What if they’re right?

What if I’m wrong? I guess it’s normal occasionally to be given to bouts of self-doubt. I’ve made the mistake of browsing a number of eminent speakers expounding on YouTube about the Holy Educational Grail, and this really is a bad move for anyone feeling the need to swim against the institutional tide. Especially on a  Sunday. Still, I reassure myself that all good thinkers should self-critique from time to time. I wonder how many of them do. I suppose it’s a good thing to expose oneself to the full force of the counter-argument, though I feel I’ve actually had it thrust down my throat daily through L&T meetings and the general prevailing culture.

To be brutally honest, the weight of argument is on their side – always assuming it is reasonable to group the range of people who apparently constitute Gove’s Blob as a single entity, and that I’m not manufacturing a false dichotomy here. For a start, there are more of them than of me – and they have the resources and credibility of the educational establishment behind them. There are many highly-intelligent people out there trying to make education work, in whatever terms they understand it. That deserves respect – even if they’re wrong. Many have risen to senior management and beyond – which I have to concede gives them a perspective I don’t have, albeit one that deals in aggregate phenomena rather than the concerns of individuals. In some cases, they are academics who, one assumes, are in possession of the intellectual and research skills that that would imply. So how much chance does this David really have of being Right?

Assuming for a moment the answer to that is ‘very little’, then I suppose it really does make me one of the supposedly-embittered, change-resistant Old Guard that such people detest. Perhaps I really am an ‘enemy of progress’; maybe I am more jaded and set in my ways than I realise. By definition, I simply don’t know what sparks from these visionaries are going right over my head. Maybe macro-scale analyses really can determine what is good education and what isn’t? Maybe I even do less good in the classroom than I like to believe…? Such, alas, is the nature of self-doubt.

Except that doesn’t add up – either with my more regular self-perception, or more importantly the reactions of those around me, both colleagues and pupils. And  I simply can’t make all this edu-speak add up with my own experiences of life in the classroom. I am not an educational zealot: for all my sense of vocation, I do have my limits and jealously guard what’s left of my private life; I don’t evangelise about the supposedly limitless powers of education to turn sows’ ears into silk purses. Yes, I am sceptical about the motives of a lot of the educational hierarchy and their pet theories. Yes, I have eschewed the heights of power in the interests of self-preservation and remaining where I feel I have the greatest impact. But I don’t think any of that necessarily makes me wrong – let alone a Bad Teacher. It doesn’t alter the generally favourable reaction of those around me – and it certainly doesn’t somehow invalidate the power of my own intellect to interpret and understand what I see. And as I said right at the start of my blog, it liberates me from the vested interest to conform. The ability (and right) to think and speak clearly is not a function of seniority. Indeed, as says an untraceable quote that has stuck in my mind, neither is Leadership.

I suppose what I’m doing is trying to justify my dissent. I’ve never considered myself a reactionary, though even in my P.G.C.E. days, I came into disagreement with the course tutor for not subscribing to his highly-politicised view of education – to me it just seemed inherently mistaken. That was only one subjective opinion against another, of course – but I didn’t think that significant political bias of any sort was compatible with giving people a representative introduction to teaching. I wasn’t the only one – and it was noticeable that the grades awarded during that year seemed to correlate  most closely with how aligned their owners’ views were with his. Hardly an experience designed to instill confidence in the objectivity of the system.  One of the bizarre side-effects of the in-built assumptions of the educational establishment seems to be to re-cast the more conventional thinkers as the radical outsiders.

What all of those eminent speakers have in common is a belief in the System of education. Whatever their own particular views, they all argue that the thing can somehow be controlled, regulated, predicted and evaluated. They all assume that the way to be more effective is to manage what people do more closely. And, in the light of my recent reading of Philip Roscoe’s book, they may all be making the same error – of talking about the economics of the education system, rather than the actual process by which people come to think more effectively for themselves. But then they would – they all have vested interests for doing so.

I’m certainly not so bloody-minded that I don’t accept one can learn from others. Presumably that goes for teaching too. But the idea of the wholesale transferability of good teaching practice from one individual to other flies in the face of experience and so seems an assumption too far. The vast majority of what I have been ‘taught’ as a teacher has been of almost no enduring use in the classroom. To hark back to my posts about introversion, most advice assumes that teachers are extroverts, for a start.

Yes, I have borrowed individual tips from colleagues, and been influenced by things I have seen that seem to work – but the most pervasive and persuasive of those was simply knowing and watching people whose unique style I admired, and who in consequence subtly nudged the direction of my own development – a serendipitous process that by definition is difficult to systematise. We come back again to that analogy of teaching as skilled craft – we learn simply by watching the masters at work – and then begging, borrowing and stealing to make our own.

This is why I am constantly spooked by eminent people who talk about Learning as though it’s a product; Roscoe’s comments on the commoditisation of education ring true again. Most of what I have learned in my life has been done magpie-fashion – and I think that’s not unusual, perhaps even normal. I have of course been in many formal learning environments, but that was no guarantee in itself of what I managed or failed to learn in them. I was lucky to have some good teachers – but even they were not sure-fire causes of my learning, day in, day out. It depended as much on me as them for a start, and much of what I learned happened because of other factors entirely – in the case of music, a combination of early exposure and individual receptivity (which may be a genetic inheritance as there are musicians among my forebears); Geography initially as a result of a fascination (pretty much from birth) with railways; my view of Learning – in the sense of being Learned – subliminally from the role model of the several teachers in my family, and those among my own teachers who were thereby family friends. I suspect that quite a lot has also come from the self-critical observation, from a surprisingly early age, of my own mind at work.  Much of my more recent learning has been through the conscious decision to explore certain fields through self-direction of my reading.  All in all, a rag-bag of experiences.

One of the speakers I watched was Prof. Robert Coe (thanks to e=mc² and all that for the link). Coe at least has the temerity to question some of the establishment orthodoxies by, for example, suggesting that learning is invisible and therefore can’t really be measured, and that lesson observations and CPD as currently configured are an unproductive waste of time. He then goes on to suggest that learning is best effected by making people think hard; well, full marks for that – but he then fails to suggest how that can be systematically done. Maybe it can’t. And if learning in indeed invisible, I wonder how he knows, except by recourse to the same tired old proxy measures that everyone uses.

Actually, I think I know: it is by having teachers who themselves are autonomous, reflective individuals whose own curiosity, thought and knowledge range far and wide; in other words, good, learned  role models. Quite how Coe proposes to deliver this in the 15 hours of CPD he says are the minimum necessary to embed good practice, I’m not sure. In my experience, it takes half a lifetime. That is the dynastic effect of learning as cultural legacy – both content and technique; once the link between generations is broken, as it has been by decades of misguided ideology, it is all but impossible to re-establish. This legacy is embedded in each and every individual who learns to use their brain, to assimilate, filter and evaluate information through the process we call learning; it is the ultimate in crowd-sourcing, a form of collective consciousness, that no bureaucratic diktat or scientific research can either define or command.

This is the foundation of my belief in ‘educational anarchism’, which I mean in the second literal sense of the word.

Despite all attempts to the contrary, I see little evidence that these grands projets are actually working. If they were, we would be experiencing a blossoming of enlightened thought. People would be increasingly engaging with thought as the powerful process that it is; we would still have some shared cultural debate about where we as a society are heading, rather than the grubby, narcissistic, myopic materialism I actually see around me. There would be evidence of increasing levels of discourse, knowledge and critical thinking in the population as a whole – reflected in both the topics of everyday conversation and the national media through which ideas are disseminated. People would be confident in their knowledge, rather than perpetually apologising for their lack of it. We might even be seeing the emergence of more enlightened attitudes towards issues like the environmental crisis.

Forgive me, but I see almost none of that. Technical proficiency may have improved – but the level of collective ignorance seems only to increase; the preoccupations of everyday life even for the supposedly-educated part of the population seem more mundane, egocentric and materialistic than ever – and the media is progressively removing the need for even the smallest of cerebral demands in order to ingest it –  and not only at the tabloid end of the range. Yes, there are awesomely intelligent, educated individuals out there – but there always were.  ‘Society’ as a whole seems to be getting more crass by the year.

Meanwhile, despite their obvious intellect, those in control seem ever more preoccupied with retaining power for its own sake – what else are professional politicians to do? Indeed, the powerful of all sorts seem more and more preoccupied with their own material hegemony – and through electoral inertia, the rest seem relatively content to leave them to it. All of which are the antitheses of the characteristics one might expect of a progressively better-educated population. This is not naive idealism; did I mention the fact that I know another society which is still markedly different?

I’m not even suggesting that past educational mistakes are the cause of all this; my experience both here and  in Switzerland suggest that there are far more factors at work  for better or worse (the blatant dumbing-down effects of electronic media being one), which go far beyond the influence of any educational guru. Most result in behaviours that individual people choose to enact – or not – in their autonomous everyday lives, irrespective of the effect of education. What seems clear, however, is that no amount of technocratic tinkering is making any discernible improvement in the collective intellectual well-being of our nation – so we might be wise to conclude that a different approach is needed.

I don’t accept the view that the fundamental nature of education has changed so much from that which has served humanity well for a couple of millennia, that time-tested approaches are no longer useful. And neither do I accept that the needs of the less-intelligent part of the population are fundamentally different from mine. Tailoring provision to the supposed needs different groups is the great social-engineering catastrophe of the well-meaning Left, which simply entrenches people where they fester. It’s all a matter of exposure and expectation.

The only thing that has changed about education is the appropriation of people’s individual birthright by a politico-economic elite, which makes generalised macro-scale assumptions about its functioning and purpose. Globalisation is often cited as the cause of this – but the reply to that has to start by empowering individuals to respond in a myriad of ways, not by disempowering them further. Monocultures are vulnerable to pandemics; poly-cultures less so.

The only way to rebuild that broken cultural wall is one brick at a time, individual by individual; the notion of a perfect system is just a huge straw man – itself merely a proxy for the one thing we really need in teaching – deeply thoughtful individuals. I am fortunate to have a number of highly-intelligent, thoughtful colleagues who have a clear view of what it means to be educated – these people thankfully do still exist. I think it is no coincidence that many of them hold similar opinions, and teach in similar ways. What is needed is a ‘non-system’ that allows such people the freedom to educate each in their own esoteric way, free from the diktat of management or the fear of ‘failure to deliver’. In practical terms, teaching is a timeless and simple procedure, by which the activity of one brain ignites another. It requires no complex technology, gimmicky deception or intricate management – just that the first brain is already well alight. Not that this means it will always succeed, of course – especially where the raw materials are fire-resistant – but just how much of society’s woes do we reasonably need to take on our own shoulders?

When it comes to CPD for example, my own sessions have only one aim – to stimulate people to think independently about the issue at hand; I do it by the simple means of exposition and discussion. The fact that they often remain well beyond the allotted time, deep in that discussion, suggests that this works in a way top-down imposition doesn’t. I aim to teach similarly.

Only by giving young people unique experiences will they hopefully be inspired to emulate their own role models – namely us – and rebuild that cultural fabric. Personally, I’m not really bothered what pupils learn in my lessons. No – I’ll rephrase that immediately. I am very ‘bothered’ by what pupils learn in my lessons, in that I want it to give them a hunger for real thought and knowledge, not some bland, pre-digested facsimile called ‘Learning’. And I simply don’t agree that the over-planned, over-documented, prepackaged way that the system has in mind is the best way to do that. Of course learning (verb, not noun) is better than not learning – but what is really important is not some kind of quantifiable ‘product’, but the process by which they get there: that of engaging and fuelling up a mind such that it will then do its own learning, in whatever way it sees fit. And yes, that kind of learning does include knowledge-assimilation, for one can only think when one has things to think about.

Talking of which, here in the U.K. it’s spring and the sun is shining. The last umpteen Sundays have been work days through and through; today I’m going to clear it quickly and get out into what I optimistically call the garden. The sun will hopefully lift my Sunday-mood, though I’ll probably still be mulling Monday internally…

Just maybe (like my garden) Small is still Beautiful. The specific is at least as valuable as the general, and more meaningful to the individual who experiences it. As any good critical thinker knows, the quantity of evidence is not the same as its quality. Maybe this small voice does yet have a point.


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