Take the log from your own eye…

“You hypocrite, first take the log from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck from your brother’s eye.” Matthew 7:5.

In her book Smile or Die, Barbara Ehrenreich dismantles the cult of positive thinking. In modern society, it is just not done to be critical – one is expected to be unremittingly positive, upbeat and optimistic; if you’re not, it’s because you’re bitter or a loser. Ehrenreich says that this is foolish because it causes people to ignore the nature and possible seriousness of underlying problems. She should know, having written the book while being treated for breast cancer.

The education world suffers from the same syndrome. I suppose that’s not surprising – after all, its raw material is the eternal promise of young people’s futures. But we also seem to suffer from an inability to divest educational practice of the social and political happy-agendas that only constrain thinking. We too are required to be relentlessly on-message, whatever our misgivings. To differ from the official line is merely to confirm one’s unsuitability, and this is becoming progressively worse the more forcefully officialdom imposes its monolithic, top-down view of what is educationally ‘correct’. The current Secretary of State, Michael Gove, has reportedly said that if you don’t agree with him, you’re an “enemy of promise”. The educational gurus, management fixers and unions have a different, but equally entrenched position and could probably use the same strap-line with equanimity.

It’s not easy, swimming against such a strong tide. The consequences of being a nay-sayer are too great for many, be that in terms of the general effort required, the disapprobation of the peer-group or more pragmatically the risks to one’s career progression. And the higher one goes, the greater the risk.

From time to time, I am given to wondering whether it really is me who has it all wrong. After all, 10,000 lemmings can’t be wrong – can they? When one spends the larger part of one’s working life in an environment where the basic assumptions being made seem to conflict with one’s own, it is only logical to wonder where the error actually lies. All the more so when one acknowledges one’s own latent Eyeore tendencies.

This is where a book like Rolf Dobelli’s can be helpful. I have known about cognitive biases for some time through my teaching of Critical Thinking, but this work examines them more thoroughly than I hitherto had. It helps one to do what I believe any thoughtful professional should, namely to question one’s assumptions. For example, the confirmation bias makes it likely that one will always interpret new information in a way that confirms one’s existing preconceptions. Couple this with the clustering illusion, and it is easy to create a coherent narrative from what are actually random occurrences. The over-confidence effect means that one likely to over-estimate one’s ability to be right, while outcome bias means that one is likely to be taken in by self-fulfilling prophesies, thus misidentifying any real casuality. I could go on.

You risk ending up feeling intellectually paralysed – not a good situation, one might think. But while one should of course treat cognitive biases themselves with care, this process reminds one just how difficult it is really to understand the true nature of reality, and no amount of ignoring the fact will change that.

In my case, the brick wall that I come up against stems from my considered belief that education should be an end in itself. It is a process whereby one attempts to develop people’s faculties for understanding the world around them, and responding to it in a wise, considered and hopefully compassionate way. It is about encouraging people to engage in thinking for its own sake, both for the rewards that can bring and as a transmission mechanism for our cultural and intellectual capital. It is therefore a serendipitous, unique and open-ended process that tends to defy constraining laws and systems. That for me is a timeless truth.

The educational system in which I work sees education as a socio-economic tool, which exists in order to induct people into a societal game, and which is therefore infinitely transmutable depending on the nature of the game it is serving. In that sense, education is simply a means to an end, and one that, through its emphasis on employability is increasingly defined in terms of wealth and power. This is why it has no difficulty couching ‘success’ in terms of hoops jumped through and targets met. It has no problem with closed thinking, as it wants people to arrive at pre-ordained answers rather than original solutions.  It is not especially concerned about the impact on the individual so long as the rules of the game are thoroughly instilled.

In my view, what results is Training, not Education.

I find this view intolerable; it is dehumanising and it diminishes people’s ability to make their own way through life.  It narrows the scope of education and the methods that might be used to deliver it, and it arguably demonises those who dare to differ. There is good evidence that the values it instils are psychologically and even physically harmful to those they touch. I certainly see plenty of signs that young people going through this process aren’t ending up better able to think for themselves or to know the world around them – or even to want to know. Curiosity is one of the first casualties of education-by-targets.

A couple of years ago, I sent a book manuscript on this theme to several publishers. None accepted it. Eventually some feedback was forthcoming: it was not that the book was badly written, or poorly researched, nor that the case wasn’t plausible. The view was, “This is not what the Education world wants to hear at the moment”. A more unprofessional, uneducated response I cannot conceive of.

Now, cognitive biases could suggest that I might well have this all wrong, and that modern target-based education actually delivers far better life-experiences than my more holistic, bottom-up alternative. Maybe I am indeed bitter or a loser, but my own well-reflected-upon experience of life begs to differ. But if nothing else, the educational establishment would both validate and develop itself more successfully if it bothered to answer its critics rather than just criticise or ignore them, while continuing to spout whichever guru’s pet theory happens to be fashionable this week.

I would have more confidence in the establishment’s view if I saw it practising the same kind of rigorous self-scrutiny that I do; I wonder how widely known concepts such as cognitive biases are known in the education world. I also wonder what approach the erstwhile National College of School Leadership was taking, that we now have such homogenous school management policies across the sector – or is it just the fear of Ofsted?

At present, the bulk of the profession seems content meekly to do what it is told. This is not a climate guaranteed to retain intelligent, reflective individuals in teaching – they tend to be independent-thinkers, not corporate doormats. That doesn’t mean that everyone actually agrees (see the dangers of group-think), but several colleagues have advised me to give up my case: “You won’t win, so why bother?” is the usual argument.

Apart from the fact that this is not a matter of ‘winning’, the more this mentality prevails, the less likely grass-roots teachers are to be heard, and the less likely we are to have a genuine, open and thoughtful debate about what precisely education is for and how it works, free from the dogma of Michael Gove – and the happy-clappy educational establishment that just as mindlessly opposes him.

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