Pulling wings from flies?

While I was stuck at Basel Airport with my sixth form, it seems as though a sizeable number of other teachers were stuck in a tent somewhere in Berkshire listening to the Secretary of State for Education, amongst others, at the Wellington Festival of Education. Despite my interest in matters educational, I think I generally prefer to spend my time doing it to talking about it – and when it comes to my weekends, preferably something else entirely, so far as is permissible with a professional conscience. So maybe being stranded in a Swiss airport with my – thankfully – very patient teenagers at the end of a brilliant week, was not such a bad lot after all.

I think one blogger gave the game away when (s)he referred to the attendees as ‘education enthusiasts’ – which I am most definitely not. Like many, I try my best do a professional, high-quality job of work – but I save my personal enthusiasms for other things entirely, even if they do creep into the trips I organise…That said, it has to be admitted that it sounds as though there were some interesting sessions at the festival. (I wonder, by the way, whether the medical profession, upon which some seem to want to model teaching ever more closely, has ‘festivals’ of medicine…) What strikes me from the reports and blogs that I have read is how much of the discussion at such events  is only about one half of Education – teaching. While the ‘L’ word clearly does get mentioned a great deal, it seems to figure mostly as a consequence of the actions of teachers, some of whom sound increasingly, scarily like brain surgeons when compared with my humble scratchings and gropings for classroom (or Alpine) enlightenment.

However, for all the excitement that such events clearly generate, I can’t help wondering what they really have to do with groups of young people being exposed to new aspects of the world in which they have landed. I still cannot reach a satisfactory answer to what the people taking part in such festivals think education is for – and so long as we can’t agree on a common understanding of that, I am not convinced that all the high-fallutin’ stuff will make very much difference. So long as we cannot agree what we are trying to achieve, all of the discussions about outcomes, effect sizes, retention rates, intervention techniques and the rest will remain academic. The only thing required to derail someone’s neatly-assembled research is dissent over what constitute desirable outcomes. If you consider education to be deeper than exam results, then pass-rates are only of so much use; if you teach a subject whose function is to develop core skills, you will probably not agree with someone whose teaching is about developing reasoned judgments or factual breadth. If you consider that education is simply for employment, then you will likely be unimpressed by those who seek wider personal development – or who take their students on weeks’ trips to Switzerland. And none of it can be proven right or wrong.

So much of the debate seems to make the basic errors of conflating the mystique of ‘evidence’ with good old personal preference. ‘Evidence’ is what one has to support one’s own case; anecdote or hunches are what those with whom you disagree  make do with. Except that even the belief that data-derived evidence is the way forward is, in the final reckoning a hunch that is no more provable in educational or philosophical terms than anything else.

Unfortunately, there are some things in this world that simply are not provable – and no amount of wishing otherwise will change that. Ultimately, who can ‘prove’ anything that education is for? There is no way to prove beyond doubt that education is ‘for’ anything at all: it is purely and simply a human construct , and as such it simply cannot be externally, objectively validated in the manner of the natural sciences. I cannot prove or measure – or even fully define – the learning that took place in Switzerland last week, for all that I know and saw that it did. And why, really, do I need to? Isn’t the fact that it did – and that the students are still raving about the experience – enough? Why need it matter to any educationalist or researcher?

Because of this, we are unlikely ever to arrive at a consensus that allows us to agree common benchmarks for ‘success’ in the way that, say, medics can. It is relatively easy to identify when a patient has been cured – even if the causality is not always obvious – but when one cannot even agree the objective, consensus is going to be a non-starter.

So I’m bemused (and, if I’m honest depressed), by the obsession with proof of learning; it seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of that experience/process to need to go looking for such things. I contemplated asking my students to write a follow-up for their visit – but decided against it. It would only have been to satisfy my own curiosity (vanity?) and the process of doing so may well have killed the memory for them. They are more than capable of working out for themselves what they got from it, if they need to.

I think it is clear that the need for proof derives from Ofsted’s previous delusions – but it seems to have left the legacy of a view of education as a zero-sum game. Again, the only alternative explanations I can find for this is an obsession with exam results (despite the fact that many people increasingly seem to accept the questionable link between progress, attainment and long-term learning) – or that it is an expression of unhealthy degrees of teacher-neurosis.

As I tried to show with my posts from Switzerland, the real, significant learning experiences of young people are (or at least can be) significantly broader than the issues under discussion at the various conferences would suggest. We would also do well to remember that teachers do not cause learning – it is a natural and continuous process that we can only attempt to direct and amplify. That is not to say we shouldn’t try to optimise what we do, but while there is such a degree of self-referentialism in the profession, I fear our perception of what we actually do will remain massively distorted. Much of the learning in Switzerland came not as  a result of my actions, even though ultimately I did create the possibility for it to occur.

There is absolutely nothing wrong, in my view, in accepting learning for the amorphous, ephemeral and individual thing that it is; in fact, I shudder at the thought of a world where the imperfections of the process had been so ironed out that all we were left to do was programme (indoctrinate?) children with the specified doctrine of the moment. I can accept that reasoned thought is superior to vested-interest dogma – but taken to their logical conclusions, the consequences of evidence-based education would be deeply unethical – and a betrayal of what it really can do for people – if only we could accept it on its own terms.


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