Saturday 11 June 2016

Authority, 1960s, schools, learning and rollback in 2016

One of the many things that happened in the 1960s was that some of us figured that when people or institutions or texts (newspapers, magazines, books, TV programmes) said that we had to agree with them, or obey them, we said, 'Why?'

This was called 'questioning authority' which can mean at least two things: 'on what basis did you make such-and-such a claim?' or 'I think what you're saying is crap'. And of course the two things do overlap.

In the period since the 1960s, some have continued with either or both of those authority-questioning outlooks, whilst others have felt threatened by it and have done all they can to reassert 'authority' on the basis that, for example, if an authority is or became an authority, it must therefore follow that it is right that it is the authority e.g. Alan Sugar, Nick Gibb, Nicky Morgan, any exam, any test.

This goes on as a struggle. When Michael Gove took over in Education, he clearly saw himself (or at the very least described himself) as some kind of underdog fighting an 'educational establishment' and/or 'the Blob'. He was the little guy fighting against an all-pervasive authority. The fact that he was the authority, he was the person dictating curriculum, school structure, attitude to teachers, teaching and learning and he was the one with all the power seemed to him irrelevant or at least he pretended it was.

This struggle is also going on at a 'micro' level in terms of what should go on in classrooms. A fierce debate is going on about how teachers should show they are the authority, the ones possessing the knowledge, how they should impart it, how children and students should learn it. Various buzz words in this debate are thrown around like 'discovery' (bad), 'instruction' (good), 'dialogue' (bad), 'group work' (bad) and so on.

Quite a bit of this leads to false dichotomies and false descriptions. One person's 'discovery method' may be another person's 'instruction' - e.g. someone standing in front of 30 children asking questions the person knows the answer to, is, in my book,  not 'discovery'; I think  it's actually a form of 'instruction'. One person telling 30 people how something works - and then asking people to discuss some specific questions, and to come up with questions themselves might be 'instruction + discovery'.

The present lot in power are caught in a contradiction. Two forces pull them in opposite directions: the one is seemingly libertarian, in favour of the individual striving and having freedom. Pulling in the opposite direction is a belief that central power should lay down what is right. In terms of the what goes on in schools, this is represented by talk of 'autonomy' and 'freedom for schools to do what they do best' and in the other is the most draconian test and exam system that has ever been in place, coupled with a punitive inspection system which in turn has a knock-on effect on how schools are measured and changed when deemed to be not good enough.

Quite apart from how this shakes out at a political level, there is also a direct impact on our children. They are on the receiving end of heavy prescriptiveness. I know best of how this has impacted on language and literature teaching where children have to focus on micro-features of language, name them and adopt them as criteria for 'good writing'. Alongside this, a comprehension regime focuses on questions that produce right/wrong answers rather than on explorations of interpretation and multiple meanings. As I've written before, this produces the idea of the 'ideal' effect and the 'ideal' child. Language and literature - both democratic media - have to knuckle down under the reign of hidden authority.

To me, who was a teenager and young man in the 1960s, this feels like a deliberate roll-back to a time before the 1960s.