Blame it on Adam Smith

I recently read Edward Skidelsky’s Guardian review (also viewable here) of Philip Roscoe’s new book I Spend therefore I am: The True Cost of Economics (which sounds like required reading in its own right). I was struck by a reference he made to the writings of Aristotle, which further investigation suggests went along the lines of:

It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.

Nicomachean Ethics Book I, (c. 325 BC)

This strikes me as eminently relevant to the current predicament of British education. Since entering the world of edu-blogging, I have been exposed to countless thousands of words directed at dissecting the process of education. Much of it is interesting and some challenging; some of it I readily agree with (Confirmation Bias at work again?) and some of it I don’t. That is probably healthy for the blogosphere itself. But I am always left wondering how much of the deeply technical discussion is in fact in vain. Are we still looking too hard for precise meaning in what is basically a simple and largely speculative activity?

Reading through (some of) the reams dedicated to classroom practice, the deployment of this or that procedure or technique, my general reaction is that this has nothing to do with what I do in the classroom. Maybe I’ve just advertised myself as a very poor teacher – but most of what I do is purely the instinctive reaction to the people around me and the task I have set us all to do.

On the other hand, one might hope that with something around 25,000 hours of active teaching under my belt, the activity would be instinctive. If not, there probably is something wrong.  I do deploy techniques and activities that are specific to the classroom, things that I have learned and evolved over the years, things that I have borrowed, and things that generally make sense in terms of understanding my specific academic discipline and its modus operandi. It’s also true that some of these things were consciously learned over those years of developing my craft. What I don’t now do is make conscious techno-decisions at either the planning stage or the delivery stage.

Is this a definition of mastery? And if so, then why do so many experienced practitioners who must be doing pretty much the same things, seemingly not recognise it as such? Where is the real benefit in pulling wings off flies over this?

The three pictures below could all be said to represent paradigms for teaching:

(All sourced from Creative Commons – see bottom)

The armies of wing-pullers seem to prefer picture 1 – appearing to see education as a scientific process whereby precise interventions have known and predictable outcomes, and the role of teacher is similar to that of scientist, adding just the right chemicals at just the right moment in order to precipitate the desired reaction.

This is what generates those reams of worthy discussion – which chemicals to use at which moment – and teachers these days have every bit as much interest as scientists in reaching predictable outcomes. If you are attracted to this world-view, I wish you luck. The harder we look, the less we find – yet again we are in a phase when the orthodoxies of recent years are being turned upside down.

Those 25 000 hours of teaching seem to me to constitute a reasonable sample size over an extended period of time that would suggest it doesn’t work. Well, for me at least – though that wouldn’t be such a problem if the ‘scientists’ weren’t insisting that everyone adopt their approach. For an excellent exposition on why this is flawed, read Tom Bennett’s book Teacher Proof, which neatly dismantles the false assumptions and methodologies behind much of this thinking. (It is interesting that Bennett himself, a clearly-erudite individual who entered teaching via the fast-track programme, within ten years concluded that much of what he had been taught was pseudo-scientific balderdash).

The supposedly-scientific with its promise of guaranteed results, is easily misappropriated. The key ingredient for doing this is Management, from government down. There is of course, an absolute need for some form of co-ordination in organisations that involve many hundreds of people – but with his Division of Labour, Adam Smith has got a lot to answer for. As soon as you impose on the science-based production line a body whose sole purpose is to direct others what/when/how to do things, you create a whole set of secondary agendas and divided loyalties perfectly positioned to exploit the supposed predictability of the situation. The division of labour worked admirably when the output of the factory was pins, though even there, when looking at images like picture 2 and the one below, I’m always left doubting how great the experience was for those actually doing the (very repetitive) work. Those who became rich from the process were not those doing the making.

See bottom for attribution

Smith’s model has, of course brought great material advances to society – but when you make the mistake of applying the theory of the production line to an activity whose process involves cognitive rather than mechanical activity, whose raw materials and products are human beings, not identical inanimate objects, you cannot expect the same outcomes.

Picture three at the top shows what is for me a more appropriate model – that of the craftsman. Prior to industrial processing, each worker relied largely on their own resources to produce what was needed. While this was not time or cost-efficient, it did allow that individual not only much more autonomy in their work, but also the scope to develop and deploy a wider range of skills. The intervention is largely inductive and anticipatory, not deductive and corrective; it also creates the possibility whereby unique, non-standardised raw materials are not seen as rejects in the way that machinery requires – but potential for creative adaptation. Over time, the mastery developed by the craftsman does indeed become intuitive – and probably also unique to each; likewise, the product is often a finely-crafted individual item, distinctive to the maker, yet no two ever being precisely alike. And what’s more, the job satisfaction also tends to be higher.

For me, this is by far the best template upon which to build a mastery of teaching. There is certainly a need for the learning of the basic skills and tools of the trade, but real heights are only achieved when such technical constraints are escaped and the creativity of the individual is given its head. Both of my parents were teachers – my father trained as a furniture-maker before teaching woodwork and latterly Design & Technology; my mother was an English specialist who delighted in teaching the works of Spenser and Milton in the days when such things still widely happened. I have seen my father craft fine furniture and violins from raw wood – and the more I think about it, both of them crafted people in a similar way through their teaching. I know – I was one of them.

Skilled crafts-people require few managers to tell them what to do – their motivation and judgement comes from within. They are capable of examining each unique raw piece and knowing just how to work it to bring out its inherent qualities, yet also to bring it to the required form. This judgement is acquired over many years of personal experimentation – there is only limited use in their being directed to do what others do. They rarely do exactly the same thing twice in any case, yet they are capable of repeatedly forming items of beauty from crude materials.

Pretty much what teachers do.

Crafting is in some ways a mysterious, inexplicable process, as dependent on intuition as specific formal training; as Aristotle suggested, it sometimes pays not to examine such things too closely. There’s no need for all the techno-speak; production-line teaching only produces cloned results – the appliance of science is all about the predictable – and all the more so when the craftsmen are de-skilled to become mere operatives by a management class with ulterior motives. People are not standardised components to be put through a machine – they are individual ‘pieces’ with their own qualities and flaws, each of which accordingly needs individual shaping and finishing to bring out their latent qualities, be they teacher or taught. And the former needs to be given the latitude accorded to master-craftsmen in order to accomplish this transformation.

In the machine age, a huge premium if often attached to the unique, hand-crafted product. This is not an outdated methodology from the past – it is the only way to deal with human, as any other sort of diversity. The machine-approach to teaching is broken. Let’s leave it that way and learn to craft again.

6 thoughts on “Blame it on Adam Smith

  1. Thanks – but having re-read your previous writing, I almost wonder whether I’m guilty of subconscious appropriation. If so, my apologies – or may it’s just that great minds think alike!

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