Friday, 18 May 2018

Education - what for? Where? When? How?

I've been trying an experiment. What happens if you put 'how', 'why', 'when', 'what for', 'where', before the word 'education'? 

Let's start with 'where?'

Mostly, we think of education in quite a narrow way in terms of 'where?' It's the stuff that goes on in schools and colleges, supposedly. As it happens, when I was writing my memoir 'So They Call You Pisher!' I reminded myself that a huge amount of what have been formative experiences happened to me outside of school. What's more a good deal of these were experiences that enabled me to access what they offered me in the state school and university system from 1949 to 1969 - and indeed for what I did later for an MA and a Ph.D. Of course, in one sense I was very privileged, not by the standards of wealth particularly but both my parents were teachers. Actually, they were more than teachers - they were two people almost fanatically attached to the idea that life was a teacher and that they could in the broadest sense of the word teach about life wherever they were, whenever they were awake! (yes, it was quite a burden sometimes!)

But are there more universal ways in which we can think of out-of-school as 'education'? There are certainly plenty of facilities that are about learning new stuff, from museums to football stadiums to 'Go Ape' climbing experiences to libraries and much more.  Could there be a way, in which the relationship between formal school learning and informal out-of-school learning could be made into some kind of proper set-up? Perhaps some schools do this. Public (ie private !) boarding schools pride themselves on this being built into the virtues of the system: there are lessons, there is homework time (prep) and there are activities that school students can do, laid on by the school for the students to choose and attend (I gather!). Again, writing my memoir, I reminded myself just how powerful my out-of-school interests were for building up a sense of what mattered to me and much of it 'competed' with the in-school stuff in terms of me asking myself, which is more valuable? (In one area, this has often nagged at me: literature. Was there any way that any teacher or anyone else could tell me that the lyrics of Bob Dylan were less valuable than the poems I was being taught in school? )

If we say, 'when Education?' again, we are stuck mostly with school and university. I've been very lucky to have been able to afford to do an MA and a Ph.D., so though that's quite a privileged idea of what 'further education' is, I will never ever underestimate the value and power of studying again when you're in your forties or fifties, say. Or indeed at any time! Surely, in an ideal society that wants to advance has to think of its citizens going on inquiring, acquiring knowledge and skills, exploring fields of interest as far as it's possible to go? Isn't this desirable both at an individual and social level. Ultimately the 'good' of this will filter through in terms of the total 'value' of a society. To put this in place needs us to think of how we can link education 4-18 with every possible further education institution...and how to make it easier for people to opt into such places, one day a week, or short courses, or however. 

If we ask, why education?, we come up against powerful orthodoxies, such as: education is for the whole person, every aspect of our being can and should be developed by education and who's to say from within education why one part of one's existence is more important an another; get the whole child right - emotional, physical, intellectual and that child will turn into an adult who can access what's out there at the level appropriate to that adult. This 'holistic' view pre-supposes that there is some kind of 'core' to our being and that knowledge and learning happens when the core is in a good state. Some people put that the other way round: acquire the knowledge, that'll give you the basis for problem-solving and the sense of well-being and happiness will flow from that. 

Another view says that the only thing that counts is the marketability of the student at 16, 18 or on leaving college, and education should focus entirely and single-mindedly on giving the child and school student marketability. This means tailoring the curriculum and schooling (often seen as a one-off chance) to gearing the child and school student up with marketable skills and knowledge. Anything that looks irrelevant or incidental to this should be got rid of, or discouraged. 

There are many other views or combinations of these and we're in the  midst of the imposition of one particular orthodoxy: that worth in all respects (self-worth, worth to society etc) is acquired through the acquisition of knowledge and that knowledge is identified as being 'the best that has been said and written'...and that has been identified as 'classical' or 'traditional' knowledge ....which (surprising to me) is apparently without cultural bias. Apparently, it is just simply the 'best' and, it's argued, this 'best' stuff has to be taught to everyone so that in particular the 'disadvantaged' get the same stuff as the toffs get , as that is the only way to create 'equality of opportunity' and 'social mobility'. 

My view of this is that even if it's true, this teaching of classic and traditional knowledge goes on in a context - all teaching goes on in a context! - and that this context is just as important as the knowledge itself. The main context in England at this moment is a school system skewed as never before to testing and exams. This has several effects: it determines the shape and quality of the knowledge being passed on - ie it has to come in exam-question chunks. It creates knowledge as being purely and simply of a right/wrong nature. This is no more apparent than in the field of language. Language is a hugely diverse and changing thing - as you might expect, because it is a form of human behaviour. The grammar being taught at primary school at the moment, treats language as a set of acts which must conform to a set of rules, and that parts and functions of language can be named and labelled as incontrovertibly correct. Language isn't like that at all, as it is used in wide range of ways, for very different purposes and changes all the time. The model of treating as right/wrong was devised purely in order to make it fit the testing system. As a result, that particular discipline or form of knowledge is distorted by the testing system and 'wrong knowledge' is dispensed, (e.g. examiners insisting that 'The sun shines bright' is 'wrong' and only 'The sun shines brightly' is 'right'. ( see David Crystal for this particular example.)

The other major effect stemming from context, is that of selection, 'setting' and streaming. In short, the knowledge curriculum is 'hired' to enable the system to constantly sort the school population into categories. This is not, as is claimed, in order to help the low-attaining children and students 'do better' but turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophesy in confirming students in categories - no matter whether they're called e.g. Squirrels Table and Kestrels Table  or whether it's sorting into  'sets', 'streams' or different kinds of schools. Quite clearly, some kinds of school activity are not so easy for using as means to do this kind of selection - let's think, say, of most kinds of shared activity in pairs or bigger groups. I've heard this being called 'confusing' precisely because the children in a pair or group can't be 'disentangled' and given separate grades. But is paired work or group work bad in some way? Aren't there virtues in children learning how to learn together - at least sometimes? 

Another effect linked to this is the proposition that this kind of knowledge curriculum (now locked into the exam-test regime) is best delivered through a particular mode of teaching. At which point, we come to 'Education how?' Having established education as being about the transmission of knowledge to the individual in ways that can be tested in right/wrong exam questions, then it's argued that the kind of knowledge transmission that is best suited to this (though it's usually described as objectively the best way in all conditions) is direct instruction. Various people have laid this out in terms of room arrangement, percentage of time in which the teacher passes on knowledge, to what extent the teacher asks questions, how it is that each child or school student gets to answer those questions (e.g. as individuals raising their hands), the use of positive and negative reinforcement techniques - and so on.  What should be minimised by this 'how', it's argued,  are exploratory, investigatory and discovery methods. It's claimed that these methods disadvantage the disadvantaged because they don't have the cultural capital to engage with those methods, and are quickly confused or resign themselves to not being much good at it. What they need, it's claimed,  is constant, clear, directive teaching which says what's right, what's wrong, and does its best to get the facts over. 

Being a parent has the advantage of seeing how this works out away from school. You get to see the kind of homework your child has that is required to back up this shift to more knowledge, taught 'directly' and whether your children do in fact 'get' it;  what it feels like when they don't, and how a constant regime of practice testing, setting pans out. What happens, as I've suggested, is that the great slabs of knowledge are yoked to a constant background buzz of grading, with spikes of panic when the grading is part of high-stakes testing and/or teacher anxiety to do with inspections and the like. This comes to light in particular on parents' evenings when you, as a parent, sit down in front of a teacher (who I am 100% in sympathy with here, as it's not their 'fault', they didn't create this system) who finds your child's name on a register, runs their finger along a set of grades, reads them out, noting 'dips' and 'improvements' and says to you and your child, what needs to be done to avoid the 'dips'. The child is, then reduced, to data. The data define the child. The child becomes data. The sum worth and purpose of education in that moment is the data. (In fact, it is the teacher's worth and the school's worth too, because the sum of the data is supposedly the sum worth of that teacher to enable the sum of children to get the 'right' grades that sum of children is worth (according to a base line of some sort), and the sum worth of that school to have teachers who can enable the students to collect data at the right level. )

This is just about as far removed from the 'whole child' view of education as it is possible to be. Ironically, at the very moment the private schools put in their mission statements and publicity handouts how proud they are to education the whole child and the whole child's whole personality (etc etc),  the public sector is forced more and more into this marketable-unit kind of education. 

So what is education for? Again, this can't really be asked free of the context in which we find ourselves. Or contexts (plural). One key context is the state of flux in society. We really don't know what society will look like in 10 or 20 years time when today's school pupils will be going off to work - if there is work. We don't know what 'work' will look like for the mass of people. We don't know how those people who are in work that is not fulfilling to the mind or body, will spend their leisure time.  At the core of this is an argument about technology and whether those who own and control  business, will so invest in technology as to remove millions of people from the workplace. The main obstacle for them to do this with a free hand is that the effect of removing millions of people from the workplace, removes millions of people from their wages, which in turn removes them from having the means to buy the products being made by the new technology! 

Meanwhile, there are huge unknowns and insecurities in relation to the UK's relationship to the world. My own view of the argument about Leave or Remain is that these are two competing arguments about how to insure that wages in Britain are kept low. With yet more labyrinthine arguments appearing daily about this or that customs union and single market, the argument seems to me to be even more about how to keep wages low, in order to 'compete for investment'. So, step back for a moment - the great knowledge curriculum, yoked as it is to a hyper-selective, exam-based system, might possibly be useful in a global, macro sense for the country to guarantee that there is a fixed, group at the bottom that never managed to get hold of all that great knowledge, and found over and over again that their test-exam failing (linked to sets, streams and different kinds of schools), leaves them as ideal candidates for those low-paid, unskilled jobs that even technology can't quite get rid of (minding the production line that is packing the products in the huge internet retail depots etc). 

So, we don't really know what world the students are going into, other than that under the present dispensation, a tiny, tiny minority own and control that world. Of course one argument is that school should enable anyone to join that tiny, tiny elite but I can see a problem here: is it really desirable to think of school as a system that is geared up for one or two people to join the elite and for everyone else to fail at doing that? There is an awkward egalitarianism in education and amongst teachers that runs totally against this view of schooling! No matter what is imposed from those who run education, virtually every teacher I've ever met, is trying to do the best for all their pupils. (Of course, the way round this is for our schools to be even more rigidly selective than at present so that the 'doing the best of all their pupils' can be corrupted. In effect, teachers in elite schools do their best for their pupils to be in the elite and the rest do the best they can. It might be argued that the private school system does this anyway, along with a few of the elite grammar schools. Sorted!)

So what are we left with in terms of that question, what is it for? I think it is right to hang on to the idea of the 'whole child', the whole student, no matter how data-driven, test-driven the system is. Our humanity is at stake. We all know that there are activities like putting on a play, running a sports day, producing a magazine and hundreds of others that are outside of this data and testing loop, where we see pupils flourish, find value for themselves, acquire skills and knowledge, learn how to co-operate, work to deadlines that correspond to the kinds of deadlines you meet outside of school, and so on. None of this is trivial. It's deadly serious, no matter how unvalued or undervalued it is by the system. 

It also enables us to get a glimpse of the way things could be - that is, if the balance between formal learning, experimental learning, activities, projects, group work was better. It would also contain within it flexibilities about whatever it is the world is going to hit us with.