More desert

My previous post raised the question of what children might be considered to ‘deserve’ from the education system. It was perhaps a little unfair to use part of John Tomsett’s comments out of context, and should say that I found little to disagree with in the main thrust of his argument about exam marking.

However, the concept of desert (in the philosophical sense) is a very difficult one and not to be bandied around lightly, as I hope the rest of my comments showed. In my understanding, desert implies a proportionate connection between cause and effect. I find it difficult to accept that any of us deserves anything at all in an absolute sense of the word: this is not consistent with my understanding of the universe. Any linkage between an event and the appropriateness of the outcome is merely a human construct and subject to all sorts of value judgements.

Like so many in the education debate, such ideas are used pretty indiscriminately, and are often more a matter of advancing a particular world-view than anything more objective. Suggesting that children deserve anything at all actually says most about a certain adult perception of those children vis á vis our wishes for them. We need to separate it from a perfectly reasonable but subjective desire to do our best for them.

Even this gives me some cause for concern, since it comes close to placing adults such as teachers in a position of servitude to children, and while there is, in a philosophical sense probably an element of this in what we do, it is certainly not my desire for that relationship. I would prefer to consider the majority of children (at least in the U.K.) to be fortunate to have as much as they do, and I wish many would appreciate that rather more. Suggesting that they have an infinite and indisputable right to ‘more and best’ is not beneficial to either their self-perceptions or their relationship with wider society.  Call me old-fashioned if you will.

It is ironic that the one situation where I myself would use the word ‘deserve’ in relation to children has fallen from favour: namely when it comes to the relationship between their exam results and the effort they invested in their learning. When one examines exam results in this light, one can come to a very different conclusion regarding what a ‘just’ result was, compared with starting from an abstract and impersonal notion of what children collectively deserve. I would argue that more lessons are learned from the experience of deserved (even if sub-maximal) results than undeserved ones – and that little harm is done by it, except perhaps to the school’s statistics.

Such judgements are undoubtedly subjective, but I would suggest not beyond the capability of any fair-minded teacher. They also happen to conflict with the total accountability teachers are expected to accept for exam outcomes. What appears important is that the maximum grade is achieved by as many children as possible, irrespective of whether they might ‘deserve’ it or not in terms of their own effort.

Making generalisations about what children en masse ‘deserve’ is completely consistent with absolving them of any responsibility for the results or other outcomes they achieve. This comes perilously close to the notion of spoiling the child and in the wider educational sense, I would argue that this is  not a good message to be sending.

We need to be very clear that desert really doesn’t come into it when we are really talking about what may or may not be (merely) an aspiration or an entitlement.



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