Let’s imagine

31st January 2013

Article for the BlogSync Initiative : “The Universal Panacea? The number one shift in UK education I wish to see in my lifetime”

This is one of my favourite stories from Stephen Covey.

There’s a team cutting their way through the jungle. At the front are the producers with their machetes. They’re the problem-solvers, the ones who get things done; they’re clearing the path.

Behind them are the managers, sharpening their machetes, writing policies and procedure manuals, holding muscle development programmes, bringing in improved technologies, monitoring and checking the efficiency and productivity of the producers.

Finally there is the leader, who takes a look around, climbs the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation, and yells, “Wrong jungle!”

I see the problems of our education system in this story. We are working so hard at refining and developing our management and production methods that we don’t have the time or the inclination to stop and ask the fundamental questions.

Let’s imagine, just for a moment, there really is a universal panacea for all our problems. A shift in thinking so monumentally seismic it will make us think differently about everything – root and branch.

It’s going to have to be a biggie: A different jungle.

It will put into question everything the current system is based on and force us to look entirely differently at the way we manage things currently and the way we work with the people who matter the most, the students.

One thing is for certain, in technology, change is going to happen and it’s going to be huge. Moore’s Law, now beginning to reach its zenith, predicts by 2019 a $1,000 personal computer will have as much raw power as the human brain. By 2029 the computational power will be 1000 times more. For decades futurists have been waiting with baited breath for the changes these levels of computing power will bring to society and ordinary people’s lives. They will fundamental alter the way children are educated. It’s has already started to happen. We will have to wait to see if schools are going to survive the change.

If they are then we need to start climbing some tall trees and looking in different directions.

In 2004 Kieran Egan published his book, ‘Getting it Wrong from the Beginning’ in which he argues the ideas upon which education was founded in the last half of the nineteenth century were wrong. And despite their continued dominance in educational thinking for a century and a half, they are no more right today. These concepts, he maintains, have become so deeply rooted in our ideas about education that we take them for granted and, as such, they continue to scupper all of our attempts at educational reform.

Egan seems to be arguing that there is no worth in the current system and any attempt to improve or develop it is just wasted energy.

I’m not entirely sure this is true, but I’ve been in the education system for 43 years, as a student and as a teacher, and I’m not sure any of the reforms in that time have really made anything much better.

So, what is the one really big change in education I’d like to see in my lifetime? For me it would be a genuine examination and reappraisal of the fundamental ideas we use to underpin our pedagogic practice.
As a profession we seem exceptionally good at being deferential to authority and exceptionally bad at stating our case and defending our professional expertise. I think this is because we have never really established genuinely secure philosophical foundations to what we do. Historically pedagogy has been split along a fault line, with progressive ‘child-centred’ advocates on one side and traditional ‘standards-centred’ protagonists on the other. This, as Egan argues, has been an ongoing struggle for over a hundred years causing constant change and upheaval for generation after generation of students, but little genuine progress.

However, (and most teachers know this) the difference between the two sides is essentially cosmetic. Any good classroom practitioner will use both traditional ‘transmission’ strategies and progressive ‘discovery’ methods as and when the learning needs of their students require. This is because teaching is essentially a practical business, one that requires the best tool for the job, and not an ideologically fixed view.

Which is generally fine for the day-to-day running of a classroom, but does leave us vulnerable to criticism and manipulation from those outside who think they know better.

For example, how can it be possible that the biggest reforms to education in our life-time are being made by a journalist, behind closed doors, with cabals of hand chosen advisers, without barely a whimper of public indignation?

I believe its because we have let it happen. As a profession we have never really tackled the really difficult questions. We are amazingly good at sharpening our machetes, honing our teaching skills and knuckling down to the hard graft of marking and planning. But we are lamentably bad at standing up to the watchers and to the judges who step into our classrooms and claim to be able tell – just by using their expertly honed senses and a ‘rigorous’ scrutiny of numbers – exactly how much progress our students have made in thirty minutes and, as a consequence, how satisfactory is our work.

Just pause for a minute to think about how ridiculous this is. What kinds of superhuman powers of observation do these remarkable people have? And more to the point, what phenomenological method are they using when they make their observations and judgements? My hunch is they don’t know. I’m guessing there is no Ofsted department for collecting evidence and writing reports for Sir Michael on the ontological theories underpinning lesson observations and school inspections. But there should be. And this is what I would like to see, not just from Ofsted, but from the whole teaching profession, a systematic acknowledgment we need to develop a sound philosophical foundation for our pedagogy on which we can build effective and coherent approaches to teaching and learning.

What would such a foundation look like? That’s to be decided. But I would like to make a suggestion. There is a theoretical model for the social sciences, which has been knocking around since the early 1970’s called Critical Realism and it might be a good place to start.

Critical Realism maintains reality is layered.

– The first layer represents existence outside of human experience, the laws and events that govern the physical universe.

– The second layer represents the experiences we have of this fundamental first layer, which remain consistent and allow us through scientific study to form understanding and make predictions. Humans create domains of knowledge to theorise, explain and apply this understanding. These are called the natural sciences and include physics, chemistry and biology.

– The third layer represents the social (human) dimension of reality which interacts with the first two layers and can be observed and recorded, but, which – crucially – also changes and adapts in relation to itself and those doing the observing.

You might ask: ‘What has this to do with education?’
And I’d answer: ‘Everything.’

The mistake we’ve been making for over a hundred years is to think of education as a natural science. The phenomena (children and teachers) under study in education do not conform to discrete rules and patterns of behaviour and by using empirical methods borrowed from the study of events of the physical universe we are effectively using the wrong tools for the wrong job.

Essentially, and rather uncomfortably, all the knowledge we claim to have – all the data, all the lesson observations, all the exam results – are contingent, merely a human construct, generated with a purpose, but likely to be already changing as we collect it. This is not to say it has no value, but only that the value it does have is relative and open to interpretation.

The problem is over the last ten years there has been a growing trend in education to use it as if it were giving us an objective truth. International league tables (loved by politicians and journalists, but hated by most teachers) are the most extreme example. But the most damaging direct use of empirical data is in the process used by Ofsted to inspect schools. Gradually and insidiously data analysis has become the key criteria for measuring school success and student achievement. Rather than equal among a range of methods, including observation, discussion and work analysis, data is now king.

This is especially dangerous to free thinking and genuine innovation, since teachers and schools become worried about stepping outside of the norm and taking risks. Schools that are doing well are reluctant to innovate for fear of losing their good or outstanding status, and schools that are doing badly are reluctant to innovate because they might lay themselves open to criticism for not ‘focusing on the basics’. As a consequence innovation is being squeezed slowly and irrevocably out of mainstream education and into the margins where only a tiny number of exceptionally brave and principled heads still operate.

This is a worrying trend, especially at a time (as I mentioned earlier) when changes in computer processing power are about to fundamentally alter how people access information and communicate with technology. Really, what is going to be the point of school? Why would anyone go and sit in a room with a bunch of people, who are roughly the same age, for six hours a day to be told stuff they could learn in a fraction of the time at home on a computer that has the processing power of a human brain? Schools as a means for transmitting knowledge and skills are an extremely inefficient medium and we have to start thinking entirely differently about their use and purpose. For me, this can’t really happen until we admit as a profession that our education system is riddled with unexamined and unquestioned assumptions that cause constant and continuing damage and we begin to build for ourselves a new pedagogy based on a coherent, evidence-based methodology.

A random list of seven things I like to see change in education some time soon:

1. The establishment of a genuinely independent professional body

2. A change in the licensing of Ofsted inspectors to include a regular four months sabbatical in the classroom with the provision that at least two of their observed lessons are rated as good or better.

3. The re-conceptualisation of school inspections – downgrade data analysis and switching the focus from judging standards to developing teaching.

4. The rooting out of redundant and damaging theories including behaviourist and Freudian prejudice towards children and childhood.

5. The reforming of SATs and the ending of league tables.

6. The introduction of a four-year moratorium on further changes in curriculum to allow proper professional dialogue and research.

7. The forming of a professional body, including heads, teachers, politicians (cross-party), academics and others to formulate a ten-year plan for the future of education.

Not much then.


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