King James Bible - or over something very important indeed: the main components of the curriculum, the nature of assessment, the nature of how things should be taught and so on. As examples of these, we've seen the highly specific Phonics Screening Check, the Draft Primary English, Science and Maths Curricula, the so-called SPAG test - Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar test which, it seems is due to replace the teacher-assessed Key Stage 2 Writing Test, the new O-level type exam due to replace the GCSE and so on.

Now, it's quite possible - as indeed I have done in previous blogs here - to criticise elements in each of these policies. Let's call these the 'what'. In fact, I'm going to argue here that the problem is not only or simply the 'what'. The problem is the 'how', that is how these policies have been put together and how they are going to be implemented. So, for example again, the Draft Primary English Curriculum seems to have emerged from a secret committee (apart from its chair, who I've quoted in full here), and will be implemented in part by means of a new test, the Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation test. Similarly, with the Draft Science test (as I've written about on an earlier blog), it is laid down quite clearly that true speculative, predictive science experiments are expressly discouraged until Year 5.

All this material - policies, testing, curriculum - has been presented to schools without evidence, without authors (who could be challenged), each time as a fait accompli - 'this is what you will do'.

Now, all our school, college and life training is directed towards treating all this material as something which we can 'agree or disagree with'. Again and again, this is how newpapers, TV and radio approach me over these policies: what do you think about learning poems off by heart? what do you think of phonics? what do you think of the test?

I, along with most people reading this, have little problem answering that kind of question, but they are 'what' questions, whereas I think if we talk about the 'how' we get to the root of the whole problem of what is happening in education. Put it this way: imagine a different 'how'. Imagine a system of developing education which involved classroom teachers presenting evidence, classroom teachers engaged in research of what they teach, how they teach, who they teach. Imagine such classroom teachers joining discussion with university-based researchers, cross-fertilising each other's work. Imagine that it might be the job of such discussions to involve at key points pupils, parents and elected representatives. Imagine that such discussions  could take place locally, regionally and nationally. Imagine that this discussion was not so much about fixing policies forever, everywhere but that there was flexibility built into the outcomes so that local and regional considerations could be taken into consideration, so that new research (by teachers, teacher-researchers or academic researchers) could be taken into consideration. In other words, it was understood that one of the key components of education was that it involved a permanent review - some of which could take place in a conference setting, some in online settings, some in clusters of schools, some in single schools and so on. Teachers themselves then develop their own professional practice in order to keep up with what they're discussing, researching and studying. I have seen this happen many times eg in the context of the Language in the National Curriculum Project, teachers presenting their classroom research at conferences in the US, Australia, Canada and here at UKLA, NATE and LATE. I've seen teachers on the year long course in poetry I do at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education and again on the MA in Children's Literature at Birkbeck that I teach.It can be done, it is being done but as a body of work, it isn't central to the way teachers and teaching develop.

All this would require a fundamental shift in how we perceive education policy and practice. In other words, policy would not be bits of paper or booklets, handed down by secret committees, to be enacted or 'delivered' by teachers (as if they are inadequate, simple-minded people only capable of obeying instructions, or of accepting central government's ideas as definite truths). Policy would be the outcome of a totally different process, one which engaged the best minds and best practitioners in the game along with as many interested parties as possible. Or perhaps, we could say that policy would be process and process would be policy.

Behind this lies the 'means and ends' argument: that's to say, the means of arriving at an idea, a practice, a policy will have clear results or effects on that idea, that practice, that policy. This way of thinking is by and large not how we are encouraged to think. So, to take an obvious example: when we read about a criminal case, we very quickly become engaged in the arguments being put forward by the prosecution and the defence. (That's the 'what'.) Only when there is a clear case of miscarriage of justice do we start really engaging with all the many aspects of 'how' going on in the justice system: how come this defendant was charged, was this the error of this trial or was it a structural defect of the system? If it was the system, what was the problem, how did that come about? ...and so on.

By and large, people do this kind of thinking much less than the 'what' thinking. I know I do. I find it's in the moments of crisis or in the moments when things are going clearly wrong, that I stop and try to figure out the 'how'. And that's what I'm trying to do here.

Here is what I'm saying in more 'slogan' form, from tweets on twitter earlier:

Nearly all Education Secretaries see their job as droving: forcing herds of cattle (teacher herds or pupil herds) along the road to market.

Educ secs keep changing the 'what' while repeating the same 'how':  new policies, same old diktat. Only by changing the how can educ get better.

Educ secs think it's all about them finding the next big idea and forcing it on schools. Educ ideas have to develop out of teachers teaching.

We should not be asking or begging for better policies. We should be fighting for a whole different process and the policies will emerge.

The phonics policy born out of ed sec diktat. What might work for some turned into compulsory for all - even for kids who use other ways.

No point in pretending that just one person has sufficient awareness to know what should go on in education? ‪